During the years of mass emigration from Italy to the US, one of the peculiarities of the Little Italies all over the US definitively was the street market. Many used to spend several hours on the street: people would work hard, start their small business, socialize with other "paisanos", meet friends and maybe future spouses, get a life away from problems and crime. Food was the one need that the Italians could not escape from, while living a very basic life with no luxury at all, saving money to be sent back home, maybe to get their families to join them to the US, or simply to survive in their new country.
In time most of these street markets ended, for several reasons: people moved from the Little Italies, they could afford better places, cities got new urbanizations, trade changed its rules. But one place is still up and running pretty good, and celebrates this year – right now, on May 16th - its 100th anniversary: it is America's oldest outdoor market and we're talking about Philadelphia's 9th Street Italian Market. That's why we're happy and proud to host as our guest the President of the association which runs the market, our friend Domenick Crimi.
Domenick, first of all please tell us something about you. You are the President of the South 9th Street Business Men's Association, but you're also a firefighter. So let us thank you for your service in both the areas ...
I grow up in this district. My parents, my brother, myself and my sisters ... all my family had been living working in the district. About that time I graduated in high school I had a neighbor who was a firefighter and he asked me how old I was; I was 17 so he said: "When you turn 18 why don't you come down and join the firehouse?". So, I went and I joined the firehouse and now I'm 54 and I'm still involved and I love it. I'm a volunteer: we have the same qualification as a full time paid professional firefighter, but we don't sit in the station all day long and get paid. We do our normal jobs, and when they call us if we're available we join them. Now I've moved and so I'm not able to help as many times as before; but anyway, that's the firefighter part of me. I really enjoyed it!
I also have had a career as a professional photographer, about 5 years after college. Then, in 2005, my wife convinced me to change my career ... I was working two days a week in the butcher shop, and she convinced me to come back full time. My parents were getting older, turning 80 at that time, and somebody needed to take over the business.
My dad had been President of the Association from the late 50s to the late 80s, and when he gave up being President the Association started doing not that much. The street was like there was no promotion, it wasn't active at all. So we had meetings, we reorganized the association and about 8 years ago I became President.
The 9th Street Italian Market is about to celebrate its 100th birthday. It is America's oldest outdoor market! Please tell us something about this fantastic place, from the origin through the decades
The market now runs about 8/10 blocks in length and 3 blocks in width and it has a variety of different businesses. The most part of the businesses that stand out are the curb stands: they are on wheels that are at the curb facing the sidewalk, from the street while traffic flows behind them. They are on the east side of the street: years ago they switched side every six months but it was too difficult and so they decided to have stands on the east side and parking on the west side of the street. Most of those stands are for fruit and vegetables, and the some stands sell food, and others sell flowers.
There's a few coffee shops with an area for people to sit, tables and chairs to have coffee, lunch and whatever. There's awnings over the stands which get roll up at night ... and this area is the most visible part of the market: when you come down the street that's what you see. Then of course there's permanent awnings over the sidewalks and that's where the store businesses are: most of them are owned by families and passed on from generation to generation: some families have been here since late 1890, the early 1900.
In the 1890s Frank Palumbo opened up a boarding house to take in immigrants that were coming here from Italy, as a place to stay. Many people came, many families: they needed food. So, one by one the stores opened up: at first they were fruit and vegetables stands, then somebody opened a butcher shop and then others. Gradually they started taking in a person, somebody who emigrated from Italy, around the WW1 era, giving them a place to stay, to learn and train how to do the job.
So, in the early 1900 a lot of people, especially from Sicily like my grandfather (from Messina), came here and got together with other "paisanos": my grandfather started working in a butcher shop, while my grandmother's family, who were from Palermo, had a food stand. That's where my grandparents met and eventually when they decided to get married, and that happened to several other Italian people who met in the 9th street market. So the man of the shop where my grandfather was working told him: "Man, this place of the street is for sale, you go and buy it and you start your own business": that too happened to many people. Family members started to join their business when they were young: my brother and I started when we were 5.
America used to have a lot of markets like this, in the Little Italy spread all over the US cities. Why do you think this one survived, while others had to close? What made it so special?
