Vitality Of Immigration Lives On In The Italian Market


The gateway to the northern half of the Italian Market. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In October 2018, business leaders and residents of Philadelphia’s historic Italian Market publicly announced a plan to establish the area as a business improvement district (BID). The plan–which follows in the footsteps of a similar proposal in 2016 that ultimately failed–would levy a fee on neighborhood property owners in order to improve infrastructure, increase cleaning services, and counter the blight precipitated by vacant properties along South 9th Street and adjacent roads.

A spate of economic woes sparked the latest BID campaign, including the closure of several meat markets (including Fiorella’s-Sausage, the 114-year-old family-run shop) and a slight decrease in foot traffic over the past couple of years. These setbacks stand in contrast with recent neighborhood success stories like chef and immigrant rights activist Cristina Martinez, whose popular Italian Market-based restaurant South Philly Barbacoa was recently featured on two major cooking programs, Ugly Delicious and Chefs Table.

By making a home for themselves and thriving in the area, recent immigrants continue a neighborhood legacy that stretches back to the 19th century.

Endemic poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily resulted in mass immigration at the turn of the 20th century, with upwards of four million Italians resettling in the United States in the hopes of securing a better life. Historically the home of Irish, Jewish, and German communities, what is now known as the Italian Market in Philadelphia’s Bella Vista neighborhood became a cultural hub for newly arrived Italian immigrants. The burgeoning Italian community repurposed the first floors of the area’s row homes as storefronts, retaining the other floors for family living quarters and boarding rooms.

While the area provided economic opportunity to immigrants through the linguistic and cultural affinities of its blossoming Italian-American businesses, packed tenements and poor sanitary conditions underscored the dire economic conditions of the neighborhood’s immigrant residents, many of whom arrived in the United States penniless. A prominent housing advocate named Emily W. Dinwiddie mapped the neighborhood, then known as the Italian District, in 1904 to gain a clearer picture of its housing conditions. In her report, Dinwiddie noted that nearly 15 percent of families in the neighborhood shared a single toilet with six other families. “Health and decency are surely sacrificed under such conditions,”she wrote.

Map accompanying report by Emily W. Dinwiddie detailing building usage in the “Italian District.” The Octavia Hill Association commissioned Dinwiddie to investigate housing conditions in the neighborhood. Map. 1904. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Over time, the neighborhood’s economy began to thrive, as second-generation residents enjoyed financial success and growing political clout. A group of business leaders established the South 9th Street Business Mens Association in 1915, which organized to improve conditions in the area. Around this time, successful lobbying efforts resulted in city and state governments designating 9th Street as a curb market, thereby permitting merchants the right to sell their products out of pushcarts and stands along the sidewalk.

This distinctive commercial district gradually became known as the Italian Market by the middle of the 20th century. The neighborhoods enduring significance as a center for the city’s Italian-American community and bastion of Italian culture is illustrated by an image from HSP’s archives that depicts the spontaneous celebrations on South Darien Street following the surrender of Italy in 1943 during World War II. Cheerful residents shared red wine and embraced on the sidewalk surrounded by U.S. flags.

As the 20th century progressed, many of the families who had called the Italian Market home for generations gradually moved away. While the Italian character of the area persists to this day, immigrants from countries including Mexico, Korea, and China have also established vibrant communities in the neighborhood, contributing their traditions to Philadelphia’s diverse cultural and culinary landscape.

All images appear courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Image from the Starr Centre Association’s 1909 annual report depicting the “Italian District.” The photo’s caption reads “Where Old Europe Meets New America.” Photograph. 1909. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Image from the Starr Centre Association’s 1909 annual report. The photo’s caption reads “A Glimpse of the Italian District.” Photograph. 1909. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Photo depicting Italian businesses along the 800 block of Christian Street. From left: Luigi Fiorella Meat Market (Fiorella’s Sausage), V. Di Pietro Watchmaker & Jeweler, and Genito Realty Company. Photograph. 1920. Fiorella Brothers Sausage Company Photographs. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Interior of the Fiorella Sausage Company. Photograph. Circa 1920. Fiorella Brothers Sausage Company Photographs. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Italian-Americans greeted the news of Italy’s surrender during World War II with an impromptu outdoor celebration on the 700 block on S. Darien Street. Wine flowed freely. Photograph. September, 1943. Philadelphia Record photograph morgue. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

About the author

This article was produced in collaboration with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and written by Patrick Glennon. Located at 1300 Locust Street and open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays, HSP is one of the nation’s largest archives of historical documents, with over 21 million manuscripts, books, and graphic images encompassing centuries of US history. Find upcoming public programs, start your own research project, and learn more about HSP.


