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

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.

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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 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!!!