Mark al Simon has a simple request for his South Philadelphia community, which continues to change.
“All I ask is we respect each other. From the beginning it was the Irish, then the Italians. Now we got the Asians coming in, Latinos, Mexicans,” he said.
Living near the 900 block of Ellsworth Street in a house which has been in his family since 1927, al Simon is part of the last, old Italian family on the block.
Gesturing down the block, al Simon said, “Most of these houses are being renovated and sold or being rented out to college kids. Every six to eight months there’s someone new moving in.”
Al Simon’s grandmother was Filomena Capone. Her brother Salvatore traced the family tree and discovered al Simon is “fourth distant cousins” with Al Capone, the fabled gangland figure during the 1920s. Both families came from Naples.
As a child, al Simon recalled playing rough tackle football in the street with no pads. His mother was baptized at St. Maron’s Lebanese Church in 1935. The church still stands at the corner of Ellsworth and 10th streets.
Halfway down the street in a large, pink house resides some of the newer neighbors. Juan Gonzalez is from Mexico City. Gonzalez has lived in the United States for almost six years.
Gonzalez is one of the Mexicans living in this particular house and one of the many from Mexico moving into the surrounding neighborhood.
To al Simon, the growing Mexican community represents an opportunity. “I don’t mind other nationalities moving in. I really don’t because you get to learn about each others’ cultures.”
Mike Olson has lived in the community for two years. He previously lived at Hutchinson and Fitzwater streets just north of Palumbo Park.
Olson noted the average income around his new home is lower. There is more ethnic diversity and more trash on the street around his new residence.
“It seems to me as long as it’s been a neighborhood it’s been a neighborhood of immigrants. That’s why there’s interesting food. That’s why the market has survived the way that it has and it makes things more interesting, keeps things vital,” Olson said.
Al Simon agreed, explaining, “When this neighborhood first came about before the turn of the century in the 1900s it was all Irish.”
When al Simon’s Italian ancestors moved into the area the Irish went toward both rivers, the Schuylkill and the Delaware.
Olson said he loves his new neighborhood. Food and household supplies are easy to get. There are a reasonable number of trees and Olson knows and likes his neighbors. “You can’t ask for much more than that in Philadelphia.”
Olson’s view is not shared by al Simon.
“If they’re illegal and they’re coming in here and they’re getting on the welfare rolls and stuff like that and people are working hard and they didn’t contribute to that, I do have a problem with that.”
Juan Gonzalez does have a job preparing food at a local restaurant.
“Here I can obtain what in my city I can’t have, which is money. Here it’s much easier to obtain [the things] I like but can’t get in my city,” Gonzalez said.
To al Simon the real issue is “people moving in. They’re coming in from New York, they’re coming in from the suburbs… and they’re bringing their attitudes with them.
“One thing we have down here is respect. And if you don’t respect me. then I’m certainly not going to respect you,” al Simon added. “This is definitely not the suburbs. This is South Philly.
Al Simon said he sees an attitude problem with some people not responding when he greets them while walking through the neighborhood.
But if al Simon had to name the three issues he would like to see changed, immigrants and out-of-towners don’t make the list. The things that trouble al Simon the most are cars at 3 a.m., rowdy college kids after bars close and people leaving trash out on the curb.
“There’s a lot of garbage, but that’s what happens when you don’t have a business association to pick up the trash for you,” Olson agreed.
Olson gestured to the signs posted on every street saying no parking for one day each week for street cleaning.
“Of course,” Olson explained, “no one pays attention… because they know that they don’t clean the streets.
“So it’d be nice if they either took down the signs so new neighbors didn’t expect the streets to be cleaned occasionally or came down and actually cleaned the streets.”
The gentrification of the area is a change al Simon said he notices. In the past year the Philadelphia Parking Authority put a two-hour parking limit on the street unless the owner of a car purchases a special sticker for $35. Renewing the sticker costs $25 every year after that. The cost of one parking ticket is $45.
For Gonzalez, he only has one concern. “To keep working and realize my dream of having my family join me.”