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Eyes on the Avenue

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Eyes on the Avenue

South Philadelphia’s storied East Passyunk neighborhood offers clues about what makes a safe, clean, and vibrant community. Summer 2021
Cities
Public safety

After driving past the sports stadiums and Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, then continuing north on Broad Street, you eventually arrive at Broad’s intersection with East Passyunk Avenue, where, in the distance, City Hall’s iconic tower is visible. It’s here, at this busy crossing, where a drab sidewalk sign—next to a nondescript bank—greets visitors: WELCOME TO EAST PASSYUNK. Turning right onto Passyunk’s narrow, one-way avenue, you realize that this uninviting gateway leads to a vibrant corridor. East Passyunk, you discover, is an idyllic city neighborhood.

“If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull,” wrote Jane Jacobs in her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. There’s nothing dull about East Passyunk Avenue, historically the main street of South Philadelphia, where the passage of time hasn’t extinguished its Italian heritage. In many ways, East Passyunk fulfills Jacobs’s Kennedy-era perspective of what works in urban America. It’s a neighborhood for nostalgists—a place where legacy businesses, old facades, and tidy row houses aren’t relegated to black-and-white photos. In fact, a preserved culture thrives amid its increasingly diverse and urbane population. “The area was always heavily Italian and had a network of churches, religious schools, and food stores that kept people tethered to the neighborhood,” noted Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic. “That remains true today even as newcomers have moved in.”

“We all want the same thing at the end of the day . . . to keep it a community,” Michael Giangiordano, Jr., a lifelong resident, told me. Earlier this year, on a mild Friday afternoon, I met Giangiordano at his real-estate agency—where he works with his father, a civic leader—in East Passyunk. We walked the diagonal corridor, where intersections form triangles, passing Italian social clubs, historical murals, Catholic school-uniform stores, doctors’ offices, and shops for typewriters and diabetic footwear. East Passyunk’s blocks of three-story row structures also count upscale restaurants, a bakery for dogs, coffee shops, and a store for exotic pets and plants.

Walking along East Passyunk Avenue, we passed United Savings Bank, where the lobby includes an Italian flag—a tribute to its original clientele. Then, heading several blocks northeast, past an Acme supermarket, Giangiordano pointed to the intersection of Tenth and Reed. Here, on the corner, stands a small market. It was once a produce business, P. Giordano & Sons, operated by his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Abruzzi. Such familial pride undoubtedly helps drive the neighborhood’s success, and it’s infectious in East Passyunk, where watchful neighbors and conversation fuel community liveliness.

Indeed, the neighborhood is a stage for one of Jacobs’s most enduring formulations. “We are the lucky possessors of a city order that makes it relatively simple to keep the peace because there are plenty of eyes on the street,” she wrote. “But there is nothing simple about that order itself, or the bewildering number of components that go into it.” After Giangiordano discussed his great-grandfather’s produce business, he said hello to Jim, a city cop who rode by as he patrolled the neighborhood on a bike. Such patrols, though, aren’t limited to cops. “The first thing to understand is that the public peace . . . of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are,” Jacobs observed. Last winter, restaurant workers cleaned sidewalks and, with Covid-19 still raging, prepared “streateries”—on-street dining—for the evening crowd. There was constant foot traffic and, around East Passyunk’s Singing Fountain—a focal public space—the benches were occupied. The scene exemplified Jacobs’s view that the safety of such neighborhoods is “kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves.” The success of East Passyunk, though, hasn’t been possible without the work of private nonprofit organizations like the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC), which has played a key role in the neighborhood’s stability through managing public space.

“Nosy neighborhoods are a good thing,” said Giangiordano. “People are out on the street, you’re sitting outside, people talk to you and get to know you, and neighbors get to know each other.” As American cities, including Philadelphia, confront troubling trends from record crime and rising disorder to economic devastation and population loss, civic leaders could learn something from East Passyunk.

East Passyunk was always an active thoroughfare in South Philadelphia, a 12-square-mile section bounded by the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Centuries ago, before William Penn’s arrival in 1682, what became Passyunk—Lenni Lenape for “a place to sleep”—was a Native American trail. By 1854, when South Philadelphia was consolidated into the larger city, the neighborhood had transitioned from rural marshland into an industrial hub. South Philadelphia was also known for poverty and high crime. East Passyunk’s Moyamensing Prison, dating to 1835, hosted Edgar Allan Poe (a “one-nighter”) and H. H. Holmes—America’s first convicted serial killer—as inmates.