  1. Thanks for a great article! My Italian grandparents (b.1905, 1908) grew up on the Italian Market. She was 21 of 22 kids. The youngest had told me that she remembered when there weren’t a lot of houses south of Washington. My grandmother always said that it was the “immigrant section”. I’m glad to see that the neighborhood has worked hard to remain an immigrant section. I love it down there!

  2. Sigh….Fiorello’s Sausage. The store was not much changed from the 1920 photo above the last time I was in there – probably 1-1/2 to 2 years ago. It will be missed.

  3. The term “Italian Market” didn’t come into use until about 1970. Before that, South Philadelphians just said they “were going to 9th Street” and everyone knew what that meant. The customers were not just Italians, but included a high proportion of African Americans, as well as other ethnicities who could get ingredients unavailable anywhere else. A similarly vibrant street market prospered on 7th Street from McKean Street to Porter. That one had primarily Jewish merchants, and it too was simply referred to as “going to 7th Street.” 7th Street faded out as a market when Jewish families moved to more prosperous parts of the city after the 1960s. Today some of those old shops are newly occupied by a more recent wave of Southeast Asian immigrants.

  4. It stead of taxing small businesses and residents why not just withdraw that abhorrent 10 year tax rebate for all those folks buying new and newly renovated properties?

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
History May Lie Deeper Under A Church Rectory In South Philly

History May Lie Deeper Under A Church Rectory In South Philly

July 19, 2019  |  News

Plans for a new construction project reveal a possible African American burial site beneath the rectory of St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi at 7th and Montrose. Kimberly Haas has the details > more

Upzoning A Potential Aid For Affordable Housing And Historic Preservation Woes

Upzoning A Potential Aid For Affordable Housing And Historic Preservation Woes

July 18, 2019  |  Vantage

Changing zoning laws in historic neighborhoods to allow for more density and multifamily conversions could be one smart solution for affordable housing and historic preservation issues. Jacqueline Drayer takes a look > more

New Record Pressing Plant Drops The Needle In Old Bread Factory

New Record Pressing Plant Drops The Needle In Old Bread Factory

July 15, 2019  |  News

The vinyl revival is coming to Lawncrest where a new record pressing plant is setting up shop in the old Bond Bread building. Bryan Bierman has the scoop > more

After The Trocadero’s Closing, Preservationists Ponder Saving The Interior

After The Trocadero’s Closing, Preservationists Ponder Saving The Interior

July 12, 2019  |  News

Philly's famous Trocadero Theater closed in May after 149 years of continuous use. Protections are already in place for the facade of the building, but can the interior be saved too? Kimberly Haas takes a look > more

Op-Ed: Painted Bride Art Center Mosaic A Lesson In Limits To Historic Designation

Op-Ed: Painted Bride Art Center Mosaic A Lesson In Limits To Historic Designation

July 10, 2019  |  Soapbox

Last fall the Philadelphia Historical Commission declined to legally protect a colorful mosaic, nominated by Philadelphia's Magic Garden, on the exterior of Painted Bride Arts Center in Old City. In this editorial Sharon Barr opines that the decision was the right one and unpacks the thorny issues of designating public artwork and ownership rights > more

A Crude Awakening: Explosion On The Schuylkill Brings Philly's History Of Oil Refineries Into Focus

A Crude Awakening: Explosion On The Schuylkill Brings Philly’s History Of Oil Refineries Into Focus

July 8, 2019  |  Vantage

Ed Duffy gives us a history lesson on Philadelphia's 150-year-old oil industry following the explosion, fire, and pending closure of Philadelphia Energy Solutions' oil refinery in Southwest Philly > more