Trends: Go South, Young Homo

Gays — and the yuppies who follow their lead — are remaking Passyunk Avenue into a cosmopolitan hub bustling with designer coffee shops and chic boutiques. But the biggest surprise may be the reaction of South Philly’s old-timers

EVEN ON A rainy Tuesday, Cantina Los Caballitos is mobbed. Inside the tangerine building at the corner of Passyunk and Morris, the casually but carefully dressed crowd orders up mango margaritas and pumpkin empanadas. At the window table, a gay couple sits with a lesbian couple. As a candled dessert arrives in front of one of the ladies, the foursome launches into the requisite Haaaappy Birrrrrthday. Neighboring strangers join in, and after the candles are blown out, the two girls kiss lovingly to applause. The crowd is mostly straight hipster types and queer couples, though without the PDAs it can be hard to tell just who’s who. Outside, three old ladies ambling past take notice of the place. “It’s always busy,” one says to the others, motioning at the whirring restaurant with her cane. “And young.” They nod, though the subtext very well could be this: Where did our neighborhood go?

If you head to East Passyunk Avenue looking for red-sauce joints these days, well, good luck. They’re still around, but now there are far flashier pursuits to siphon your interest and your wallet, Cantina being just one of them. And while the new crowd in town consists especially of people like those crowded into tables at Cantina, more young families have started to come in as well, rehabbing old rowhomes. Most of the long-vacant storefronts along East Passyunk are rented or bought — a whopping dozen shops and eateries have opened in just the past two months. The local media is buying in, too: Inquirer foodie Craig LaBan and others are actually coming down here to test the budding restaurants and gastropubs, calling the neighborhood things like “newly vibrant” in their stories. And in light of the clear LGBT presence, some are even dubbing the strip “The New Gayborhood.”

One would imagine it’s all a bit shocking. Here on “the Avenue,” in the very heart of Souffilly, long before the pumpkin empanadas, was the neighborhood as the history books depict it: a bustling enclave filled with Italian immigrants who began arriving en masse in the late 19th century and built churches, small businesses, lives. Neighbors were family, literally or figuratively. By the end of the last century, things were shifting a bit: Mexican and Southeast Asian contingents moved in, and you could get a burrito and pho near the Italian Market. Yet it’s the dueling cheesesteak houses, the lawn chairs on the sidewalk, the paisanos, the aluminum awnings, the pasta fagiole, the territorial sweeping of one’s stoop, the PAAH-SHUNK not PASSIE-UNK, that still make up the caricature our collective consciousness conjures when we hear “South Philly.” And, if we’re honest, sometimes the rep tends to the worst: xenophobes; homophobes; racists; Old World, old-school, über-Catholic, yo-buddy-order-in-English, set-in-their-ways folks. Hardly the type we’d expect to hand over their ’hood to any newcomers. Not without a fight.

Ten years ago, the neighborhood was at a turning point, explains Susan Patrone, a resident of 13th and Tasker. At 56, she’s lived there her whole life. “Growing up here was magical,” she says. “My generation had extended family here, relationships already in place, and the party never ended. But now, 90 percent of the people I grew up with have moved.” Families made some money and went off to South Jersey and the Northeast; vacant properties popped up.

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  • Jill

    I just moved to EPX and I live a few doors down from Maria Vetri, whos mentioned in this article. I've lived here for two months now and I have loved every minute of it. I'm a straight female in my mid-twenties and I'm so glad that the gay community has been welcomed in this neighborhood. I myself have found all the "old-timers" to be very welcoming. I'm so glad that there have been so many new shops and stores opened in this area. I look forward to welcoming many new businesses and neighbors :)

  • James

    My partner David White and I just bought a house in South Philly, and opened a new store on the avenue. (Absolute Abstract). This article is so right on! We love the vibe, the people and all the diversity. My neighbor who is an addorable woman in here later years made us Italian cookies that were the hit of our Grand Opening!

  • Lower Moyamensing Civic Associ

    What a glowing review of the 'hood! Thanks, Philly Mag!

  • Joseph

    The title of this article is so offensive on many levels. I was interviewed for this article and the author totally misrepresented herself and the reason for the interview. I was completely mis quoted.

  • Brady

    As a very proud resident of this neighborhood since well before the "renaissance", I agree with the general theme of the article and applaud the fact that Philly Mag is bringing some recognition to all the great things going on here. However, old-school South Philly is still very much alive. It's just not the South Philly that most people from outside the district make it out to be. The neighborhood has always been a place where many different groups coexisted. The Italian culture is alive and quite well. I moved here for that very reason. While the gay crowd may have just discovered "PAAH-SHUNK", I can assure that we have been here all along. My greatest hope for The Avenue is that it holds onto its roots and does not turn into another "Gayborhood", plagued by drug dealer-filled corners, begging homeless people, strung out hookers and the eventual blight that naturally follows.

  • Ricciuti

    What a great article – a lot of hard work – as always – went into improving this part of South Philadelphia. It's awesome that the 'old-timers' stayed and are generally mixing well with the new folks – gay or not. Thanks for the great article.

  • Laurentius

    Congratulation to East Passyunk X-ing on this wonderful exciting article. Thank you for The Philadelphia Magazine for taking such notice of all the hard work everyone does and the wonderful growth of the area..giving credit when credit is due (everyone in the wonderful neighbourhood, Lyn Rinaldi of Paradiso and Izumi, Vince Fumo etc.)
    Once again , congratulation!!!!!!

  • A

    I've lived in South Philly for the past two years having moved from out of state. I've had the most wonderful experience and I think the theme of this article is about supporting your local business man/woman. That's the "small town" theme in South Philly that's so enticing. You can go to a cheese shop, local restaurant, local gym (Fitness Works on 8th and Reed), local coffee shop, etc. It's what keeps a city alive..entrepreneurship at it's finest!

  • Benjamin

    I think its great that all people are finding a welcome in South Philly. It has become more of a melting pot anyway. There are the Irish and Italian roots, which we don't want to loose, but there are many other immigrant groups here now. Just go to the "Italian" Market to see how diverse South Philly really is. I am so happy that the LGBT community is now finding a home here. Me and my partner love Passyunk Ave and are very happy about this new trend, we hope it continues!

  • Scott

    I've lived in S. Philly ,on and off, for eleven years and finally bought a house with my fiancé at 9th & Mountain. I represent both ends of the spectrum with respect to the demographic makeup of the neighborhood. I am not a native of Philadelphia, or even Pennsylvania for that matter. I am of italian- American heritage with a very Philly-centric last name… Stallone, but I look more like my fellow new residents. I am an artist, musician, producer and studio owner. I work with artists and musicians in many styles that range from underground indie hiphop to screamo-post metal to electronica and industrials for advertising. I have witnessed the changing dynamic first hand from a conscientious transplant's perspective and I think the writer really hit the nail on the head. Souphilly is a great
    place to live and work. It's the most culterally diverse place in the whole city and the most accepting and welcoming to new transplants that move in to the area and truly want to make this neig

  • s

    this article was GREAT!…after i read it, i took a ride down to there and found a lot of wonderful places…i did some window shopping, got some lunch and got my hair "did!" i found a wonderful little place called "hello" on 13th and miffilin st. not only did i eat good but my hair looks fabulous…thanks jessica and philadelphia magazine for putting out such a wonderful and insightful article!!!