Friend of IT Jeff DiNunzio is your tour guide through American’s longest-operating outdoor market in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Some blocks in Philadelphia seem invisible. They’ve been forgotten for so long that they’re simply unseen. The Italian Market is not one of those places. The 9th Street Curb Market – it’s formal name – constantly shuffles with commerce. It’s a tourist site that routinely displays a quiet disregard of such distinctions. Sure, many nonnative bodies stroll through the awning-covered concrete hallway, sniffing dollar-fifty eggplants. But do not be fooled: as one of the oldest operating outdoor markets in the United States, the Italian Market remains a place where the daily exchange of goods and services is done among people who live there.
At the turn of the 1900s, Italian immigrants built a rudimentary shopping mall along narrow South 9th Street. Before south Philly was covered by apartment buildings and factories, vendors lined a small stretch of this growing neighborhood. Early twentieth century migrants in Philadelphia employed basic sales principles: put a lot of things in one place and people will come.
Today, the market is stuck fending against expanding grocery chains with large supplies and low prices. Shop owners must find the right equilibrium of pricing, marketing, and profit. Recently, Emilio “Mee Mee” Mignucci, the third generation owner of Di Bruno Bros cheese house, has stepped up to help revitalize the market’s business association and is working to bring in new tenants to empty storefronts and more local farmers to sell their produce. It’s a promising start. The market has learned to modernize without losing its intimacy – as one merchant put it, “The owner deals with the customers directly.”
Exploring the market means wandering down 9th Street with the Washington Avenue intersection as the market’s hub. The lines of vendors are interrupted only briefly at a wall-sized mural of former Mayor Frank Rizzo on the west side of 9th at Montrose Street. (Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program
encourages mural painting to reenergize neighborhoods and foster community development. Rizzo was done by Diane Keller in 1995.)
You’ll find Giordano Produce gripping the northeast corner of 9th and Washington, its arm of vegetable tables wrapping around the bend. Its conspicuous, faded green and orange sign alludes to the Italian heritage of the market; the ethnic makeup of the vendors has slowly changed over time.
Nearby, it’s hard to miss Esposito’s Meats. Their signs are unmistakable, and the storefront occupies a corner lot that allows its gang of florescent signs to steal attention from all directions. A handful of refrigerated casings house a variety of pork, veal, and cuts of beef. Imagine a local grocery store, full of transparent counters, topped with scales and pricing machines, and selling nothing but pure butchered protein. That is Esposito’s. And Canhuli’s House of Pork. Both can be found along the route.
In between the meat palaces, small produce posts are packed tightly down the street. The Italian Market is exceptional at utilizing its limited space. There is no better example of such organizational savvy than the fish stands sandwiched between the markets. Asian anglers stack full body carp and trout and haddock fillets on bunk beds of ice in soggy boxes. (It’s like summer camp for dead fish.) As soon as one is bought, another replaces it.
In October of last year, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission designated the market a state historical site. The yellow letters on the blue plaque at 9th and Christian Streets claim the market has “evolved from a local community market to become a popular Philadelphia icon.” But neighborhood’s normalcy returns once you walk past the marker, save for a few shops and Ralph’s Italian Restaurant. No better place to turn around and traverse the other side of the street (southbound).
It used to be that 9th’s east side provided the fresh food, and the west side specialized in preparing it. But the separation of the two sides has eased in years, blending into a symbiotic existence among vendors that feels less competitive than complimentary. There’s food left and right; still, many of the old staples remain. Di Bruno Brothers has sold aged cheeses and edible accessories since 1939. Rumors whispered of the original store’s relocation. “We have other locations in the city, but this store isn’t going anywhere,” its staff revealed. And in addition to its eclectic coffee bean collection, Fante’s Kitchen Wares stocks any gadget needed to cook the goods sold by its across-the-street neighbors–like it has since 1906.
That same uncertainty afflicts the market, where buildings and stalls sit emptier and bus service comes less frequently. Sparse parking and more competition for fewer dollars have not helped the aging market evolve. However, Philadelphia Inquirer food columnist Rick Nichols points out that not all suffering arrives unmitigated. “[The] open-air low overhead is why Philadelphia granted the curb market license to poach on a public street in the first place,” he notes in a recent column. Food shortages and high prices during World War I brought about the rise of the market. Does today’s economy offer a similar resurgence?
Nichols envisions “a back-to-roots scenario in a market born in hard times and, perhaps, soon to be rededicated by hard times.” As grocers like Whole Foods target shoppers seeking freshness, those without the cash to pay for it may look elsewhere. The appeal of locally generated goods is sharpening. It is precisely that pattern that could allow the market to compete for a customer base that’s exerting due frugality.
The market runs today like it did at the beginning. Yes, technology and change are obvious constants. But consumers habitually walk 9th Street scouring for the best deals. The market’s suppliers lobby for every penny surrounding them, only now they take credit cards.
There are challenges ahead, no question. The market wakes to the same sun as an unfriendly economy and they must become allies. Diversity is expanding on 9th Street; there are as many goods as multi-toned faces selling them. The worry (which can get heavy) about preserving the market’s cultural history ebbs and flows. But something doesn’t function for a century unless it can adapt. With that serving as motivation, the Philadelphia Italian Market might earn a second hundred years.
This is a good thing. This is capitalism.
Read More: Philadelphia Weekly has a great story and slide show about the markets changing makeup. And check out our archives for more great Philly travel tidbits.
Photos: Jeff DiNunzio