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

The first, and therefore bravest, of the entrepreneurs to see Passyunk’s potential was Lynn Rinaldi, a neighborhood gal who opened Paradiso in the fall of 2004 with her take on Italian and Mediterranean fare. Then came Cantina in 2006. In just a few years, there were charming new coffee shops and a hardware store; in came a couple of trendy women’s boutiques, a Sweat gym. Last year, Rinaldi opened Izumi, a sushi spot. And the three newest babies on the block are — no surprise — gay-owned: affordable-art shop Absolute Abstract, chic home/gift/baby store JimmyStyle, and kitschy, low-key eatery Michael’s Cafe. (It should be noted that the lesbians were here first — Maria Vanni and MaryAnn Brancaccio with August, a circa-2003 BYOB just off the Avenue, and Colleen DeCesare with cafe/coffee shop Black N Brew in 2007.) The newest projects are a yoga studio and Sticks & Stones, another gastropub. And the ’hood is abuzz with growing rumors of a gay-owned men’s clothing store, too.

 

IN A STRANGE twist of fate, it just might be that the new gayborhood’s real patriarch, its guiding light, is … Vince Fumo.

The embattled politico’s Citizens’ Alliance — the neighborhood improvement effort that was the centerpiece of the “misspending” that’s landing him in jail — bought up blighted properties along the Avenue beginning in 2000, and started rehabbing them and renting them at cheap rates to viable, renaissance-inducing tenants. Those tenants agreed to abide by certain rules: no ugly security gates, later hours of operation, changing window displays, and other business-smart guidelines that the older mom-and-pop shops pay little attention to. JimmyStyle was the last of these projects undertaken before Citizens’ crumbled in the wake of Fumo’s indictment.

Discussion of the neighborhood’s renaissance with Citizens’ last man-in-charge, Christian DiCicco — the son of City Councilman Frank — is ironic: This is Citizens’ property, Citizens’ initiative. You can sense the bittersweet tone in DiCicco’s voice as he sits in the outdoor space of sophisticated Italian spot Le Virtù. “This work was definitely dear to me,” he says, recounting how he tried to convince Stephen Starr to open here in 2002 or 2003. But even though Citizens’ is no more, DiCicco says, the groundwork it laid paid off. “I think the pieces are in place now,” he says. “Those with a true interest in the neighborhood will make sure it keeps succeeding.”

DiCicco has to talk loudly over the commotion here at Le Virtù. More than 100 people have filled the tiny courtyard for the third Queers on the Avenue (QOTA) event, a monthly LGBT night. Some folks are from the neighborhood; others have heard about the “new” South Philly through friends or Facebook and come from afar. At the first QOTA outing, held at Paradiso this spring and barely advertised, 180 people showed up. Even those skeptical of the marketing of the heart of South Philly to the gay community took notice, as businesses now jockey to host the next, lucrative QOTA event. “Why should all that money go to Center City?” asks Marino. “We’ve got great places to get together right here.”

Renee Gilinger is the director of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District. Just off the plane from a vacation in Europe, she should be exhausted. But instead she’s standing on a chair, enthusiastically calling out the winning raffle tickets for gift baskets from JimmyStyle and Absolute Abstract, and reveling in the once-again stellar turnout. She’s long been involved in organizing the gay community, but QOTA is her great success. “I always knew there was a true LGBT presence here,” she says. “But until you have a space where everyone says ‘This is accepted,’ there’s an uncertainty. An older gay gentleman who has lived here for years told me he has never felt this comfort level.” Indeed, there have always been gay men living in South Philly, but they’ve done so quietly. Joseph DiDio, who has lived at 13th and Sigel for 17 years with his partner, vouches for this. “There are certainly more gays lately, and we’re more visible, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” he says. “It’s truly out of the closet.” Indeed. The new, empowered LGBT crowd isn’t going to dwell here quietly.

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