I’m not a South Philly lifer, but I am as close to a native as one can be without having been baptized at St. Thomas Aquinas, gone to school at St. Nicholas of Tolentine, had my graduation at Goretti, gotten married at St. Monica and refused to announce which cheesesteak was the greatest (It’s Geno’s but that’s another column.)
I have worked in the area for over 25 years, and since my work is my life, I suppose you could say I’ve lived here as well. And while I am a Logan girl by way of West Philly (49th Street) by way of Logan, there are certain things about South Philadelphia that are so incomparable, so essential, so eternal that I am grateful they’ve let me become a loving carpetbagger for this past quarter century.
Sadly, I’m not the only carpetbagger. There are many folks who’ve decided to move into these neighborhoods south of Washington Avenue and bring their own unique ideas of how to change what should not be changed. Some of them have run for local office, and won. Some of them have opened up businesses that post signs that seek to divide the old from the new. Some of them have demanded the erasure of history, because it doesn’t comply with their draconian vision of “equity.” Some of them have essentially hijacked the local media with their complaints about “my rights” and “their wrongs.” And at the same time, they say they embrace the neighborhood.
The first inkling that I had that something was afoot was when I saw the local Starbucks down the street post signs on the walls about Black Lives Mattering. Now to be fair, Starbucks is not exactly a South Philly institution, with baristas who cannot even pronounce the Italian names of the drinks correctly (“You want a lahhht? What size, a graahhnd?”) but it became, after the murder of George Floyd, a venue where opening the door made you feel as if you were crossing the Edmund Pettis bridge. No one needs to feel judged when they’re sipping their lahhht.
But this was relatively inconsequential, compared to what happened at the Italian Market, which was originally called Ninth Street and then became the Italian Market and is back to being called Ninth Street because, well, it’s not cool to raise one ethnicity these days over any other. Of course, the fact that everyone who is anyone still associates the market with its immigrant Italian merchants doesn’t matter to the folks who want “diversity” and think that recalling the struggles and triumphs of Italians by honoring the market with their name is divisive.
And speaking of divisive, the new residents of the neighborhood suddenly realized that the mural of Mayor Frank Rizzo that stood benign guard for years was now a sign of fascist oppression, and needed to be erased. I remember watching as the face of the city’s first and only Italian mayor was covered over, with very little notice to anyone and with even less debate. It was said that the owner of the building that housed the mural decided to remove the art of his own free will, which is a little bit like saying those hostages in those hostage videos are praising their Al Qaeda captors of their own free will and not because of the scimitars held at their necks. The owner of the building had seen the premises vandalized over and over by the sort of folks who are all about inclusion, except when it involves including things they don’t like.
The fear of vandalism was also the excuse floated by a South Philly native who now needs a police escort to ensure his safety south of Washington Avenue, Mayor Jim Kenney, in boxing up the Columbus Statue at Marconi Plaza. I was there when Kenney’s carpentry commandoes came in and placed the great explorer in a wooden sarcophagus.
Kenney is on record as calling Columbus a genocidal bigot, or words to that effect, and he bowed to the newly arrived residents of South Philly who were triggered by the sight of the great man on their way to work (assuming they had jobs). The rest of us who’ve been passing by that statue for generations didn’t have a voice in the decision, and even when the valiant George Bocchetto filed a lawsuit to free the statue – and won – the belligerent, petulant mayor refused to set Columbus free. He is still collecting cobwebs on South Broad.
Kenney is the same fellow who kidnapped the statue of Mayor Rizzo from its place of honor at the Municipal Services building, and hid it away in some unmarked grave, like the corpse of Evita Peron which went missing for 18 years. Hopefully it won’t take that long to find the statue and return it to a place of prominence.
All of this is to say that progress, such as it is, is not always a good thing. When you ignore the rich heritage that drew you to a place, and when you go even further and try to destroy it so that the place now conforms to your evolved ethic and world view, you are not honoring your new home.
You are trying to destroy it. And that’s tragic.