We are not who you think we are. Maybe somewhat. We love our traditions. You can still take in the aroma of meatballs cooking in gravy as you walk down some of our streets on a Sunday morning. Few sections of the city take so much pride in spending a fortune putting new fronts on our houses. Our homes are decorated like few others around the city. Many of the windows in our homes are always decorated for some holiday. The Halloween goblins are hardly gone from our windows when decorative turkeys replace them for Thanksgiving, though that holiday is over three weeks away. We tend to fly the flag more often than most. Yes, we tend to be enthusiastic about our sports teams, but we are not uncritical. Most of these things are true. They help form the basis of the stereotypical way in which we are viewed. The Philly Mag stereotype in which each section of the city is portrayed in caricature. But humans are more complex than their stereotypes. We are no different in South Philly.
I’ve lived here all my life, but I really can’t pretend to understand who and what we are. South Philadelphia is a living, breathing community — a community that is changing. We are not our parents’ South Philly, though it may be comforting to pretend that we are.
South Philadelphia is more than the Italian neighborhoods in which I have lived my life. I have often thought that our Italian culture has (and you are free to speculate why that is) gotten most of the attention from the outside world. Most of the folks who live in the rock-solid neighborhoods that encompass “Two Street” and are Irish have also gotten their share of attention, in the main because of their marvelous tradition of Mummery and fierce loyalty to one another. But South Philadelphia has always been enriched by not only Italians and Irish, but by Jews, African-Americans, and more recently Asians and Latinos.
Yes, we’ve had more than our share of mob guys and entertainers. And we also embody the city’s blue-collar ethic. But you’d be surprised at our many professionals residing here.
Don’t be fooled by our loud exterior. We ARE friendly. But we can be incredibly thin-skinned. Some of us enjoy thinking we’re always victims. Like the song says, we may “talk a little too much and laugh a little too much … and (our) voice is too loud when (we’re) out in a crowd, so that people are apt to stare…” Beneath that bravado lies insecurity. Insecurity is in the DNA of many of us. That insecurity also accounts for our suspicion of strangers — and everyone outside our immediate orbit will always be strangers to us. Most people are averse to change, but we positively loathe change. We view change as our mortal enemy.
A prime example. East Passyunk Avenue was dying not so long ago. Once it had been an area where South Philadelphia families shopped for everything from food to furniture. Times changed. As the city’s restaurant renaissance grew, it became harder to find affordable space in center city for all the new dining establishments. Real estate values on East Passyunk Avenue beckoned like a siren to ancient sailors. The rest, as they say, is history. East Passyunk Avenue has become one of the hottest and most trendy spots in the United States. But with that success came the “outsiders.” A mixture of suburbanites and hipsters have settled in the neighborhoods. The culture has changed. And damn the fact that East Passyunk Avenue is alive again as it never was before, that success has brought change. Many of us view change as our enemy. Acceptance by the long-time residents of South Philadelphia has been grudging at best.
We are a paradoxical people. We love our neighborhoods, but we love the rest of the city a lot less. We do most of our shopping in South Jersey. We say it is because of the available parking, but we know it is more than that. Some of us who thought we would never leave South Philadelphia have opted over the years to move to South Jersey. Some of those towns resemble our old neighborhoods only with grass lawns and with parking. Maybe the problems of urban life seem farther away there than they really are. Maybe pretending is easier.
An established neighborhood such as Packer Park seems more isolated than ever. And those of us who live there find that’s exactly what we like most about it.
We pride ourselves on law and order. Our reverence for our law and order mayor is legendary. We gave Donald Trump more votes than any other area of the city because we liked the way he talked about crime. Yet, we ourselves elect too many corrupt politicians. We would’ve re-elected some of them if they hadn’t still been in prison. We wink at illegal gambling. We prefer the days when numbers were illegal. On weekend mornings in the Fall, you can see guys on street corners checking the latest line on the games that day. We think the law persecutes the mob guys who always had a smile for us. Our respect for the law doesn’t always extend to parking regulations. Sometimes the products we purchase have “fallen off a truck.” We don’t care.
As I said, we’re complicated.
(Tom Cardella can be seen with co-host Paul Jolovitz every Monday night with an Eagles guest on Monday Night Kickoff, streaming on wbcb1490.com)