South Philadelphia has always been a neighborhood of cultural diversity. Beginning with its roots in the early nineteenth-century, the neighborhood saw rise to an Irish immigrant population during the Industrial Revolution. This increase of immigrants paved the roads for a large industrial base which later attracted more diverse cultures to the area. “Immigrants from around the globe flooded to the docks in Philadelphia and New York during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries hoping to find work in the regions burgeoning mills and coal fields” (“Industrial Revolution”, p. 1, 2009). Even today, there is a strong influence of diverse cultures that are undeniably vital to the neighborhood’s social structure. Today, visitors can clearly see the strong cultural identities of the area. For example, the Vietnamese population is strikingly identifiable in specific areas, which can be seen in surrounding businesses and restaurants. A strong Italian influence can be seen in places such as the Italian Market and other neighborhood icons.
Arguably the strongest cultural influence in South Philadelphia today is that of the Italian heritage. Starting with the immigrants of the nineteenth-century, many Italian-Americans have called South Philadelphia their home, thus affirming their place in the neighborhood. Visitors can see the clear cultural identity through several Italian venues including the famous marketplace.
“… the Italian Market has an incredibly strong Italian heritage—which can still be seen today throughout the stores, restaurants and neighborhood in general” (“The Italian Market , p. 1, 2009). Although the Italian culture is arguably the most predominate of South Philadelphia, other cultures such as that of the Vietnamese is making a striking impact.
After generations of Italian immigrants first moved into the neighborhood, several Vietnamese citizens immigrated to the area for various reasons, some specifically seeking refuge from the Vietnam War. Today, visitors can still see the Vietnamese-American population’s ties to their former homeland. “As the Vietnamese-American population in the tri-state area continues to grow, the Vietnamese shops, restaurants, businesses and organizations in South Philadelphia serve as a touchstone and cultural hub for the community as it continues to develop into a flourishing and fascinating Philadelphia neighborhood” (“History of Vietnamese-Americans in Philadelphia”, p. 1, 2009). The culture remains so prevalent in the area that many residents still choose to use the language from their home country. While South Philadelphia has seen a rise in new and different cultures, some businesses remain an institution of the neighborhood.
One of the biggest draws to South Philly is its world-famous cheese steak. Whether you prefer a “Whiz wit” (referring to a sandwich with cheese whiz and onions) or an “American witout” (American cheese and no onions), there are countless variations of these beloved steak sandwiches. Two of the most well-known venues, Pat’s Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, are popular not only to native Philadelphians, but also those who make the trip to Philadelphia’s staple. Owners Joey Vento (Geno’s) and Frank Oliveri, Jr. (Pat’s) have continually debated as to which restaurant offers the better sandwich and have even participated in a taste test of the other’s steak, only to immediately spit it out in disgust. Located across from one another on 9th and Passyunk Ave, the two cheese steak hotspots share a highly publicized rivalry. In fact, Geno’s Steaks has come under some controversy and made national headlines when they began forcing all costumers to order in English or face refusal of service. For such a culturally diverse neighborhood, this lack of acceptance caused a media frenzy and actually boosted the restaurant’s notoriety.
Although Philadelphia has been called the “city of neighborhoods,” South Philadelphia is arguably the most diverse. From the Italian Market to Vietnamese plazas, one could clearly perceive the cultural abundance and identity that exists in the neighborhood.
Text Written by Carmen Emmi, Taylor Duscha, and Dan Weick.
Photos Credited to Sarah Fry and Victoria Tatum
(2009). History of vietnamese-americans in philadelphia. Retrieved October 16, 2009 from http://www.gophila.com/C/Your_Philadelphia/14/Diverse_Philadelphia/287/Asian_American_Philadelphia/277/Asian_American_History_in_Philadelphia/327/The_History_of_Vietnamese_Americans_in_Philadelphia/331.html
(2009). Industrial revolution . Retrieved Oct. 16, 2009, from http://www.schuylkillriver.org/Industrial_Revolution.aspx
(2009). The italian market. Retrieved October 16, 2009 from http://gophila.com/C/Dining_and_nightlife/223/u/The_Italian_Market/1170.html