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?

Falcone sees a large untapped market for this area, especially among the types of people who settled other declining sections of South Philadelphia in recent years. In fact, his grand vision is officially to dub the southeastern tip of the sliver "the St. Agnes area" (named for the hospital nearby) and use that identification to sell the neighborhood, just as was done near Graduate Hospital. "Sure," he says, brightening, this neighborhood a name, fix it up a little –  who would want it more than me?"
Sim Jackendoff is one man who has bought into Falcone’s dream already. A 27-year-old musician and public-school teacher, he grew up in suburban Glenside and center city, lived for a while in midtown apartments, and three years ago was turned on to a house for sale in the sliver by his apartment building’s manager, Dom Falcone. He bought the house on South 16th Street near Moore for slightly less than $20,000.
Jackendoff’s first impression of the neighborhood was, "My God, who could stand living like this, so closed in?" He has since yielded to its charms and conveniences. "I know my neighbors here, and in town I didn’t. It’s nice to walk outside and see people on their stoops and say hello to the old ladies and hear them kvetch." And he asks, "Where else could I roll out of bed on a Sunday morning and get the best Italian bread in the world? Acme doesn’t get much business from me anymore."
But people like Sim Jackendoff didn’t build this neighborhood, and it’s unlikely that they will save it. "I moved here because of the price, not for the neighborhood," he says. "I don’t spend much time with my neighbors; it’s not that they’re not nice, but we’re cut from different molds." So that’s the sale surviving appeal of the sliver-it’s a bargain basement for houses in good condition.
On its face at least, the sliver is aging nicely. Everyone is aware of the changes, but there is little despair. The fearful are long gone; the loyal, the stubborn, the faithful and those who couldn’t afford to run remain, and they find that life has not changed so much. The bricks are beginning to wear smooth, 3.l’1d there is a comfortable fraying around the edges; it is breaking in like an old shoe.
bed, Lou and Alison are cuddled on their black leather-and-chrome sofa, and outside Jersey is being Jersey, silent except for an occasional car door closing.
We’re talking about their planned move back to the city, but here, away from Emily Street and family, the plan begins to sound more tentative.
"We went out looking at houses the other night," Alison reports. "Whew … we didn’t see anything we liked. There was a house on Ritner Street; they wanted $60,000 for it and it needed work-what a disappointment! We saw three houses there and none of them was better than this." And none of them, Lou adds, has the two swimming pools and tennis court their development offers.
Their South Philly neighborhood Realtor, Frank Torres, gets frequent calls from suburbanites who want to return to the neighborhood. "I show them houses, " he says, "but it’s always a waste of my time. Coming here from the modern house in the suburbs, they’re always so disappointed when they look at South Philly again. I have one guy who’s been looking for two years, and you know what? He’s still looking. "
Digesting dinner, half-watching television, we talk again about the main benefit of Jersey life so far-the privacy, the freedom from unexpected company-when there comes a knock at the door.
In comes Jeff Aversa, a friend of Lou’s, another former South Philadelphian who moved to New Jersey nine years ago after returning from Vietnam and marrying. Coincidentally, like Lou, he was also raised in a house where five boys shared one bedroom. ("When one farted, all suffered.")
Aversa, a 32-year-old insurance agent, says he moved away mainly because parking his car each night had become such an ordeal. "I told the Realtor here," he recounts, " ‘I want a garage and I want a driveway. Showing me a house without a garage is like showing me a house without a kitchen. "
He adjusted to the calm of suburban living instantly, he says, and chides Lou, "Look, you got to throw out the anchor, settle in and make your daughter a hick."
Lou and Alison are silent.
"Ah," Aversa says, smiling, "you ain’t goin’ nowhere."
"Well, the way it looks now," Lou answers, "unless I get a good deal, I’m here."
And that’s the difference. For Lou’s grandparents, a haven like South Philadelphia was a necessity. For his parents, it was a duty. But for the Lou and Alison Rotas of the world, well…they’re waiting for the best offer.