Can South Philly Hold On to What’s Always Made It Unique?

It’s our most famous neighborhood, defined by its immigrants and its characters, by intermingling (sometimes clashing) cultures — and by near-constant change. Where does it go from here?

changing south philly

The rapidly changing South Philly. Photograph by Adam Englehart

In the late summer of 1981, very much against my Catholic mother’s wishes, I had just moved into a rowhouse at 17th and Naudain — then the very bottom edge of Center City — where my new boyfriend lived. Mom, who’d recently been diagnosed with cancer, was coming for her first visit, reluctantly. The neighborhood was admittedly sketchy — most of Center City was, back then — but I was proud of our chic little home, with its new sofa and drapes and the garden planted out back. Mom knocked, I opened the door, and she peered past me into the narrow hallway.

“Oh my God,” she said, and not in a good way. “It’s just like Morris Street.”

That was where my mom grew up: 128 Morris Street, in the heart of South Philly. A hundred or so years ago, for reasons that are lost in the sands of time, Casimir Norvilas, a Lithuanian immigrant, moved there. He was still in his 20s, but he’d already lived an exciting life, having served in the merchant marine and fought Pancho Villa on the U.S.-Mexican border.

In Philly, perhaps calling on some leatherworking skills acquired on the horse farm near Vilnius where he grew up, he opened a shoemaker shop. He married a fellow Lithuanian immigrant, bought the house on Morris Street, and had three daughters, the eldest of whom was my mom.

The part of the city where he settled was traditionally a point of entry for immigrants. It was close to the docks where ships arrived from the Old World; those same docks provided jobs for laborers whose only skill was brute force. The first big flush of migrants to the city had been Irish, pried from their hearths in the 1840s by a potato blight that caused widespread starvation, killed a million people, and drove another two million to exit the Emerald Isle. The next was Italian, propelled by the “unification” of small city-states and the breakdown of the peninsula’s feudal system. Some seven million mostly Southern Italian peasants decamped for foreign parts.

south philly history

The Morris Street house where the author’s mom grew up. Photograph by Michelle Gustafson

Since then, wave after wave of newcomers has inhabited the rowhouses of South Philly, on both the east and west sides of Broad Street — Southern blacks with the collapse of Reconstruction, Eastern European Jews starting in the 1880s, more Italians after World War II ended. Mexicans moved north under the 1942 bracero (“one who works using his arms”) program, and smaller tides of Cubans and Puerto Ricans and Vietnamese and Cambodians and Liberians landed here, too. South Philly was a place to gain a foothold, to begin anew, to build something from nothing for impoverished families from all over the world. Then your kids got the hell out.

That was what Mom did. She made her way to Girls’ High, which was then at 17th and Spring Garden, and after graduating went even further up Broad Street to Temple, where she met my dad. Together, they began a family and a series of successive moves away from South Philly, to Willow Grove and Glenside and finally bucolic Doylestown. They raised a solid middle-class clan of four kids and a dog on a third of an acre there.

Which is why, I think, the house on Naudain Street so unnerved Mom. When you’ve spent a lifetime trying to escape the past, it can’t be easy to realize that your child just cheerfully leaped back in.

That was the only time Mom ever visited me and Doug, who eventually became my husband. She died three months later. I’d like to think it wasn’t seeing the house.

The workingman’s homes that make up Philly’s rows were built in the mid-to-late 19th century, as the city underwent rapid industrialization. But there were rowhouses even before that; witness the city’s oldest block, Elfreth’s Alley. William Penn envisioned his city filled with gracious single homes set amid green lawns, but it didn’t take long for speculators to slice up the blocks he laid out and eke the most from them by erecting rowhomes. The city was built atop clay, which is what you make bricks from, which is why the rowhomes were brick.

I have the vaguest memories of the house on Morris Street; Poppy’s shoemaker shop and the penny-candy place next door made more of an impression on me. I know this, though: Mom’s parents, like so many new arrivals here, found the fact that they were allowed to own land amazing. Slaves from the South and serfs from the Baltic States and paesani from Italy had all fled societies in which “real estate” belonged to the master or czar or king. To buy for yourself even the postage-stamp property beneath a rowhouse was a marvelous thing.