From the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, South Philadelphia attracted waves of immigrants, including Irish Catholics and Russian Jews. The area didn’t have the large tenement buildings associated with poor immigrant neighborhoods, and it differed, too, from other parts of Philadelphia. “As Philadelphia became the self-proclaimed ‘Workshop of the World’ . . . most of the big factories were built in North Philadelphia,” said Saffron. “South Philadelphia . . . remained primarily a neighborhood of small, artisanal workshops. North Philadelphia was the more prosperous place.”

Over time, South Philadelphia, particularly around East Passyunk, became the city’s center for Italian immigrants, who arrived as early as the 1850s. East Passyunk life revolved around Annunciation parish, its Gothic Revival structure commanding the corner of 10th and Dickinson. The parish’s Italian population swelled with labor demands. “The system of recruiting Italian workers was run by padrones, or bosses, who hired the peasants abroad, arranged their passage, found them places to live on arrival and helped them settle in,” wrote Joseph R. Daughen and Peter Binzen in The Cop Who Would Be King, a biography of Frank Rizzo, the South Philadelphia son of Italian immigrants who became the city’s legendary, law-and-order mayor in the 1970s. Among those padrones was Edwin Vare, a powerful Republican state senator—known as one of the “Dukes of South Philadelphia”—who imported Italian labor. By the 1920s, when Rizzo was a young child, Philadelphia’s First Ward, which included East Passyunk, was known as “Vareville.” At that point, the city had North America’s second-largest population of Italians, most of them in South Philadelphia.

By the 1970s and 1980s, East Passyunk’s population had aged, especially as younger, second- and third-generation Italian-Americans sought economic opportunity elsewhere. Most often, they crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge, settling in South Jersey’s growing suburbs. The neighborhood, though, remained stable. East Passyunk’s commercial corridor, for instance, was still South Philadelphia’s shopping destination. “It’s the place where girls went for their First Communion dresses, boys their first pair of dress slacks, women for fashionable Italian shoes, and men for jewelry as Christmas gifts for their wives,” wrote Tom Ferrick, a Philadelphia journalist.

In interviews, natives recounted the 1980s and 1990s in East Passyunk. Back then, the neighborhood’s convivial, even old-fashioned, culture reigned. “You never had to leave the area,” recalled Donnamarie DeCotiis, who, along with her French-Canadian husband, Marco, owns Noir, a Montreal-influenced Italian restaurant on the avenue. “Everybody supported each other. . . . Everywhere you went, there were people out. It would take two hours to walk down the street.” Meantime, Giangiordano, who grew up in the 1990s, told how he and his fellow students at Saint Nicholas parochial school would go home for lunch. In high school, at Saint Joseph’s Prep in North Philadelphia, “that was a foreign concept for a lot of kids.” Overall, in East Passyunk’s row-house-lined streets, neighbors still looked out for one another. “Everybody knows your business in South Philly,” said Joe DiOrio, the general manager of Stogie Joe’s Tavern on East Passyunk.

But East Passyunk’s charm appeared to run on fixed hours. DiOrio, for example, remembered how “there wasn’t much action at night” on the avenue. “The people who had been here a long time, they got content and refused to change with the times,” one lifelong resident told Ferrick. “Basically, what happened was that retail dropped off, the next generation [of the family] didn’t pick it up. People would come in at noon and leave by 4 PM.” As we walked along East Passyunk Avenue, Giangiordano pointed to retail buildings’ upper-story floors, which, in that period, were often storage spaces, not rented apartments. In other words, East Passyunk, though still appealing, needed a renaissance.

Enter State Senator Vince Fumo, who, as the Democratic appropriations chair for decades, was one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful politicians. A product of South Philadelphia’s Democratic machine, Fumo was a colorful figure for reporters, novelists, and screenwriters. Today, he is remembered as a corrupt, fallen politician, but in the 1990s, he remained formidable. In East Passyunk, where his senate district office operated on Tasker Street, Fumo was considered a visionary leader.

In the 1990s, South Philly leaders had grown frustrated with East Passyunk’s stagnant, if viable, commercial corridor. Frank DiCicco, a former city councilman, recounted to Ferrick how the local businessmen’s association operated. “The question was: how to revitalize the avenue? Just about everyone in the room had been there for several generations. They had become complacent,” said DiCicco. “But they were always complaining they were not doing enough business and it was the city’s fault.”

