Dito van Reigersberg — better known as Martha Graham Cracker, Philly’s doyenne of drag queens — has lived at Gerritt and Dickinson with his partner, Pennsylvania Ballet choreographer Matthew Neenan, for five years. He likens walking down the Avenue now to “a veritable lesson in gayness.” “Just the other day, I passed the fountain,” says van Reigersberg, “and instead of the usual old Italian men hanging there, there were dinner tables full of gay couples.”
SO IS THE DEEPEST slice of South Philly, the land of Rocky, Joey Vento, and a sea of Virgin Marys in basement windows, really the new gayborhood? Sitting in the brand-new, mod JimmyStyle, owner and local fashionisto Jimmy Contreras is visibly irked when I pose that question. His first reaction is offense. “Why do we have to call it that?” he scoffs. “It’s a place that’s accepting of everybody.” But then he rethinks it. “Well, if it’s gonna help the neighborhood and make the yuppies move here, then go ahead and put the gay stamp on it. Who cares?”
In many ways, the stamp is ridiculous. There are no gay bars here (yet), no rainbow-bedecked street signs. But the point is that two men or two women can walk down Passyunk Avenue holding hands and not have to worry they’re going to be called fags or dykes — something that would have been unthinkable not that long ago.
A middle-aged woman walks into JimmyStyle. She’s Maria Vetri from across the street at Favors & Flavors, a chocolate shop. Vetri is a 43-year neighborhood veteran. “Did someone give you a dollar for the wall yet?” she asks Contreras in a perfect South Philly accent. “Here, you have to put it up for luck.” She’s only got a five, but forks it over anyway, and scribbles “Good Luck, Love Maria” on the bill.
“Everyone has been so, so welcoming,” says Contreras.
But surely — surely, because after all, this is Philadelphia, city of neighborhoods, land of the parochial and the ethnically distrusting — tension must exist between the Old Guard and the New People, battles erupting over their different lifestyles and the loss of the ’hood’s True Identity. Ah, not often. Actually, not at all.
Sure, the vets, the people who grew up here, whose families before them grew up here, are a little nostalgic, a little confused, a little, okay, leery. But the real God’s-honest truth is, for the most part … they get over it, and everyone gets along. I spent weeks trolling up and down and around Passyunk Avenue, in the process talking to some 70-odd residents. And what I got in response to my question — “How do you feel about the ‘new people’ moving in?” — was one resounding, unanimous, totally contrarian, are-you-kidding-me? answer: Thank God.
Because in these uncertain economic days, having people who want to live where you live, who want to shop there and renovate there and contribute to the community there — who want to be your neighbor, in the truest sense of the word — is a gift not to be returned. The old widows aren’t scowling at the gay couples moving onto the block. They’re making them cannolis.