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?

GEOGRAPHICALLY, ANN PARENTI’S sleek, white-with –  brown-accents kitchen is located in South Philadelphia. In fact, her neighborhood, discreetly tucked into a pocket across from the sports stadium complex, provides the southern most living in the city. And the three middle aged women sipping coffee at the kitchen table-Ann and neighbors Betty Costello and Gina Falgitore-are South Philadelphia Women: all daughters of immigrants, born into dense working-man streets, all attractively coiffed and presented, and all, at the moment, politely ignoring my request to talk about where they live, a very special place, in favor of a mild argument on a related subject.
"We’re first-generation Italian-American, and that’s a class all to itself," says Gina, a tall woman with curly gray hair, and a soft but intent face. "We were for tradition, responsibility. Our kids will Italian in name only."
"But they’re still very family oriented," protests Ann, short and spirited in Calvin Klein sweat shirt, jeans and sneakers puffing on a menthol cigarette.
"Not everybody," stylish, flame-haired Betty says skeptically. "Not all … "
"Still," insists Ann, "if you instill …"
We try, true," Gina interrupts, " But I don’t see my Donna making 500 meatballs for the soup the way I do. I see her making 200 and then having a breakdown.
"We were kept strict," Betty says.
"And fair… ," Ann breaks in.

"Strict… "
" …and good … "
" and we were too lenient with kids and we gave them too much and it was no good," Betty snaps. "Our parents didn’t have it to give."
“Mine did," Gina disagrees, "but they didn’t spend it just to give us everything we wanted." "But we did," Betty replies, ending the discussion with a point no one disputes.      
"We did."      
A large part of what these women and their husbands gave their children was Packer Park, a gentle and isolated colony of 1,100 dark-brown brick row houses built in 1962. Technically this area bounded by Broad and 20th Streets, Pa Packer and Pattison Avenues-is within South Philadelphia; in spirit and style, though, it’s undeniably suburban. It’s just that down here, at least in 1962, even the suburb stayed close to home.      
In 1926 this land was part of the Sesquicentennial celebration grounds, and during World War II it was used for temporary Navy Yard worker housing. It then a reverted to a soggy 50-acre lot until area Realtor brothers Ludwig and Fedele Capozzi began lining up a deal to develop it. The land was acquired from its various owners, filled with black silt from the Delaware and staked with pine pilings to support construction of a post-war dream community on this side of paradise, which began at the Walt Whitman Bridge entrance a block away.
Packer Park was built so no outsider could know it. The streets don’t form the typical city grid; they wind through the neighborhood, forming courtyards and sheltered culs-de-sac. They also break from the pattern by being named for admirals-a tribute to the area’s slim role in naval history-instead of the names used throughout South Philadelphia proper. And there are no navigational aids, no corner stores or neighborhood taverns. All commerce here is conducted in a small shopping center with a large parking lot on Packer Park’s edge.