Meaning and Memory: Making a Place for Culture in Historic Preservation

April 27, 2020 | by Starr Herr-Cardillo

Immigrant-owned businesses like Christina Martinez’s South Philly Barbacoa have reinvigorated the Italian Market. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2020 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

If you’re lucky enough, you might be able to nab a seat at South Philly Barbacoa without waiting in line for 45 minutes. The modest restaurant, started by James Beard Award nominee Christina Martinez, has gained legendary status. And rightly so — the barbacoa, the pancita tacos, the spectacular oil-slicked consommé, and a delicious salsa de nopal made from prickly pear cactus pads, are as authentic as they would be in central Mexico. Yet, this transporting culinary experience can be found at the corner of Ninth Street and Ellsworth, in the heart of the Italian Market.

But Barbacoa actually fits well in the ever-evolving Italian Market, whose immigrant history predates the arrival of the Italians. The first wave of immigrants to the area were predominantly Irish, German and Jewish. In the late 19th century, Italians began to move into south Philadelphia and establish a cluster of shops that provided the growing neighborhood with familiar, Old Country goods and services. By the 1940s, this ethnic enclave was widely known as the Italian Market.

The name stuck, even though today, many of the grocers, bakers, and restaurateurs hail from around the globe. Over the past generation, Southeast Asian and Mexican residents have brought their own traditions and culinary offerings, adding bahn mi, tortillas, and, of course, barbacoa, to the mix of long-time Italian specialties like fresh mozzarella, salumi and whole roast pigs.

The very qualities that make the Italian Market so vibrant also pose challenges to preservationists. The combination of small curbside stalls with brick and mortar stores and restaurants that extend for several blocks along and around South Ninth Street contribute to

the Market’s distinctive character. That particular infrastructure has also historically allowed entrepreneurs and new immigrants to open businesses with relatively low overhead. The hodge-podge of signage, stalls and canopies makes the market one of those places that feels really real. But it’s the people — old-timers and newcomers — and the ever-evolving mix of traditions around commerce, food and family that have kept the place alive.

Deep Human Connections

Joe Frazier’s Boxing Gym was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2013. | Photo: Peter Woodall

“Cultural heritage” is the term most often used to describe places, symbols and traditions that hold significant memories and meaning for groups of people. It’s a broad umbrella — as extensive as the awnings that stretch along South Ninth Street and as varied as the wares purveyed there — that includes: legacy businesses like Center City watering hole Dirty Frank’s, cultural touchstones like Joe Frazier’s Gym, the former LOVE Park, or the Painted Bride Art Center; and birthplaces of individuals–John Coltrane’s house, for instance–or of movements, like the recently demolished Little Pete’s Diner, site of a historic LGBTQ sit-in. Indeed, “cultural heritage” tends to spotlight places of particular social relevance, often spots that are significant to people whose lives and cultural contributions have historically been overlooked or undervalued, like Hoa Binh Plaza on Washington Avenue, a South Asian shopping and culinary center currently threatened by proposed new development.

Unfortunately, preservation’s strong “architectural orientation” often gets in the way of recognizing places of cultural value, says Thompson Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and author of Why Old Places Matter. For his book, Mayes spoke to hundreds of people about what makes them feel connected to older places in an attempt to capture the ineffable but deep human connection people feel toward their surrounding environments. “Sometimes there are places that are really significant–like an open place where people gather–and they don’t read to a traditional preservation board as having the characteristics that they would typically be protecting.”

The John Coltrane House, a National Historic Landmark in Strawberry Mansion, has suffered from neglect in recent years. | Photo: Peter Woodall

But Mayes also notes a shift, at the national level, toward what some are calling “people-centered preservation.” “There is a broader conversation going on in the preservation world,” says Mayes. In fact, in May 2017, the National Trust for Historic Preservation published a report called “Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future.” Reflecting “critically and deeply” on the state of historic preservation at the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, the report argues for broadening historic preservation’s traditional focus to be more inclusive and equitable and to better engage the communities that it impacts.

While the Trust’s report may advocate protecting the varied types of places that fall under the cultural heritage umbrella, preservationists are still relying on a rigid and outdated toolkit to do so. “The National Historic Preservation Act permits things to be designated for culture, but no criteria were ever developed around it,” Mayes says.

Vanishing History

Four buildings on Jewelers’ Row, the nation’s oldest diamond district, in the process of being demolished by Horsham, Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers to build a 24-story condo tower. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Most local ordinances follow the National Register’s model, favoring buildings and sites that embody history, with a capital H, places with demonstrated connections to prominent architects, significant figures or historical events. Concepts like “integrity” can be narrowly interpreted, often disqualifying places like the Italian Market whose essence lies in its long history of adaptation and change. Such a traditional preservation framework, Mayes says, does not always adequately recognize the layers of meaning that accrete over time. And because of that blindspot many “old places that matter” for their cultural, rather than their historical or aesthetic, value end up being lost. As the recent demolition of four buildings on Jewelers’ Row attests, history can vanish with the swing of a wrecking ball.

