The new festival has become a successful two-day event every May. Despite the fact that a number of longtime merchants balked at the $100 association fee, Emilio tried to use the merchants’ association as the basis to form a business-improvement district, a self-taxing, quasi-public entity that works to supplement city services. Emilio and others on 9th Street looked south with a certain envy at the seemingly overnight rejuvenation of East Passyunk Avenue, where “that guy in Kentucky,” Vince Fumo, used the substantial resources of the now-infamous Citizens’ Alliance for Better Neighborhoods to buy and renovate buildings, spruce up public spaces and pick new tenants with the discretion of a shopping-mall owner.
Frank DiCicco, former Fumo aide and now a councilman representing the First District, which includes both the market area and East Passyunk, spoke of introducing a business-improvement district to 9th Street more than five years ago. “It really blew up in my face,” he recalls. “My opponent in the last election used it against me: ‘You already pay enough taxes.’ People were ready to string me up by my toes.” DiCicco prevailed in that election and thinks the Italian Market area may finally be ready for an improvement district, which proponents say could help rationalize the balkanized trash-hauling system and help pay for amenities like improved lighting and collective marketing campaigns. DiCicco, who’s facing another stiff challenge in next month’s Democratic primary, has said he will introduce enabling legislation before City Council’s summer break.
“So now we’re getting some things done,” Emilio says, sitting at a table with a frothy cappuccino. “But all of a sudden we get backlash from some merchants, mostly the old guys. ‘Ah, you’re just doin’ this for your business.’
“Di Bruno’s? You think I wouldn’t survive if I wasn’t doing this? I don’t have to stay here. But our mentality is: This is where we came from. Where our grandparents started. We want the neighborhood to survive.” In recent years, he’s been thinking of bringing his wife and two sons back to South Philly, but the homes have gotten pricey. Emilio looks a little bit like a rough-hewn young Marlon Brando, and listening to him talk, it’s hard to tell whether he’s doing an impersonation of Robert De Niro, or whether De Niro has been doing him all these years.
“Some of these guys are so hardheaded you can’t even get through to them,” Emilio says. “‘Oh yeah,’ they say, ‘Di Bruno’s, Talluto’s [a popular 9th Street pasta maker] — you’re busy. But the rest of us …’
“I tell them, ‘I’m trying to make it so that more people come to this street. If you put on a nicer face. If you stop screamin’ and hollerin’ at people. If you’d be more pleasant. If you let people pick out their produce instead of telling them they can’t pick it out. People don’t mind if you charge more and let them pick it out — that’s why they go to Whole Foods. Don’t give them rotten shit! Instead of selling 10 for a dollar and three are rotten, sell seven for a dollar and let them pick their own.’” Emilio finally pauses to take a breath and sip his cappuccino. He seems a long way from his company’s Center City headquarters, where a $35,000 computer system helps “team leaders” choose the ultimate retail mark-up price.
“It’s like talking to a wall down here,” he concludes. “Really, you can’t get through to some of these guys.”