This story has been altered since its original publication
People like to talk.The denizens of the Italian Market, in particular, are a fount of speculation.
In the mornings, while drinking coffee in front of Geno's Steaks, the Market's wise old men talk about colorful characters — Charlie Braciole, Legs Vandermeer — they knew coming up. They reminisce over the burial grounds at Eighth and Passyunk, the igloo-shaped coal cellars off 10th and Washington. In the early evening, the sun still aglow, several area businesswomen gather outside Betty Ann's Italian Market Florist, some sipping wine, to chat about the food they ate and the food they're going to eat.
This chatter may be trivial to those outside the Market's roughly seven blocks of Ninth Street, from Fitzwater to Wharton, but not to those whose lives unfold within this warren of old-world, multi-ethnic outdoor vendors, indoor merchants and longtime neighbors stacked on top of each other, where blazing barrel fires provide heat in the winter, and trash piled high in the streets is a symbol of prosperity. Listen closely and you'll hear the distant but distinct rumble of change. Dig into what's really on their minds, and you find a family at odds with the city — and, often, itself.
Of course, the Market, like any living thing, is always in flux, and its transition from all-Italian commerce corridor to something much more multicultural has happened gradually and, by most accounts, willingly.
But some vendors are upset that over the last 10 months, the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) has been cracking down, enforcing laws and codes that, though they've long been on the books, have generally been overlooked. This, they say, is changing the way business has always been done here.
Others worry that the construction of a new storm sewer, scheduled to begin before year's end along Washington Avenue, will disrupt businesses already struggling in the recession.
Then there's the stuff of conspiracy theory: New Yorkers are looking to turn the Market into a gentrified Disneyland and the city is engaged in an effort to scrub Ninth Street of its flavorful heritage.
Indeed, L&I's recent dealings with several longtime Market vendors has come across as what Spice Corner owner Herta Ginsburgs calls "the Ninth Street Sweep." Her shop was forced into a five-month closure due to a snafu with licenses, taxes and fees; century-old D'Angelo Bros. Meat Market had to change some licenses and re-up others; C&S Discount had to remove its familiar curbside shelves; at last year's Italian Market Festival, longtime stand operator Carmen Lerro was famously thrown in jail for giving out complimentary wine; and at this May's festival, outdoor vendors, unlike other years, had to wait to sell their wares until late-arriving health inspectors showed up.
More than a few Market vendors who L&I cited for violations, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say things like: "This bitch from L&I came down and told me to take all my stuff off the sidewalk; told me I very possibly wasn't even licensed to sell what I sold. C'maaan. This is what's always been."
Perhaps not anymore.
There is, in the midst of this big, dysfunctional family, a divide: between those, like Emilio Mignucci of Di Bruno Bros. gourmet foods, who favor the city's apparent interest in cleaning up the Market, and those, including Anthony Giammanco of C&S Discount, who don't see all of its benefits. Implicit in these conversations is a disagreement about the future of the Market itself: what it should look like, to whom it should cater and to what degree the old guard should give way to modernization.
A Fabulous Black Hole
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For well over a century, the Italian Market — or the "Ninth Street Curb Market," as it was originally called — has been an entity unto itself. It was branded as an Italian center in the late 1880s, when immigrants flooded into boardinghouses from all ports of the Boot. Craftsmen, butchers, cheese makers and other purveyors of mostly ethnic goods opened shop for this new community, an inexpensive commerce area that, a century later, would begin to attract Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican-run businesses — newcomers who revitalized the block with better lighting and late-night businesses.
"I'm going to catch hell for saying this, but I think we should rename Ninth Street 'The International Market,'" says City Councilman Frank DiCicco of the area in which he grew up.
The idea of the "Italian Market" came about in the late 1960s and early '70s. Supermarket chains became the norm, and the Ninth Street Market catered to the area's predominantly Italian population. The block has learned (or so it claims) to police itself and handle its own problems — like city trash service. (Most of the Market's businesses and residences pay thousands for private pickup.)
"Nobody exactly knows why [this is so]," says Molly Russakoff, owner of Molly's Bookstore, whose family was long a part of the Market before she returned 30 years ago. Of the area's legendary insularity, she says: "It's a fabulous black hole."
In the past year, however, L&I has cast a more critical eye on Ninth Street, something not every Market vendor appreciates.
"I don't really think L&I hassled anyone here," says Joe "Brown" Tartaglia, longtime owner of several produce stands and properties. "They're just less lenient. They come down and you have to have your licenses on you or displayed, which is hard if you're outdoors. We have no walls to hang 'em on. They're going by the book. What are you going to do?"
According to one indoor vendor — who asked not to be named — whose product spilled onto the curbside, "After I was told to take my stuff off the curb I took the shit and moved it back. Yeah, it looks nicer. My wife likes it more, too. Still, I get hassled by L&I. This place — my family — has been doing this for a hundred years. I'm grandfathered no matter what."
