Sign Language

The Italian Market gets a new plaque and an old name.

By Cassidy Hartmann
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 8, 2007

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Show of hands: Who in Philly remembers the Italian Market's original name?

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It's been a fixture of South Philadelphia for more than a century, a center of commerce and a haven for hardworking new immigrants of every national origin. And two months ago the state finally approved a historical marker for the Italian Market--defined as the stretch of Ninth Street between Christian and Washington.

But the plaque, which will be erected in October on the northeast corner of Ninth and Christian streets, won't read "Italian Market," as most Philadelphians call it, but rather "Ninth Street Curb Market," its official and original name.

"It's always been called Ninth Street," says Celeste Morello, a local historian who worked for the last 16 years researching, writing letters and making phone calls to garner historical recognition for the market. She says the term "Italian Market" emerged in the mid-'70s when large supermarket chains moved into the area, and the Ninth Street Market began to decline, leaving a predominantly Italian population.

According to Morello, for the marker text to be approved, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission insisted that its title "include the present multicultural nature of the market"--and that's telling. Though over the years Ninth Street has been home to a wide variety of immigrant groups, it's arguably never been more multicultural than it is today.

Chinese, Koreans, Indonesians and African-Americans all work and shop along the market's bustling sidewalks, but most recently Mexicans have become the dominant immigrant group, with an estimated 12,000 living in the surrounding Bella Vista neighborhood.

"We have a strong Mexican influence down on the [south] end of the market--all of which has happened over the last few years," says Pip DeLuca, owner of the Villa di Roma restaurant and president of the market's Merchants Association. "Everything's helpful that comes into the area. Vacancies are at an all-time low."

There are currently five Mexican-owned businesses and five or six Mexican-operated tables in the Ninth Street Market.

The strip of Ninth Street south of Washington Avenue, which City Council declared a blight area last year, is now on its way back, due in large part to the Mexican population that's taken root there.

Morello says less than 50 percent of Italian Market property owners are of Italian descent.

"The first line [in these businesses] is usually Italian ancestry, but the second line and third line, there are lots of Latinos," says Ricardo Diaz, a community organizer who works with South Philly's Latino population. "You can shop for all Italian ingredients in the market and never have to speak English."

Diaz says change is evident in other ways as well. The annual Sorrento Cheese 9th Street Italian Market Festival, which includes a procession of statues of Italian saints up Ninth Street, included the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe for the first time last year.

"It just reflects who wants to participate," says Diaz. "They wanted to bring a mariachi band this year because the procession is kind of quiet, but they couldn't get it together. You can expect next year the presence will be louder."

"We call it the Italian Market, but being born and raised here and living here all my life, when you have a conversation with anybody and you say, 'I'll meet you on Ninth Street,' they'll know you're talking about these six blocks right here," says DeLuca from behind the bar of his restaurant at Ninth and Hall.

Although the marker will bear the market's official name, red, white and green signs that read "Italian Market" will also be posted around the neighborhood.

That's because of Morello, who has worked for the placement of nine other markers in the neighborhood, and is hoping this one will help obtain grant money for aesthetic improvements and development.

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