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.