Demographics, Philly sports and the Mummers: A recap of the last 70 years in South Philly

As the city has welcomed new people from the suburbs, the tri-state area and outside the country, the culture of Philadelphia has changed a bit and South Philly is no exception.

It’s the 70th anniversary of the South Philly Review, and a whole lot has changed in Philly south of South Street over the years. As the city has welcomed new people from the suburbs, the tri-state area and outside the country, the culture of Philadelphia has changed a bit and South Philly is no exception.

“Certainly one of the most dramatic shifts and probably the most visible has been right along Washington [Avenue],” said Mary Rizzo, an assistant professor of professional practice and associate director of public and digital humanities initiatives at Rutgers University. Rizzo, who lived in South Philadelphia from 2009 to 2016 penned an essay about the region’s changing landscape in 2013 for a website called The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

“You see there the growth of the Asian shopping centers, right? It shows so much the influx of Southeast Asians into the neighborhood since the 1970s and really they’re grabbing a chokehold on that commercial corridor,” she said. “So I think right along that Washington Avenue area you really can see the demographic change that’s happening underneath.”

Murray Dubin, 70, a former Inquirer reporter who wrote a book about South Philly called “South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner,” remembers how much has changed since he was born and raised in South Philly.

“I grew up on the 400 block of Wolf Street in South Philly and my single block was all whites,” he said. “There was not, when I was growing up, blocks I was aware of that were integrated [and] had a similar number of black residents and white residents. When I was a kid, there almost was little or no Latino presence.”

To say the least, that’s no longer the case.

“When I moved to Philadelphia [in 2009] and bought my house in South Philly, I loved the neighborhood so much honestly because of its diversity today,” said Rizzo, who lived at 5th and Wilder streets. “On my block there were basically people from everywhere. There was this incredible racial and ethnic diversity even on the one little block that I lived on, and it really to me made it such a vibrant and really energetic and wonderful place to live.”

As South Philadelphia grew increasingly more diverse over the last seven decades, the mix of races didn’t always get along perfectly — which is no different than any neighborhood in any other big, diverse city. But there was always one common uniter among South Philadelphians, and that was sports.

South Philly wasn’t always the major sports hub of the city. In fact, 70 years ago in 1947, none of the city’s four major teams played in the region. The Eagles played at UPenn’s Franklin Field in West Philly, the Phillies played in Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly, the 76ers were the still Syracuse Nationals and didn’t relocate to Philadelphia until 1963, and the Flyers franchise hadn’t existed until the first NHL expansion in 1967. When longtime owner Ed Snider initially established the hockey team in Philadelphia, he had the Spectrum built for the team to play in, and the Sixers moved in that same year as tenants.

“I think the starting of a hockey club, the Flyers, changed everything,” said Dubin. “I saw kids as I was growing up playing hockey in the streets because there was the Flyers. Now they were playing basketball and football and baseball for generations as they were all over the city, but hockey was new and hockey just was nuts in South Philly when I was growing up. I just remember orange pennants and orange flags and orange Flyers this and that being everywhere, and I can’t quantify this for you. I can’t measure it. It just seems like every guy in South Philly was an avid Flyers fan who went to games and whose kids played hockey.”

According to Rizzo, many cities like Philadelphia that were centered around manufacturing, shipping and similar industries had to figure out new ways to market themselves in the ’60s and ’70s when those industries went into decline. Part of that new marketing push was to brand Philadelphia as an “entertainment center.” Sports was a big part of that, but so were other important cultural events such as Live Aid, which was held at JFK Stadium. Boosting Philadelphia’s international credibility, the only other city to host the event, which took place on a swelteringly hot day on July 13, 1985, was the much more internationally revered city of London, England.

“Certainly something like Live Aid in ’85 is going to help Philadelphia make the argument that it is a world-class city for arts and culture,” said Rizzo. “It’s no longer a place that you would only visit for going to the Liberty Bell or something like that.”

The Philly side of Live Aid boasted performances from Madonna, The Cars, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Eric Clapton, Duran Duran, and a notoriously lackluster reunion from Led Zeppelin, which guitarist Jimmy Page subsequently blamed on drummers Phil Collins’ and Tony Thompson’s lack of preparation for the set. Interestingly, Led Zeppelin chose to reunite at Live Aid Philadelphia rather than their native London.

But you can’t talk about South Philadelphia culture without talking about the Mummers.

“If there’s a tragedy on 2nd and Jackson and someone’s house burns down or someone’s wife dies — something terrible happens — the people responding to that to help, the people putting on the beef and beer nights to raise money, the people bringing dinners to the person’s house who’s lost a loved one, they’re mummer families,” said Dubin. “I think it’s one of the few places left anywhere a grandson and a grandfather can share in an activity and everyone thinks it’s absolutely normal. Think of another example where grandparents and grandchildren teach them how to play a trombone or even learn how to drink.”

Although many Mummer traditions have stayed the same over the years, many of the clubs have become gradually more diverse, especially on the gender front. Nearly all clubs now allow women into their performances, with only a few exceptions, including the Jokers and the Shooting Stars in the fancy brigade division and Fralinger String Band in the string band division.

“For organizations like the Mummers, they’re in a difficult position because they are very much rooted in the past,” said Rizzo. “That’s what gives them their meaning, you know, that they have this deep sense of tradition and heritage. And at the same time, the world around them is changing, so they have to recognize that these changes are happening and unless they change too their clubs are not going to survive forever. So I think opening the clubs up to women, for example, is really important for the sustainability of the culture overall.”

From the Italian Market to the mafia, the southern section of the city has changed immensely over the past 70 years from neighborhood to neighborhood, in what many would consider more good ways than bad. But if there’s anything that’s remained the same over the years, it’s the uniqueness of the people and the vibrancy of each culture they represent.

Here’s to the next 70 years, South Philly.