Which is one reason newcomers stayed put. “People would move to South Philly because it was close to jobs on the waterfront or in the garment factories,” says Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple. “Then they created a culture that reminded them of where they were from.” They opened butcher shops and bakeries, planted grapevines in tiny backyards, built churches and fraternal organizations. They dug in, deep.

south philly history

A window near 8th and Tasker. Photograph by Michelle Gustafson

Southern Italian immigrants, notes Penn city planning and urban studies professor Domenic Vitiello, had a particular pattern of migration: “They settled in groups of people from the same town. You could identify them — this block from this village in Abruzzo, this block from this village in Calabria.” Mexican immigration, Vitiello adds, would later follow this same pattern.

My mom’s mom’s sister, Adeline, married an Italian my grandfather fondly called “Goombah Jimmy.” We only visited Adeline’s house, on Wolf Street near Broad, for the Mummers Parade and the occasional funeral, but it stood out because it was so unlike anything else in my bland suburban life. People drank, hard; everyone was loud; the women and the food — Italian sausages, kielbasa and pierogies — smelled wonderful; and in an upstairs bedroom there hung the biggest painting I had ever seen, a full-size reproduction of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, with all that bare-breasted flesh. Who could look away?

I went back to South Philly recently and checked out the house on Wolf Street. There were potted plants taking the sun beside the front stoop. Mom’s people were farmers at heart. She would have liked that.

I went to Morris Street, too, to see what was left of number 128. It looked good — the trim all freshly painted, a fancy ornamental door. There was a planter beside it, too. The houses on Mom’s row are tiny — under a thousand square feet, with two bedrooms and a single bath. Yet when she was a kid, her family took in a boarder to help with the bills, which wasn’t rare. A 1904 survey of the area from 8th Street to 9th Street between Carpenter and Christian showed that 41 of the 167 houses were occupied by three or more families. That’s a tight squeeze.

Bryant Simon says you can tell when a neighborhood gentrifies by the house numbers; newcomers prefer sans serif fonts. There’s a lot of sans serif on Mom’s block. Another clue: the four new three-story townhomes with garages and roof decks. They have three bedrooms and two and a half baths and, you can bet, one family apiece.

Mom’s old house sold for $43,000 in 1995; today, its estimated worth is $218,985. The big difference between people buying in South Philly these days and those from the old days is that the latest arrivals don’t land here with nothing. They bring along advanced degrees and SUVs and Mitchell Gold sofas and IRAs.

Back in 2011, Kate Mellina and her husband, Dave Christopher, moved from Asbury Park to Philadelphia, where Mellina had grown up: “In the Northeast — St. Timothy’s parish. But my dad was from South Philly. St. Monica’s. You forget how Philadelphia is defined by its parishes.” The couple, both artists, were looking for an area that was “up-and-coming,” Mellina says, and they bought a house in East Passyunk, overlooking the famed Singing Fountain. “It was not quite as developed then,” Mellina says, “but you could see it was on its way.”

Not long after they moved in, one of the couple’s friends happened on a vintage photo album at Lambertville’s Golden Nugget flea market and recognized some famous faces posing with the grinning strangers inside: Bob Hope, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Liberace. On the back of the album was the photographer’s studio address, on East Passyunk Avenue. “Our friend knew we’d moved in around there, so he gave it to us,” Mellina explains. “He said, ‘Here’s your housewarming present — find out who these people are!’”

Naturally, Mellina says, she started by showing the album to her neighbor, “Frank from around the corner, who’s been here forever.”

“Oh, that’s Palumbo’s!” Frank said.

“We were like, ‘What’s Palumbo’s?’” Mellina had never heard of the now-defunct nightclub at 8th and Catharine that hosted everyone from Sinatra to Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. back in the day. It started life as a boardinghouse for immigrants sailing from Italy; legend has it they’d arrive speaking no English but with signs around their necks that read PALUMBO’S.

