Arrivederci, South Philly

The old neighborhood is changing, and some say it's for the better. After all, isn't this what those turn-of-the-century immigrants would've wanted for their grandchildren?

THERE IS NOTHING about Route 42 South, a nondescript stretch of freeway connecting the Walt Whitman Bridge to South Jersey, that says Rota. The same is true of Blackwood-Clementon Road, which runs from 42 into the network of small communities that surrounds it, and of Lacascata Homes, a 7-year-old development of brick-and-shingle townhouses in Laurel Springs, and of a particular corner house there with parking and lawn in front and a yard out back. Only the mean-spirited would sneer at any of this: it’s middle class, it’s deathly quiet on late winter weeknights, it’s a perfectly fine place live. But none of it says Rota.
A Rota grows in Jersey, though: Tara Rota is 14 months old, and her parents are Lou and Alison. There is very little about the Rotas that suggests Laurel Springs. The name Rota, the people who bear it, the contents of that corner house, all say proudly — 12th and Emily.
And 12th and Emily returns the honor. The creaky 12th Street trolley, as it charges through clouds of flapping pigeons, rumbles, "Rota." Through a mouthful of lunchmeat on a round roll, Ennio’s grocery store, congested with neighborhood women, children on errands and wisecracking concern, cries, "Rota!" Over the babble of teenagers, the dark, clubby street comers can be heard whispering, "Rota." At ghostly gray Epiphany of Our Lord Church, the hourly bell peals, "Ro-ta . . . Ro-ta." And above everything, second-story windows on block after compressed block of pampered row houses in cheerily anarchic styles of architecture holler down to the grit and tumble of the streets below, "Rotaaa! Rotaaa!"
We’re meeting Lou and Alison for the first time at his mother’s house on Emily Street, a side street two blocks east of Broad and less than a block above Snyder Avenue. Lou is 24, tall, beefy and strong; he is just home from his construction job in center city and is sprawled in a rocking chair. Alison, 23, fair of face with startling light eyes, large and happy with the couple’s second child, is nestled into a comer of the sofa. 

The house is boxy, immaculate and neatly arranged, and the brick-and-siding facade is new. Nothing about it betrays the fact that in its heyday, this three-small-bedroom house held eight people-Betty and Sal Sr., oldest child Lou and his four brothers (whose shared room held two bunk beds and a single) and one sister.
The movie Popeye is on the cable-television station, and Lou’s sister, two youngest brothers and cousin wander through. Faint, amateurish trumpet sounds filter through from next door. "We got drums on one side and a trumpet on the other, Lou cracks, jerking his head toward the source of the sound. "Al Hirt."