Trash to the Awnings
C&S Discount has been at 1000 S. Ninth St. for 29 years. There, Anthony and Chong "Sukie" Giammanco have sold aluminum roasting pans, hair products and seasonal goods on tall shelves along their curbside as well as along the outside walls of their shop. Until last fall, they say, they did this without any grief from the city.
"We've had previous inspections and surveys by L&I, and no one ever said I was in any kind of violation," says Anthony Giammanco. But in fall 2009, "L&I made it clear that I was in violation of vending ordinances. It has something to do with along-the-wall perimeters, and how far out we can come from the wall, but nothing curbside. There's still some confusion as to what the Market can and can't do. We're waiting for [DiCicco] to pass an ordinance to clarify what is required."
DiCicco says he's working on that. "You can't crowd a walkway so that people can't walk," he says. "I'm looking to make it more uniform, similar to what we've done in other retail corridors, to allow for the sale of products up to 40 inches from the property line's façade for everyone. But even then, it might be a problem depending on how narrow each individual sidewalk is."
Giammanco says his business is down as much as 30 percent since he removed the offending shelves: "Can't sell what doesn't meet the eye."
He's curious as to why the city decided to enforce these rules now. "All the years that I was here we heard about cleaning up the Market and making it prettier, but you know what? I miss the days when the cardboard boxes and piles of trash were up to the awnings," he says. "It meant there was business. It meant we were making money."
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Herta Ginsburgs, a lawyer who has operated the nearly-45-year-old Spice Corner for almost a decade, has also had a run-in with L&I: "Don't get me wrong, I was at fault," she says. "The problem that started October 2009 started because I hadn't paid my retail and scale licenses for the year — several years, actually, three." (These licenses cost $150 and $75 a year, respectively, she says.) The glitch that followed found Ginsburgs at odds with what she believed was an overzealous L&I, as well as Philly's tax collectors and Health Department. Old paperwork had not been closed out. Old monies were owed. New licenses were necessary. The busy Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season came with licenses still not taken care of, so L&I agents closed Ginsburgs on Jan. 25, giving her and her workers 20 minutes to vacate the premises. The shop stayed closed until June 19.
"It didn't matter that I had nine years in, I was treated as if I'd never been here," says Ginsburgs. "It was a catch-22."
"Why couldn't I have been grandfathered with nearly a decade in?" she asks. "I lost nearly six months worth of sales."
Sonny D'Angelo's woes kicked in after the new year, as well. A butcher and sausage maker at his family's shop for 47 years — "We've been here 100 years and eight months," he says — D'Angelo was cited by L&I in January for not renewing his food-prep license, even though he doesn't actually prep food.
"It felt as if the city had changed their requirements without telling anyone," he says. "Their job is significant, and I agree with them in principle, but the way in which it all happened seemed vindictive."
He thought it odd that he needed a restaurant license, since he grinds sausage and filets chicken like any other butcher. "I don't serve anything prepared," he says. "But I did all their requirements and took a food-safety class and got another health inspection because I wanted to stay open. But then when I went to apply for the new license, I couldn't get it because I had to be rezoned as manufacturing."
He says L&I assumed he was a manufacturer, rather than a neighborhood butcher, because D'Angelo's signs assert that he makes 300 different kinds of sausage: "I make maybe a few each week, 15 or 16. But someone from the city thought I was a massive sausage manufacturer." (L&I did not discuss this claim.)
Even after he got his restaurant license — "I can serve up to 50 people now," laughs D'Angelo, surveying his tiny butcher shop — he got a letter from the city inquiring about the sauces he made. Apparently someone read the sign outside his window that reads "And Now We Call It Gravy."
"That's my cookbook. They confused that with me making and cooking sauces here."
When all is said and done, he's fine with having a restaurant license for food prepping. "Now I'm not a threat to society," says D'Angelo, a meat cleaver in hand and a smile on his face.
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"Under his leadership, a lot of positive things have happened to clean up, not figuratively but literally, Ninth Street," says DiCicco.
Mignucci grew up around the block on Alter Street, moved away 16 years ago to find a better school district for his children, and says he'll be returning to the old neighborhood with his wife and kids next year, after having opened a high-end Di Bruno Bros. shop at 18th and Chestnut.
He's quick to knock down rumors. He hasn't ratted out any of his fellow shops or street vendors to L&I, he says. He isn't looking to NYC to bring in big corporations and Starbucks to the block. He's not interested in losing the old-time vendors, canopies or fire-filled trash cans.
About those late-showing health inspectors at the May festival: "They used to be more lenient; now they are not. Besides, I love those guys, but maybe not allowing the fish to be on top of the ice is a good thing.'"