In 1991, Fumo established Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that initially focused on neighborhood cleaning and sanitation. By 1997, Fumo, through a settlement with the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO), had secured a $17 million donation to Citizens Alliance. “Vince said when he get [sic] the PECO money, we’ve got to control a critical mass of those properties and almost run it like a mall,” DiCicco told Ferrick. “Renovate the properties. Get the right mix of tenants and we could write into the lease that they would have to be open nights and weekends to attract a new crowd.”

East Passyunk’s Pat’s King of Steaks, credited with creating the cheesesteak in 1933, is a Philadelphia culinary landmark. (ROBERT K. CHIN - STOREFRONTS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

Through its purchase and renovation of 19 properties and the securing of tenants, Citizens Alliance sparked a neighborhood revival. Its efforts proved well timed. By the early to mid-2000s, following Ed Rendell’s two terms as mayor, Philadelphia, especially around Center City, had enjoyed growth following an extended decline. In East Passyunk, new residents, including young professionals, began pouring in, as more restaurants opened and the neighborhood flourished.

Fumo undoubtedly played a central role in East Passyunk’s transformation. But his reputation for abusing power—he once told a confidant that his goal was spending “OPM,” or “other people’s money,” on his own interests—gave his political career an expiration date. At one point, Fumo, under oath, called Citizens Alliance “my baby.” Such hubris contributed to his downfall. In 2007, a federal grand jury indicted Fumo on charges of conspiracy, fraud, and obstruction of justice. The charges included Fumo’s defrauding of Citizens Alliance, where employees, the grand jury noted, were put to work as “his personal servants.” Fumo used Citizens Alliance (which wasn’t accused of wrongdoing) to spend “OPM,” including the purchase of $75,000 in tools, 19 Oreck vacuum cleaners, expensive vehicles, and furniture for his Tasker Street district office, which also served as his campaign headquarters. In 2009, Fumo was convicted on all counts; he served four years in prison.

Yet, despite Fumo’s sins, Citizens Alliance improved East Passyunk. As one local business owner told the South Philly Review, “When you see an organization that has been [responsible] for rectifying [problems] or will supply the things the city doesn’t do, it’s nice for businesses and homeowners that there is something that will continue improving the area.” This view was seconded by Paul Levy, who, in 2009, was appointed by a state judge as the organization’s interim conservator. A year later, in a court report, Levy—longtime head of Center City District, a business improvement district—wrote: “Following years of highly publicized litigation, my assignment . . . has been to determine whether, in colloquial terms, there was indeed a baby immersed in a lot of dirty bath water.” He continued: “If so, could it be lifted out, nurtured to stand on its own, and set forth on a new path of community benefit, transparency, and self-sufficiency? . . . I conclude that the answer to each of those questions is ‘yes.’ ”

In his report, Levy pictured “a more modest organization whose mission is the continuing improvement of the Passyunk Avenue retail corridor and the enhancement of the residential blocks.” In 2011, Citizens Alliance was reborn as the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation. And so East Passyunk, with PARC’s help, began its next, most vibrant, chapter.

To keep the city safe is a fundamental task of a city’s streets and its sidewalks,” argued Jacobs. In East Passyunk’s case, PARC is fulfilling that role, keeping the neighborhood’s public spaces clean, attractive, and safe without relying on city hall. PARC, with the help of established or organic partnerships—from the neighborhood’s business-improvement district to residents and business owners—has managed to maintain East Passyunk’s charming character, even as many urban neighborhoods, including prosperous ones, confront rising crime and disorder.

In East Passyunk, PARC serves a dual mission, overseen by a board of directors (neighborhood residents) and civic directors (experts in fields like banking and real estate). First, as a real-estate and development/management company, it acquires and rehabilitates neighborhood properties. PARC owns nine, mostly mixed-use, properties, almost all on East Passyunk Avenue. They include two coffee shops, four restaurants, one distillery tasting room, and a butcher shop. PARC also owns 17 residential units. Its last real-estate sale—four buildings—took place in 2017. “So, what we would do is . . . buy, rehab, and then sell and buy and rehab,” Bryan Fenstermaker, PARC’s executive director, told me. “In a sense, what we did was stimulate the private market.”

Second, based on revenue generated by sales or rental income, PARC, again in its nonprofit capacity, maintains and enhances East Passyunk’s public space. This involves facade enhancements, along with maintenance of neighborhood plant fixtures, such as the planters adorning PARC-owned buildings. In addition, PARC maintains light fixtures, such as the the string of lights above the Singing Fountain, which the organization owns. The fountain, its triangular space evoking an Italian piazza, dates to 2004, when Citizens Alliance demolished a cheesesteak shop and replaced it with the popular landmark. Currently, PARC spends about $20,000 annually on the fountain’s upkeep.