I think it survived over the years for two reasons. The first is because many stores passed from generation to generation staying in the family; the second is because of the new immigrants coming to America. You know, when you work with your hands, you want your children to do better than you. So, in America everybody wants their children to become lawyers, doctors, accountants: they send them to college and think "Ok, you're going to get a job": this happened to me, I went to the college, I worked uptown, I started my own photography business ... but then I came back. I'm 54: a lot of people of my age, whose families owned a store in the market, found bigger and better jobs: the job on the market is difficult, you get no break, cold in the winter, hot in the summer, standing outside on the stands ... so, they grew up and decided they were going to college and find a job outside the market, in the business world.
So, new immigrants came to the United States: in the 80's Koreans came, and then the Mexicans came down to the Italian market, and they found opportunities. The older generations still owned the stands, the stores, the properties, but some of them didn't have somebody to pass them on: so the new immigrants went and got those jobs, and then opened their own stand or store. So, while we used to have 100% Italian stands, maybe now we have 50%. These are hardworking people, all very nice, we all get along: many of them consider each other a family, in a certain way.
I hear that the celebration will start now and will go on until the end of the year. Which activities are you organizing?
The biggest event is coming up on May 16th and 17th, the Italian Market Festival: we close the street off to traffic and we bring in lots of vendors, music and entertainment and goes all way with the market. For instance in my store, Cappuccio's Meats, I make 29 flavors of homemade Italian sausage! For the festival we pick the 8 most favorite, we put a station outside the store, in the street, and we grill and sell sausages. A lot of Italian stores take the show on the road: what they do in their store, they manage to put it outside on the street for the festival.
Then, we're doing a little something every month after that, to keep celebration going on. In June we're having food trucks, with the award to the best one from the Food Truck Association: we'll close the street to traffic and there'll be just food trucks, so people can experience something different.
In July we're going to have a multicultural music month, with many different musicians. In August we're going to have Bocce and Scopa tournament, during the whole month.
The next biggest event after that will be the Columbus festival, which we call "Salute Columbus": it's almost like the regular festival, and that'll be will be on Saturday October 10th, a one day festival with food, drinks and entertainment.
Is there a parade?
The city does a parade the next day, on Sunday, but not here in the market: it's big, organized by the Sons of Italy, starts 5 blocks from here and runs south. In my shop I do both the events.
You also have a project called "Vision 2020". What is the future of this historical place, according to the South 9th Street Business Men's Association?
We think that the vision for the future is to really make the market a place to visit: we want the people who come to Philadelphia to say "let's go visit the Italian market", something very unique. Our vision is to keep the market with family stores, and also multicultural: Philadelphia is a multicultural city and so the market has to stay.
In September Pope Francis will be visiting Philly. Is he coming to the market? Are you preparing something special?
We would like to have him here! It probably won't be possible because of the security concerns, and because we know he has a very tight schedule. He's going to be here just for two days, and he probably will have a big mass in the center of the city. We'll probably get a lot of visitors coming to Philadelphia.
You meet and serve a lot of people at the market. Are there a lot of Italians who just recently arrived to Philly?
I've had a few in the past weeks: I wouldn't say a lot. Some of them are visiting, some just recently moved in the city, some of them come in the weekend, like my parents do: they still work on the weekends! My mother is 89 and my dad in summer will be 90.
Still working at 89 or 90, that's something! You know, this is not the first time I've been told that Italian Americans keep working even at that age: I think there's a pattern here, and it's interesting because here in Italy things are very different. These aged Italian Americans probably used to work very hard their entire life and they still keep themselves busy: I feel an enormous respect for all of them ...
Well, you know, when you come to the Italian market you know you're going to be working very hard. Retirement is very difficult to do because you need to pass the business on to somebody: so, unless you sell out you're going to be working for the rest of your life. My mother is was born here, my grandparents came here from Italy and started the business. When my sister would ask her "Why don't you retire, move to Florida and rest, something like this?" my mother always told her "I'm fine, this is where I belong. I need to work. I keep busy and I see my people: the customers, who become friends over the years." I think if keep working it keeps your brain going. If you retire, doing nothing will kill you!
I agree with you, and that's an example of how hard the Italians have been working their whole life, here in the US. In the end, let's talk about food. To you, why is food so important for the Italian American community?
I think that food is life to us, is what we do. When our families get together, food is always involved, in every Italian house in America, especially on Sundays: because we grew up with big family meals.
Which is the most popular Italian food in the 9th Street Italian market?
Well, I'm going to speak for myself ... if you think in terms of shopping food to take it home and eat it there, I think one of the most popular foods would be sausage, because they know that here they only get fresh and natural meat. If you think about eating here, in restaurants, I would rather say pasta.
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