Suspect vandalizes Italian Market nativity

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The religious scenery was spray-painted early Christmas morning.

Early Christmas morning, a suspect was caught on the surveillance camera of the Italian Market Visitor Center spray painting the nativity scene gracing the piazza at 9th and Montrose Streets. The vandalism, which is the second act of destruction inflicted upon the religious scenery in a week, has shaken the Bella Vista Community. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Italian Market business owners and other Bella Vista neighbors were disturbed this week to find a nativity set adorning the piazza at 9th and Montrose streets vandalized with spray paint.

This is the second time the religious scenery was vandalized in less than two weeks, as in mid-December, the silhouettes of Joseph, Blessed Mother and Baby Jesus were stolen. Eventually they were recovered by the Philadelphia Police Department.

According to security footage from the Italian Market Visitor Center, around 3:07 a.m. on Dec. 25, a suspect dressed as Santa Claus carrying a satchel containing spray paint walked eastbound from Montrose Street to the nativity scene under the mural of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.

For about eight minutes, the suspect sprayed the wise men and other figures with paint, including red and green colors, also according to the security footage.

While the deliberate damage of public property is puzzling enough, the coloring of the silhouettes particularly challenges the local businesses’ deliberate decision of a blank nativity scene, striving to symbolize inclusiveness.

“The reason it’s white is so it has no ethnic background,” said Cookie Ciliberti, a local neighbor and business owner. “It’s a Christian nativity. You can look at it and see what you want. That’s why I did all-white. They sell them that are painted, but I thought white. Simplistic. It covers everybody. It’s any Christian. It covers them.”

(GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Ciliberti says she helped the organization purchase the new nativity with the Italian Market Business Association this holiday season to replace the former set that was 15 years old.

Ciliberti says she spent a week-and-a-half constructing the festive scene, which is adorned with a string of lights hanging from the iconic grease pole.

Although the stolen property was returned a couple of weeks ago, donations from locals, including Saint Paul Church, were initially being gathered to purchase new items. Ciliberti says leftover funds were donated to charity.

“People were gracious to us, so you have to pay that forward,” she said.

However, after seeing the new damage last Wednesday afternoon, she was once again distraught, along with other business owners and neighbors.

“The nativity is for the people,” said Domenick Crimi, president of the South 9th Street Businessmen’s Association. “We want the people to come down and feel welcome, and feel like the Italian Market does something to make it a little bit nicer for people when they’re shopping.”

When SPR arrived at the scene Thursday afternoon, police and South detectives were investigating the crime.

Police say this is an ongoing and active investigation. No one had been arrested as of Friday morning.

“Someone has a demented mind to do this, and whatever is in their mind to make them do it, they’re not right,” Crimi said. “It’s just ridiculous. As a business person, we work hard to keep the Italian Market going. … We have cameras. We have lights. Do we need to put a police officer here 24 hours a day?”