Plenty of Palumbo’s stars were homegrown. South Philly’s rowhouses all looked alike on the outside, but they sheltered singular individuals inside. The roll call just of those who passed through South Philly High at Broad and Snyder is startling: Marian Anderson, Mario Lanza, Chubby Checker, Jack Klugman, Frankie Avalon, bandleader Lester Lanin, composer Vincent Persichetti, NBA founder Eddie Gottlieb, world heavyweight boxing champ Tim Witherspoon, mayor Frank Rizzo, boxing trainer Angelo Dundee … It’s hard not to feel optimistic in a neighborhood where just a few streets over, a Jewish punk named Eddie Fisher grew up to divorce Debbie Reynolds so he could marry Elizabeth Taylor. America. What a country.

“South Philly is a real neighborhood,” says Kate Mellina. “It’s a mix of people whose families have been here for three or four generations — in the same houses — and new people moving in with dogs and babies.”

Since the album was foisted on her, Mellina has visited senior centers and the local library in her quest to identify the non-famous people in its pages. She discovered that it had belonged to Arthur Tavani, a writer for a little local newspaper. “His sister was still alive then,” she recalls, “living in the same house they grew up in. She greeted me like a long-lost daughter.” Mellina also talked to Carmen Dee, who’d been the bandleader at Palumbo’s, which burned down in 1994. And she’s chronicled her efforts at a website, Unexpected Philadelphia, that lets you scroll through the photos in case there’s anyone you know.

“South Philly is a real neighborhood,” says Mellina. “It’s a mix of people whose families have been here for three or four generations — in the same houses — and new people moving in with dogs and babies. Everyone seems to get along. You take your lawn chairs out front in the summer, and people parade by with the kids and the dogs.” Asbury Park, she notes, actually was a small town — “but it didn’t have that small-town feel.”

The small town has gone big-time over the past decade. Townsend Wentz, Nick Elmi, Chris Kearse, Lou Boquila, Lynn Rinaldi, and Lee Styer and Jessie Prawlucki have all opened restaurants along this stretch of East Passyunk. The neighborhood has coffee shops, twinkly string lights, a British pie shop, and Artisan Boulanger Patissier. You’ll find dim sum and doggie boutiques, a retro typewriter repair shop, breweries and bike stores, not to mention a yoga studio that recently hosted a visit from an alpaca. It’s a freaking hipster paradise.

A block or so north, the paradise ends.

Philly’s Italian Market, which stretches along 9th Street roughly from Dickinson to Fitzwater, started out as a Jewish market. It’s now mostly Asians and Latinos who run the iconic sidewalk stalls. To go from twinkly Passyunk Square to, say, Giordano’s produce stand just above Washington is sort of a shock. The market hasn’t gentrified. It still has flies in summer and burn barrels in winter, and wooden skids and flattened cardboard boxes are piled everywhere. (“That’s not real trash,” Bryant Simon teases when I raise the subject of the market. “They bring it out every morning so it looks like a scene from Rocky.”) It also has guys who pick out your tomatoes for you, thank you very much, and put them in a bag. The area is a good example of the challenges of gentrification. “How do you maintain the market while the neighborhood changes?” asks Simon. “That’s a delicate balance. Tourists can only buy so many vegetables.” Anthony’s Italian Coffee & Chocolate House has stood here for four generations. Now it has online ordering, and seasonal lattes like the Spring Fling and the Crème Brûlée.

There have been fitful efforts to start up a Business Improvement District for the market, so merchants can kick in to gussy things up. A few years back, Michelle Gambino, business manager for the South 9th Street Business Association, described her vision for the future, with organic foods and craft booths alongside the homely produce carts: “We’re hoping that the look will continue to be Old World, but just upscale.”

To add to the balancing act, New York developers have so far unveiled three iterations of an apartment building planned for the heart of the market, right at 9th and Washington, ranging from six to eight stories in height. The latest version has 157 units. Merchants and shoppers panicked when plans showed the driveway to the building’s underground parking right on 9th Street, where it will surely disrupt the market’s traffic and pedestrians. So much for Old World.

“There are two processes going on in South Philly right now,” says Bryant Simon. “Longtime residents are being displaced by new immigrants and by high-end creative-class people.” In other words, old South Philly’s getting squeezed from both sides.

