South Philadelphia: One Block, United by Gentrification

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It’s not everyday that you see a blue and gold macaw perched in a tree and a colorful tropical garden a part of the scenery in South Philadelphia. But these two unusual attractions are fixtures on the block of South 10th Street between Catherine and Christian streets. Formerly a predominately Italian neighborhood in an area that had been associated with Mafia activity, this block has changed radically over the last two decades. Today, the block consists of white- and blue-collar workers, inter-racial couples, same-sex couples and both young and old families.

Bob Stern and his 25-year-old macaw Barbara are an eclectic fixture on South 10th Street.

“When we first moved here, we were surrounded by elderly Italian women,” said Scot Ziskind, a resident for 25 years. Scot and Marcie Ziskind were married in 1985 and bought their first home as a married couple in this neighborhood. As a young Jewish couple, the Ziskinds said they felt out of place in the Italian community, but never unsafe. “When we first moved in, a neighbor approached us and said they knew we were Jewish, but that was ok. We were startled at first, but that’s the kind of community it was here. Everybody knew everybody,” said Ziskind.

For others, this neighborhood offered an opportunity to establish a business. Carl Weisse, a resident and business owner on the block for 23 years, bought his property originally for his chiropractic business. “I found this magnificent building on the corner of 10th and Catherine and I knew this neighborhood, so close to Center City, wouldn’t stay bad for very long,” said Weisse. After five years, he moved his family into the upstairs of his property and they’ve remained there ever since. “At first, I didn’t think I could raise my family here. I bought a house in deep South Philly and that’s where my family and I lived. But after time, we relocated here.”

Dr. Carl Weisse opened Bella Vista Chiropractic Clinic in 1989.

Both the Ziskinds and Weisse have witnessed first hand the changes of the neighborhood. “As the Italian families sort of died out and the housing project two blocks away was demolished, younger families started to move in,” said Weisse. The young families brought with them a positive gentrification that created a fresh interest in maintaining a community. “Young people really saved this neighborhood. They came in and wanted to organize things. They wanted to create a safe area for their children and it really benefited us,” said Ziskind.

The new block began to take shape and its defining characteristic remains to be its diversity. “We have everything on this block. We have people from all different races, same-sex couples, families and single people living here,” said Trisha Eckstein, a resident of six years. Eckstein is a stay-at-home mom to her thirteen-month-old daughter, Mya. “I feel blessed to live on this block. It’s exposing Mya to all different types of people that we couldn’t find in the suburbs,” said Eckstein.

“It is a wonderful feature of the neighborhood, it is very welcoming. You know, as a gay man, I’ve never had a problem in Bella Vista and it’s a very good feeling”, said George Hoessel, a resident of five years. Hoessel moved back to Philadelphia after working in Washington, D.C., for the Environmental Protection Agency for 28 years. After retiring in 2004, Hoessel knew he wanted to live in Bella Vista. “When I was younger, I always loved the culture of this area. I was fascinated by the mob, the Italian eateries and the history of the area,” said Hoessel.

The neighborhood’s proximity to central attractions in Philadelphia has also been a main incentive for residents. “I can walk to pretty much everywhere and if I don’t walk, I’ll ride my bike,” said Hoessel.

Scot, Marcie and Lev Ziskind with their dog, Nina.

For the Ziskinds, living in this neighborhood has also brought a new business venture. Two years ago, Marcie Ziskind was walking back to her home when she passed a paint-your-own pottery store. “Randomly, it caught my attention and I stopped in. The owner told me she was looking for a bookkeeper and I had experience with that,” said Ziskind. Nearly one year later, Ziskind now owns the business, the Expressive Hand. “My neighborhood has really been supportive. During the snowstorms last winter, most of my neighbors came in when they were stir-crazy,” said Ziskind.

But with the positives, come negatives. Gentrification may have helped transform this neighborhood, but it has also brought its unpleasant effects. “I couldn’t afford to buy a house in this neighborhood now,” said Ziskind. When they bought their house in 1985, the Ziskinds paid $63,500. They say their house is now valued at $700,000. For residents, the diversity and eclecticism of this block is a characteristic they are willing to pay for.


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