Arrivederci, South Philly
The neighborhood outside is, if such a thing typical great white Italian South Philly. That area extends, roughly, through most of the east side and part of the west side above Avenue, and nearly the entire bottom half of South Philadelphia below Snyder. Despite the popularity of a few small restaurants and the market on 9th Street, this part of the city is unexplored by outsiders and for good reason: there’s nothing to explore. Unless you live or work here, there’s no reason to be here.
The boundaries of neighborhoods within the area are apparent only to those who live within them. Basically, a neighborhood consists of a church, a bakery, a grocer or two, a real-estate office, a taproom, a candy store or luncheonette, a schoolyard or parking lot that serves as an all-purpose sports arena, and rows of houses. It’s surprising how much of life is lived within those parameters.
Lou and Alison met and began their courtship while attending Epiphany of Our Lord elementary school. In October of 1979, after Lou sufficiently outgrew what he calls his "jitterbug days" when he was earning $400 a week and chasing around the countryside with friends in his secondhand Cadillac-they were married.
There was plenty of precedent to guide their next step. Within two blocks of Emily Street there are nine houses owned by members of Lou Rota’s family, not counting his wife’s kin and their friends who remain in the neighborhood. But Lou and Alison immediately chose South Jersey; they bought the house the same month they were married.
I’m here to talk about why they moved away, but tonight at least, they are more anxious to talk about why they long to come back.
Their main complaint – and a large source of amusement – is that people in New Jersey are so different from South Philadelphians. "They walk in the shopping center so slow, like mopes," Lou says, laughing. "They don’t care what they’re doing, they just go about their business. Like, nobody yells at anybody, I don’t know … you can’t just sit on the step and shoot the shit; they don’t want to hear about that. "
"You have to cut your ties when you move away," Alison says. "A friend of mine married a guy in the Navy, and now she’s living in Arkansas. She calls home every day-her phone bill is $300 a month. She’s sick about it."
"And those shoes they wear," Lou jeers. "I think Thorn McAn must have made a fortune over there."
"They ask me, ‘What are you making tonight?’ " Alison tells, "and when you say, ‘Gravy,’ they say, ‘Gravy on spaghetti?’ So you have to say, ‘sauce.’ It’s even a different language over there."
"Here," Lou says, "you learn to respect people, they respect you, you say hello … out there the last thing on anybody’s mind is to show respect to people."