The Italian isn’t the only market in South Philly. The busy commercial stretch of Washington between 6th and 16th earned the soubriquet “Little Saigon” thanks to immigrants who settled there after the Vietnam War. (Condé Nast Traveler once dubbed the area “Pho Row.”) The city’s Asian population has continued to grow, jumping by 42 percent from 2000 to 2010; Philly is now home to the East Coast’s largest population of Vietnamese immigrants. At Horace Furness High, near Mom’s old house, 48.5 percent of the kids are Asian.

In Little Saigon, too, change is coming. Developers have proposed new rowhomes and duplexes, plus parking spots, on the site of the Hoa Binh shopping center, which occupies almost an entire block at Washington and 16th. The current shopping center isn’t pretty. But neither are most newly built rowhomes, when you think about it.

There may be no better example of South Philly’s metamorphosis than what used to be the Edward W. Bok Technical High School at 8th and Mifflin, where neighborhood kids not bound for college once studied tailoring and plumbing, hairdressing and bricklaying. After closing down in 2013, the Art Deco building, constructed in the 1930s by Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration, was reborn as BOK, an urban playground with a roof-deck bar, boutiques, “maker spaces,” tattoo artists and, of course, yoga. “I think BOK is a fascinating symbol,” says Bryant Simon. “There are two processes going on in South Philly right now. Longtime residents are being displaced by new immigrants and by high-end creative-class people who value urban spaces and are knowledge workers.” In other words, old South Philly’s getting squeezed from both sides.

We tend to think of “South Philly” as the Rocky world that’s east of Broad Street, but Point Breeze and Grays Ferry are South Philly, too. They were settled along familiar lines, first by European Jews, then by Italians and Irish, and finally by blacks driven west from their original stronghold in what had been farm country near 7th and South. There were race riots here in 1918, touched off when a black woman moved in; thousands battled in the streets. By the 1920s, according to a resident quoted in Murray Dubin’s South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner, from Lombard Street to Washington Avenue between Broad and 20th was “solid black.” Still, racial strife bubbled up regularly. In 1997, then-mayor Ed Rendell had to negotiate a compromise with Louis Farrakhan to ward off a planned protest.

Today, Point Breeze is ground zero for Philly gentrification. The median housing price in the most gentrified section rose from $29,000 in 2000 to $234,000 in 2016, while the population of black residents changed from 80 percent to 46 percent. Bryant Simon, who wrote a book about Starbucks, says you can trace the spread of gentrification in coffee shops. He mentions developer Ori Feibush, who fueled Point Breeze’s gilding by opening OCF Coffee House at 20th and Federal “as a way of planting a flag. He was smart about that.”

south philly history

Neighbors playing at 2nd and Porter. Photograph by Michelle Gustafson

For many residents of western South Philly, Feibush, who’s been building new townhouses everywhere, has become the face of black displacement. In 2015, he ran against incumbent 2nd District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson in a bitter primary fight that stirred race into the already boiling pot of tax assessments and abatements and property values. Johnson won. In May, he introduced a bill that would ban from Grays Ferry and Point Breeze the balconies and bay windows featured on many newly constructed rowhomes — a pointed up-yours to Feibush and gentrification. The resentment is understandable.

Racism has a long history throughout South Philadelphia. “It would have helped if Frank Rizzo didn’t tolerate white resistance, or if there had been no redlining,” Simon says. Old photos of South Philly High show integrated sports teams as far back as 1918, and black and white cross-country runners in the ’50s with their arms draped around each other. But as recently as 2009, black students were beating up Asian immigrants. Following a boycott, a new principal, and a Justice Department investigation, matters have improved.

In fact, says Penn’s Vitiello, you could make the case that since the 1970s, South Philadelphia has been the city’s most successful neighborhood in terms of immigration: “A wide variety of refugees has found it comfortable and livable. There’s a wide variety of ethnic groceries, goods and services. The housing stock is still affordable. There are still plenty of absentee landlords who see new immigrants as an important source of income.” And many older residents, he says, “welcome newcomers in a very humane way. They appreciate that their neighbors are here just trying to raise their kids and provide for themselves.” It was former mayor John Street, he points out, who first established sanctuary protections in Philadelphia back in 2001, along with Irish-born police commissioner John Timoney.

