East Passyunk: Sitting Down with the “Pope of Passyunk”

With his family history running deep within Passyunk Avenue since the age of five, Michael GianGiordano I has remained dedicated to the community through government and real estate. With his years of being in the public light, the nickname “Pope of Passyunk” has been added to his long list of achievements and accomplishments. 

Where did the “Pope of Passyunk” nickname come from?

It started because I was so involved in Passyunk Avenue as the president of the business association in the mid- to late-’90s. When two folks named Jim and Barbara Parker used to work here, they always thought I should have been a politician. So, on one of my birthdays, Barbara gifted me a drawing of me as the Pope of Passyunk with my staff as a parking meter. The funny thing is, Barbara was actually Jewish. I used to mentor people that worked here, and I used to guide these young ladies that didn’t really have strong parenting through their college years — and it all just stuck around. 

The caricature, which dubbed GianGiordano as the “Pope of Passyunk.”

Where does your personal history begin on Passyunk Avenue?

My father had a produce business at Passyunk and Reed streets — 1352-56 to be exact. At that time, when I was five years old, I started helping my father with his produce business. I helped him through my college years. I then worked in government for 13 years, but while I was in grad school, I got my real estate license and worked part-time. That eventually became full time, and in 1990, my partner Paul and I bought Century21 Forrester — which at that time was at 1633 E. Passyunk Ave. 

Where did your real estate career first begin?

I actually had a couple internships in college with economic development. I started to see the linkage between real estate, government, and economic development. So, I used my real estate background to help me in my economic development career. Having those three components in a full-time real estate position helped me figure out how to get things done. 

GianGiordano (pictured right) in an advertisement for Century21 Forrester.

What is that connection between those three components? 

Policy at the government level, whether its regulation, taxes, or economic policies that affect job creation and housing, all affects the aspect of the real estate industry. If you’re in a government area where it’s anti-business or anti-real estate, it’s extremely difficult to get things done. The tax climate in Philadelphia, it’s very difficult for businesses to get things done. 

What was the moment where you realized it was time to leave government for real estate? 

I knew at the time I was in government that I would eventually leave because the money wasn’t there. It was in business and doing your own thing as an entrepreneur. The immediate impact was when I worked my last job in government. I was known as an unclassified department head, with no civil service protection. I worked at the pleasure of the political leadership. When it changed from Democrat to Republican, my role became unclear and I didn’t like what was going on. So, I decided it was time to go. 

Why did you choose Passyunk as your area to dive into real estate?

It was natural for me because I knew South Philadelphia. I know the area very well, and my family is very well known. And I myself was known because of my personal endeavors I was involved in. I was involved in multiple political campaigns, I was a committee chair for the first ward, and I was involved in the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District.

What was your role with the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District [EPABID]? 

I was actually one of the founding members. We had a business association preceding that, and I was the president of it. I worked with other merchants on the avenue, and we got a lot of things done. But we needed to raise money, a lot, to make things happen. Merchants paid a membership free — and keep in mind, this was all voluntarily. There eventually was talk about becoming a BID so that we can collect more money, for more people, and it would become mandatory to kick money in. Legally, you are tied into the city government, and that’s where my background saw the opportunity and the need for it.

A lease agreement for the East Passyunk area, circa 1962.

What would you say was the biggest challenge of the EPABID?

Keeping the avenue relevant during changing times. The business environment has to regularly change so that you draw new businesses to the area. It cannot stay stagnant. There always has to be something new. Physically, it has to be attractive, it has to be clean. One of the major complaints I have now is that the Philadelphia Parking Authority is one of our worst enemies. If you come to dinner here and you end up with a ticket or you’re towed — you’re probably not coming back. If you go to a number of other districts, you can park for a nominal amount of money and not be as risky.

What would you say are some of the key differences between the area now and when you were younger? 

As a kid, I think the area was safer. Back then, there were also more retailers and more goods. There weren’t as many bars and restaurants. There needs to be an initiative undertaken to help the retailers that are here and help that part of the avenue grow. One of the problems Passyunk Avenue has, unlike other business areas, is that our buildings are not real big. The first floor is the only retail space, the second floor are all apartments. Cities like New York City have these double and triple level stores. 

What would you say is your biggest achievement with your involvement with Passyunk Avenue? 

The fact that I, and some other people, were able to stay here and keep the Avenue stable, when a lot of other business districts were dying. There is a mis-story about the avenue declining to nothing. That’s false. The strip was always a stable place, which made it easier for it to come back. 

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to: editor@philadelphianeighbors.com.

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