The South Philly I grew up in was like a small town. It had all the virtues of living in a small town and some of the dark things, too. That South Philly — the one back in the day — was a great place to grow up. It seemed as if we were all either related or at least knew each other.
We were proud to say we were from South Philly. To us, it was a legendary place. A place everybody knew about. You could travel to anyplace in the world — from Paris to Timbuktu — and people there would ask you where you were from. And you’d smile and say, “South Philly!” And they’d smile and say, “Frankie Avalon.”
We were very possessive of South Philly back then. South Philly, we thought, belonged to us. The “us” were Italian-Americans. We cultivated the idea that South Philly meant hoagies and red gravy, guys singing doo-wop on street corners and Mario Lanza.
Jews felt the same way. South Philly was their small town, too. To them, all of South Philly to them was small delis and shooting baskets in the schoolyard. And Jews had their own stars like Eddie Fisher and Joey Bishop. The difference between us and the Jews, we thought, was that they saw South Philly as a place to be from and we couldn’t ever imagine leaving.
The Irish in South Philly had Two Street (never Second Street) and the Mummers Parade. They had all the important political jobs. The Irish were the ruddy-faced cop directing traffic in front of your school.
We thought of South Philly as a steaming white ethnic stew that we grudgingly shared across ethnic lines. But like people in all small towns, we had our dark secrets. We were as hostile to blacks as people in any redneck little southern town.
Blacks lived up our side streets. They were OK so long as they kept their place. In our minds, they were not part of our South Philly. We had no idea that they had their own rich culture. Blacks were almost invisible to us, even though they lived not far from us and went to the same public schools we did. There were ways to keep them from moving into our neighborhoods even if we had to conspire with local real estate agencies to do it. Our bias was so reflexive, we didn’t see it, let along acknowledge it. Rumors sometimes arose that the NAACP was trying to integrate our neighborhood. Whether those rumors were true or not, all of us seemed to believe it. We never questioned for a moment our right to deny blacks a choice as to where they could live — a choice we enjoyed. Our South Philly — for whites — was a welcoming and friendly place, but as segregated as Selma, Alabama. Even the churchgoing among us never questioned the righteousness of our bias.
Like folks in any small town, we were suspicious of those who didn’t look like us. The other side of our welcome mat read, “Strangers keep out.” Even blacks who might sit next to us in class were still considered strangers. It wasn’t as though we were outwardly hostile — we might even be friendly at school, but outside of school we kept out of their neighborhoods and we expected them to keep out of ours.
For most of my life, that seemed to work — the welcoming public face of white ethnic South Philly, the invisibility of the “others.” We lived in a kind of alternate reality. Our community was isolated from the other world outside our bubble. It was almost as if South Philly was separate from the rest of the city. Many of us didn’t even bother to shop in the city’s business districts, but preferred South Jersey. We didn’t bother to eat in restaurants outside South Philly.
We had our own political heroes. Even embraced them when it turned out they were corrupt. They could skim off the top so long as we got ours. The important thing is they were us. Like the folks who lived in the antebellum South — their lives benefiting from a moral code that could not be sustained — we thought our lives would remain untouched forever. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, the outside world crept in.
It began when some of us wanted a piece of ground — a grass lawn. South Jersey beckoned. Diversity breached the walls of our segregated enclaves. A dying Passyunk Avenue — revived by hipsters — became the kind of trendy place that attracted even more outsiders. Minorities were no longer content to live in the shadows. As whites moved out or died off, they became the dominant face of the city. Political districts were gerrymandered to reflect the new reality. The political power of old South Philly was marginalized.
We fought the changes like the old South did, but without a civil war. We’re still in court fighting the removal of the Rizzo statue. We’re embroiled in controversy over the forlorn statue of Christopher Columbus, encased in cardboard in Marconi Plaza. We’re left grieving over what we see as an attack on our ethnic pride as Columbus Day approaches and we’re banned from celebrating it.
Like the folks in a small town, we’ve never thought of change as our friend. But somehow, we must learn to accommodate change or become irrelevant.
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