“Change related to new immigrants is nothing new in South Philly,” Bryant Simon says. “It’s never been without tensions. Change is kind of perpetual there.”

To some extent, Vitiello says, politicians here have embraced immigrants because they know that without them, the city would be shrinking, not growing. He puts Michael Nutter in this economically motivated camp. But Jim Kenney, whose parents came to the U.S. from Ireland — and who grew up five blocks from my mom’s house, at 3rd and Snyder — “has consistently been more about treating people as humans, as neighbors,” he says.

At the same time, South Philadelphians, Bryant Simon points out, have always shown “a commitment to maintaining their turf.” Historically, this is the land of mobsters and payola, not touchy-feely empathy. “We make fun of yoga studios and deck bars serving IPAs,” Simon says, “and the identity that goes along with certain cultural practices.” But alpaca yoga isn’t South Philly’s big problem now: “The real tensions are over real estate values.”

On the positive side, he notes, “Change related to new immigrants is nothing new in South Philly. It was always a place of immigrants. It’s never been without tensions. Change is kind of perpetual there.”

I used to live in South Philly. In 1988, Doug and I bought a little rowhouse near 20th and Snyder for $35,000. We were ready to have kids and wanted some stability. We were an odd fit for the neighborhood back then. There was nobody our age on our block; old people lived there, and their kids drove in from Jersey for Sunday dinner. One entire wall of our bathroom was mirrored; it became our daughter’s favorite part of the house. Once, when I was taking the bus into Center City with Marcy when she was two, a nun asked what parish we belonged to. “We don’t go to church,” I told her. “Surely you’ve had her baptized,” she said. I shook my head. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Do you want your daughter to go to Hell?”

Most people, though, were nice to us. Johnny from the auto shop across the street would invite us in for barbecued deer during fall hunting season. In winter, we pushed the kids in strollers beneath rainbows of Christmas lights. In summer, there were walks to the water-ice stand and cooling showers from fire-hydrant sprinklers. The mobster’s mom down the block wouldn’t let her grandson come to Marcy’s birthday party, but she did show up afterward with excuses and a gift.

After six years, we got tired of chasing guys with guns off our stoop, of worrying that the kids would get hit by cars, of the endless litter and the fight to find parking. I longed for a real garden, not a couple of barrel planters. We escaped to the suburbs, just in time for Marcy to start school. We sold the house for less than we’d paid for it, to two Cambodian brothers. We always have been terrible at real estate.

Today, the house we dumped for $32,500 is worth an estimated $195,954. I go back to see it, for old time’s sake. The neighborhood is still dotted with bodegas and pharmacies and Chinese takeout joints, but there’s a new coffee shop that delivers through Grubhub. Our place looks tidy and kempt; there are a host of potted plants beside the front door, which is painted deep blue. The house numbers are a bougie font. The young woman who lives there now walks dogs for a living. We exchange emails, and I ask if the bathroom still has that mirrored wall. She LOLs. It does.

In nearby Girard Park, I pick my way through downed tree branches from a recent storm to view a plaque honoring Kenyatta Johnson for nabbing $600,000 in improvements to its drainage, benches and walkways. Within eyeshot of the house where a pipe bomb blew up Phil “Chicken Man” Testa in 1981, I join a woman sitting on a park bench with a little girl in a stroller. I smile and tell her my daughter learned to walk right in this park. She smiles back. “I’m the nanny,” she says.

A nanny. In Girard Park. It’s the beginning of the end.

Not so fast, says Vitiello. “South Philly is pretty big,” he points out, “and gentrification moves in waves. There are some indicators that suggest South Philly will keep growing, and others that suggest its growth will be slow and halting.” That means South Philly’s seemingly impossible balance of old and new, rich and poor, black and white and everything else, could endure. Large tracts here, Vitiello insists, should remain affordable for a long time to come.

Maybe so. All I know is, there’s new three-story housing going up across 20th Street from our old place, no doubt with garages and roof decks.

Oh my God. It’s just like Morris Street.

Published as “True South” in the July 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.