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?

But in some ways the area looks stronger than ever. On its northern and eastern edges, neighborhoods are being rehabbed into urban elegance. Houses throughout the entire southern half now sell easily for prices that a few years ago would have sounded insane: $50,000, $70,000, $90,000 for 14-feet-wide South Philly row houses.
In addition, the South Philadelphia homeowners’ favorite form of self-improvement-having new facades built onto their houses-never was more popular and the styles never more elaborate. Joseph Sigismondi, born in Chieti, Italy, came to America as a cement finisher in 1959. Today he is one of several contractors downtown who specializes in building new fronts, as they are called. The cheapest job for a two-story front, he explains, costs about $6,000, but few will settle for that. Most spend around $10,000, and a recent job, with brick and Italian marble, arches over the $800 door, insulated windows and recessed entry, was worth about $15,000.
(Of course, Sigismondi works hard for that money. Since he has no catalog to show clients, they simply tell him where they saw features they liked: steps like the ones on a house here, an arch like the one over there, and so on. "Sometimes to do a house," he says, from under a large brown cap, "you got to go look a ten different places." No one has eve asked him to copy one particular faáade; part of the experience is designing you own.)
Does this sound like an area on the fade? In some ways, yes. Uniformly, incredibly, Realtors here agree that the number-one reason for moving away is parking-the lack of it. Prosperity has brought two –  and three-car families to horse-and-wagon streets. And, as Lou and Alison learned, the great care people lavished on their homes pushed their value so high that, in many cases, young people go to the suburbs to find house they can afford. South Philadelphia was perfect for the poor immigrants who settled it. But it has changed greatly, thanks mainly to the Italian-Americans who still dominate. Children of previous immigrations got money and then got mobile, moving into middle-class communities elsewhere. The area’s current residents did just the opposite: they became thriving working class and middle class and then attempted-successfully in some ways-to drag whole neighborhoods up the ladder with them. But the improvement can go only so far; it cannot create parking spaces, or room for garages or lawns.
And as it improves, the area bears less and less physical and spiritual resemblance to the South Philadelphia of legend. Perhaps, then, it is the permanence of those new bricks and mortar that tricks us, fools us into thinking the land of the legend, that great stinking gray grandmother of a place still exists. We are learning, with some regret, that it was only a point in time. And as surely as it emerged, it now slowly ticks away.

And so we live here as we have always lived, believing the charade that while all things change about us, we will never change; romantic figures as anachronistic as horse-drawn carriages in the age of the automobile, believing in things like family and loyalty in a world which mocks those beliefs, answering questions like, "Do you still live downtown?" sad and defiant.

Tom Cardella, a 43-year-old federal government worker, wrote that eight years ago in his weekly column for the South Philadelphia Review-Chronicle newspaper. He has a degree in communications and worked for a spell broadcasting sports on local radio. His tastes run toward Faulkner, Sinatra and theater; he is the introspective, soul-searching type; his house, compared to those of his neighbors, is humbly furnished. He seems to be the kind of man who would have seen broader horizons and pursued them, but he counts himself among the loyal.