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My Philadelphia: Bella Vista

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By Jacob Lambert

I recently took a phone call in which I was presented with a possible job opportunity in New York City.  After explaining the details of the position, the caller asked if I'd be willing to move.  This was no small issue.  Beyond the usual logistics--bubble wrap, boxes, getting mattresses down the stairs--there was the matter of my attachment to Philadelphia.  My wife and I have lived here since June of 2001; this city is what we know.

Nonetheless, I found it difficult to turn down the offer; I've wanted the job for years.  Sure, I told the caller.  Let me know what happens.  If you end up hiring, I will be your man.

I went downstairs and told my wife; we shared a happy hug.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, I warned her.  It could very well fall through.  Despite my cautious words, though, something fundamental had changed.  In the space of five minutes, I'd gone from idly brushing my teeth to dreaming of Manhattan.SchellSt.jpg

That was two weeks ago, and in that time, the distressing reality of moving from Bella Vista has largely pushed aside my post-phone call elation.  When we bought our house in the neighborhood in early 2007, I joked that it was the best home in the country, with very specific reasoning: Philadelphia was, with its wounded self-awareness, America's finest city.  Bella Vista was, in turn, Philadelphia's finest section: close to Center City but not technically part of it, as livable as Queen Village but rougher around the edges.  Our small street was quiet and friendly, modestly tucked away--Bella Vista's best, in fact.  And since our house had a dogwood in front, ours was the best on the largely treeless block.

This wasn't scientific, or exactly true, but it accurately reflected my enthusiasm for the place.  With neighborhoods, as with sports, I prefer those that succeed despite some sort of struggle.  I find the striving, desperate 2007 Phillies more compelling than the current team; I'd rather read about Floyd Patterson than Muhammad Ali.  And Bella Vista, with its faded fa├žades and lumpy sidewalks, fits this pattern well.  It's worn but not run down, content but not too pleased.  If the Graduate Hospital Area is the overeager little sister--"Look what I can do, maybe!"--and Society Hill is the moneyed great-aunt, Bella Vista is the uncle slumped on the steps after dinner, chewing an unlit cigar.  In fact, you can probably see him now, just north of 9th and Christian.

This rumpled character is embodied in countless places throughout the neighborhood: Sarcone's Bakery, dimly lit and rightly celebrated.  Ralph's, which nobody seems to really like, but somehow remains vital.  The Palumbo Rec Center, of the postcard skyline views and terrible outfield grass.  The Italian Market, frenzied and wonderful, a story in itself.  The list goes on and on. 

Of course, a place is a product of its people, and Bella Vista has in recent decades been shaped by its Italian-Americans, those Palumbos and Sarcones.  And while the area's future seems bright in pure economic terms, its present character is threatened by people like me: former Center City renters, the inveterate stroller-pushers who filter in and use "authentic" to describe their new surroundings.  It's an excruciating term, deployed mainly by those of us who, with our very presence, erode that authenticity.  But the word is fairly apt, and at this moment, as Bella Vista straddles old and new--gravy and pasta sauce--it's possible to tell yourself the lie that the authentic past will be around forever. 

What is that past ceding to?  Beyond the obvious bellwethers--coffeeshops, daycares, yoga studios--it's difficult to say, as Bella Vista's current phase is in its nascent stages.  The newcomers, my wife and I included, imbue the area with youthful uncertainty: it's not clear, exactly, how long we're expected to stay.  Families once moved here to steadily spread their roots; the new breed sees this model as outdated exception, not a modern rule.  Some merely use the neighborhood as a pre-suburb stopover; others take it more seriously and sternly dig in their heels.  But even the most devoted new Bella Vistan cannot deny the occasional feeling that they've chosen to set up camp on the lands of an aging tribe.         

The comedian Eugene Mirman once said, "Unless I'm gentrifying, I feel weird."  That is, gentrification is lamentable when it's done by someone else.  This is not exactly funny, but Mirman was being brave; admitting your role in a neighborhood's change is a surprisingly painful thing.  By the simple act of moving--finding a better place for yourself and your family, that basic human urge--you're helping to erase the past, however incrementally.  And as demographics change--not just in Bella Vista, but all over Philadelphia--it's difficult to see how that past, and the richness that it brings, can truly be preserved. 

As for myself, I wait for word from New York.  If we're forced to move, I'm not sure what my reaction will be.  At the moment, I feel as if leaving Bella Vista will be a wrenching thing.  I genuinely wanted to grow old here, chewing my own cigar on my own worn-down front steps.  I may not be a third-generation Italian, but my own son has grown up here, and we walk its streets every day.  Over the past four years, I've come to identify with these blocks and the graceful way that they're scuffed.  But I don't know how deep that identification runs; moving would be the true test.  I'll either find myself homesick for Philly as I unpack in New York, or blithely settling into some other changing neighborhood.  As with Bella Vista, only time will tell.

 

Jacob Lambert is a writer and graphic artist whose last piece for Metropolis was a graphic short story about a lifer in Graterford called The Ballad of Red Dog.

 

Graphic: Lambert's block on Schell Street, as drawn by the author.

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The Italian Market is a landmark in Bella Vista. Locals complain that it isn't Italian enough these days, with the influx of Asian and Mexican merchants. But there's still plenty of Italiam left.






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