On the Washington Avenue sewer line: "It's an infrastructure issue that has to happen so basements don't flood." Besides, only after the pipe is fixed can beautification, like tree-lined meridians, begin on that corridor leading to Philly's theoretically burgeoning waterfront of casinos and hotels.
On Midwood Management, the New York developer who owns the Paesano's property on Christian Street, and who is purported to be interested in taking over more of the Market: "Midwood wants to open a mixed-use retail and condo space there at the [long-abandoned] Ice House space [at Ninth and Washington], yeah. But the city challenged them to build a parking lot underground as part of the deal, a project that'll cost them plenty. I don't think they're concerned with taking the Market over. They got their hands full."
(Midwood couldn't be reached for comment; DiCicco says Midwood is downsizing its vision due to the dip in the real estate market, and now plans an all-retail space, with no parking, that allows for housing atop if the housing market rebounds.)
Mignucci is affectionately called by many, including Ginsburgs, a "politician" by people who think he's too diplomatic toward those who want to change the old block.
"He's done a lot for the Market and knows how to play both sides," says Ginsburgs. "Being that he's successful elsewhere in the city, I think he sees a bigger picture."
It's worth noting that Di Bruno's Ninth Street location has itself had a recent run-in with L&I, along with some of its neighbors: Mignucci had to finish a beat-up second-floor back room — which, he says, "I didn't even use" — at a cost of $20,000 to get it up to code.
Still, he doesn't think the city is targeting the Market. "[You'd] have to be some sort of a nut to believe that a government agency has it in for this neighborhood alone or any individual business. L&I started to enforce what was long on their books starting two years ago."
His neighbors, he says, would be better off working within the system than complaining about it. "There are guys down here who think the city would like nothing more than to shut the street down," says Mignucci, calmly, before hollering, "To what end? The city needs the revenue. They want us to do more business so they can tax us more. L&I just wants us to do things right."
L&I says that none of what the agency has done so far is unusual — nor is it particular to the Market, and that commercial corridors in Germantown and Chestnut Hill have also been tested. L&I doesn't want to hurt businesses, says city spokeswoman Maura Kennedy: "We're not trying to play 'gotcha' with the Italian Market merchants — we've been doing this citywide with only one set of standards to go around. ... We are going to hold them accountable for their actions more vigorously. A history of not enforcing is not a reason to keep not enforcing."
And despite the suspicions among some within the market that the reinvigorated enforcement is financially motivated, Kennedy is adamant that that is not so. "The city is in the midst of economic hardship, but that is not the reason why L&I has inspected commercial corridors across the city — including the Italian Market. L&I inspects properties in order to make sure that the businesses are operating safely and properly and the structures they operate in are sound." ***(This paragraph has been altered from its originally published version)
On the other hand, the more the Market succeeds, the more tax revenue it will generate. As Ninth Street adds more shops and bars, it will be an easier connection to the now-popular East Passyunk corridor.
"The success of East Passyunk has made it feasible for guys like Anthony Anastasio and [Mignucci] to finally create an actual Ninth Street Business Improvement District," says DiCicco. "It didn't happen a few years ago when I tried to get it going, but I think what sold them is seeing what happened on East Passyunk Avenue."
Mignucci likes what East Passyunk has done, but doesn't need someone else's success to convince him of what he's long believed: that the Italian Market can thrive like a European thoroughfare of businesses, like it was in the past, but with the addition of tony clothing shops, coffee bars, designer saloons and nouvelle restaurants. He wants the old-school produce vendors and the cheese guys right next to the new-school coffee shops and bars. He doesn't want to lose an ounce of Italian neighborhood flavor, he says — he can't.
"I still have uncles and aunts to answer to," says Mignucci.
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In his brief time on the block, Mark Coates, whose Bebe's Barbecue lasted on Ninth from April 2009 to June 2010, observed the good, the paranoid and the cloistered. "I think a lot of business owners down there are used to the old days where you had a cousin or a friend in City Hall who could help you get things fixed easier — nothing too nefarious," says Coates. "Those days are long gone. ... Some of the old guys down there don't want any government telling them what to do. They just want to be left alone."
Take Carmen Lerro: The longtime stand operator had made a practice of giving out wine at the Italian Market Festival — "plenty to the cops," says Lerro, "just to say thanks."
During 2009's fest, he says he had a little fun and put a sign reading something to the effect of "$3 donation but the wine's complimentary." What happened next has become the stuff of Market legend: He was arrested for selling wine without a license.
"Cuffed and put in jail like a criminal," laughs Lerro. "All these years I gave wine to cops. I wound up paying close to $5,000 in court costs and lawyer fees. ... The Italian Festival was our celebration, for the neighborhood. But it — and the Market — it's more commercial now. People from all over the city come here. And the city got more involved."
***In the original version of this article, it was implied that increased L&I enforcement in commercial corridors was a result of the city's fiscal deficit. According to the Mayor's office, that is not the case. City Paper regrets the error.