PARC also shapes and maintains East Passyunk’s physical qualities. Last year, as the pandemic created demands for more public space, PARC launched a “restoration and reimagination” project, which sought input from a community survey on how to improve the Singing Fountain. Meantime, in a collaborative 2017 project, PARC upgraded the triangular intersection of 12th, Morris, and Passyunk. As the organization noted in its annual report, the intersection now “improves pedestrian connectivity along East Passyunk Avenue, modifies vehicular movement through the neighborhood, and provides opportunities for additional sidewalk space for businesses.” And East Passyunk’s clean sidewalks owe also to PARC’s physical labor. Most days, crew members clean sidewalks in the main corridor and residential blocks.

PARC’s upkeep efforts aren’t possible without the coordination of the East Passyunk Business Improvement District (EPABID). Established in 2002, the nonprofit focuses on programming, marketing, facade improvements, and business promotion. In East Passyunk, more than 200 businesses operate within EPABID’s boundaries. An annual assessment fee on each property financially supports the BID.

Then there’s the role of Jacobs-style “neighborliness.” John MacDonald, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told me, “If shopkeepers and residents see each other on the street, they know each other; the place is vibrant—that brings a tremendous amount of public safety compared with a place where you know that people are staying indoors more and there’s more anonymity.” Neighborliness thrives here, even amid changing demography. In MacDonald’s view, East Passyunk is “a great example of people really accepting that they are part of a neighborhood, no matter who’s moving in there.”

Since the early 2010s, as more restaurants opened and upper-floor storage spaces became relatively affordable apartments, East Passyunk has attracted young professionals and working-class immigrants, including Mexicans and Southeast Asians. As Mark Grika—who owns Flannel, a Southern eatery—put it: “The newcomers . . . have adopted the old neighborhood ways that were here before.” Among those newer residents is Emily Rodia, who moved into East Passyunk with her fiancé, Jason Rusnock, in 2017. Last year, they opened Good Buy Supply, an eco-friendly store, on the avenue. Rodia, too, praised the neighborhood’s safety—perhaps the most important incentive to economic development. “There’s . . . always something happening in the neighborhood,” she told me. “So you don’t feel alone outside on the street.” “You see [the] new and old world blended together, walking around the neighborhood,” agreed Noir’s DeCotiis.

This community looks out for its many restaurants, which navigated severe Covid restrictions before Philadelphia’s reopening in June. Restaurant owners told how residents supported their businesses by purchasing gift cards, ordering takeout, or simply checking in. And they keep an eye out for disorder. Grika, for example, noted that he had had only one incident since opening Flannel in 2019. A person “tried to steal a purse off someone else’s table, and all the other guests got up and told the man to stop, and he dropped the purse and ran,” he said.

Last year, when urban unrest devastated parts of Philadelphia, Giangiordano recalled only one broken window in the neighborhood. “When you have activity, or you’re on the lookout, or walking your dog, or up in the middle of the night looking out your window, when you have that activity, there’s less crime,” he said. “When you have people who really care and are alert to their community, it’s less likely that someone’s going to commit a criminal act.”

As recent history shows, ill-advised city leadership—including the reversal of policies that effectively maintain order—can unleash urban dysfunction. This is sadly true in Philadelphia, where a decades-long renaissance is fading rapidly. East Passyunk, however, is a notable exception in the city. The neighborhood demonstrates how private organizations, in tandem with residents and business owners, can preserve public safety, maintain clean spaces, and promote economic growth.

As MacDonald observed, the neighborhood shows how “things as simple as picking up the trash on the street, getting residents to watch out, and getting shop owners to watch out for each other [helps] give people a sense that there’s community control again.” DiOrio, a lifelong resident, concluded: “You gotta work with each other. You gotta know your neighbor.” For now, residents in East Passyunk are content. “We don’t want to peak. We want to maintain. . . . And I think that’s East Passyunk’s story,” said PARC’s Fenstermaker. In this part of South Philadelphia, urban life remains, as Italians would put it, giusto—just right.

This article is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Top Photo: Murals celebrating the neighborhood’s history and culture, including Harry O’s Passyunk Gardens, adorn buildings on East Passyunk Avenue. (JOEL VILLANUEVA/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

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