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?

Perhaps Tom Parenti was early to recognize the inevitability of the family’s move because he was so accustomed to the scenario. Born in 1925, he spent nearly his entire childhood in white Italian and Irish neighborhoods on South Philadelphia’s upper west side that have since turned black and fearsome.
Ironically, there was a time when people from the older and denser east side of Broad Street saw the west side as a step up in the world. Later, blacks like the Fields family, originally from Virginia but more recently from the area bordering South Street, also saw this part of South Philadelphia as an improvement. Like many families from their former neighborhood, which had aged shabbily, they moved the ten blocks or so south into newer houses and a more middle-class life.
Percy Fields, now 30, was 12 when his family moved. He remembers: "It was quite an adjustment. At that time you had white people who didn’t want black people here. And you had white boys, Italian and Irish boys, who were as tough as any black boys."
Fields married and remained in the area, renting a house on Fernon Street, near 19th and Morris. It’s a sad little side street today, so hopeless that owners of three houses there recently took the final step of having their properties demolished, leaving gaps like missing teeth. Several houses here are still sound and tidy, but more look neglected. The block, like the streets around it, is dotted by abandoned houses, with scarred tin sheets over holes that once held windows.
I randomly chose eight vacant houses in the area and checked their ownership: two belong to neighbors; the other six belong to former neighbors who now live elsewhere, one in Atlantic City and the others, all with Italian surnames, in better parts of South Philadelphia. In fact, one vacant house is owned by a former neighborhood boy who now lives in Packer Park-Tom Parenti.
Parenti bought the house as an investment in 1964, he says, and leased it to a family who paid the rent faithfully and even paneled part of it. Parenti suggested they buy the house from him, he says, but without notice, with the rent paid up, the family moved out. As soon as the house was vacated two years ago, thieves broke in and stripped the heating system of its copper tubing. Considering the meager rent he could charge on that block, Parenti decided against replacing the heating pipes and is now trying to sell the house, as he has done with other rental properties he once owned in the area. His plight is echoed by a neighborhood Realtor, who told of a sale that was delayed because the night before settlement on the house, thieves broke in and stole the heater.