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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  • 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!!!