A new regulatory framework is clearly needed. Preserving what makes the Italian Market special, for example, must involve more than just buildings alone — the whole ecosystem must be considered and understood. Much like Jewelers’ Row, which evolved over the centuries to include hundreds of wholesalers, retailers and craftspeople, it is critical to recognize that part of the market’s fundamental nature is change. Storefronts need to be adaptable and spaces must be accessible at prices that both assure longevity for the long- term tenants and offer opportunities for newcomers with limited resources to start new businesses. As cities face increasing pressure around new development and the homogenizing forces of globalization, adapting our tools to better support these micro- economies is essential.

Beyond Architecture

So far, though, raising awareness about cultural heritage preservation has outpaced the development of new regulatory tools. Municipalities, advocacy groups, and citizens across the country have focused their creative energies on programs like San Antonio’s annual Living Heritage Symposium, hosted by the city’s Office of Historic Preservation, which brings experts, citizens and advocates together to discuss and develop best practices for cultural heritage preservation. The event kicks off with a “Cultural Extravaganza” featuring music, dance and food from the city’s rich amalgam of cultural traditions. San Antonio, along with San Francisco and other cities, has also implemented a Legacy Business program, variations of which offer incentives like marketing and rent breaks to businesses that contribute to the cultural fabric of the city.

The Los Angeles Conservancy’s Curating the City initiative also takes a proactive approach, developing theme studies and targeted advocacy campaigns around specific initiatives, including LGBTQ heritage and LA’s modernist legacy. The effort also highlights various eras, neighborhoods, communities and cultural movements through their connections to the city’s built environment. An overview of Eastside LA, for example, describes the area’s overlapping Jewish, Japanese and Latinx histories. By focusing on culture, the Conservancy advocates for the preservation of “Architecturally unspectacular buildings … for the important roles they’ve played in defining many communities in Los Angeles. … These stories come alive and are much more meaningful when the physical building in which they occurred still exists.”
Mayes concurs, “When places are designated because something happened there, it doesn’t really matter much what they look like today.”

We Were Here

The former Union Baptist Church at 12th and Bainbridge where world renowned contralto Marian Anderson learned to sing. The church was demolished in 2015 with little acknowledgment or protest. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Preserving the physical places where “something happened” is especially critical for communities whose stories have historically been marginalized. But because these buildings’ significance has little to do with architectural character, they can be particularly vulnerable to alteration or demolition. Faye Anderson, the director of All That Philly Jazz, a “place-based public history project,” works “at the intersection of art, public policy and cultural heritage preservation” to call attention to what she calls “disappearing blackness” in Philadelphia. While “documenting and contextualizing Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz,” via blog posts, jazz history tours, and political advocacy, Anderson also exposes the systemic lack of recognition and protection of important places in African American — and by extension, Philadelphia’s — history, like the tragically demolished Union Baptist Church, where Marian Anderson (no relation) first sang.

In neighborhoods neglected from decades of disinvestment and now threatened by new development, says Anderson, “our story is being erased from public memory. From the demolition of the church where Marian Anderson first learned to sing to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places John Brown laid his head, developers don’t give a fig about black history.”

For the LGBTQ community, in which discretion was critical to survival, leaving a record, via
the built environment or otherwise, was once a liability. “LGBT sites are so ephemeral and so undocumented that they really get torn down wantonly,” says Bob Skiba, archivist at The William Way LGBT Community Center, who over the past five years has mapped more than 1,200 sites connected to LGBTQ history in Philadelphia.

Dewey’s Luncheonette was the site of the first direct-action protest for LGBTQ rights in the United States; beloved successor Little Pete’s Diner was torn down in 2018. | Image courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives

The most stunning loss came in 2018 with the demolition of Little Pete’s Diner, the former Dewey’s Luncheonette, on 17th Street. Though Dewey’s was the site of the first direct-action protest for LGBTQ rights in the country, which, some historians believe, rivals the significance of Stonewall, only Skiba, covering the diner’s demolition for the Philadelphia Gay News, connected Little Pete’s to the history-making sit-in. (Since the demolition, a historic marker has been placed at the now vanished site.)

Not all the historic evidence has been lost. Skiba’s mapping project has revealed a number of already-designated buildings connected to LBGTQ history, though those connections are not formally made in the nomination forms. This past April, the Philadelphia Historical Commission designated the first site explicitly recognized for its connection to LGBTQ history, adding the former location of the Camac Baths, a Jewish schvitz that turned a blind eye to gay patrons as early as the 1930s, a time when being gay was considered a crime, to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Through public education and advocacy, public awareness grows. The traditions, experiences and contributions of cultures and communities that had previously been suppressed become more visible, and the entire country is richer for their presence. Still, dedicated individuals like Anderson and Skiba can’t single-handedly do the work required to preserve a city’s cultural heritage. “I would love to see a more holistic approach to preservation,” Skiba says, “one where local residents are leading the charge to protect sites that matter to them.”

Wonderfully Messy Complexity

Anastasi Seafood, located at 9th and Washington since 1996, and in business at the market for more than 80 years, will be demolished to build a seven-story apartment building. | Photo: Peter Woodall

In the end, organized and vocal community advocacy could not save Jewelers’ Row. And ultimately, the fate of the Painted Bride may hang on the value assigned to Isaiah Zagar’s one-of-a-kind mosaic rather than on the performing arts venue’s significant contributions to Philadelphia’s jazz culture or its transformative impact on post-industrial Old City. Even a place as vibrant and vital as the Italian Market is vulnerable. The phenomenal success of Barbacoa may demonstrate that historic places need to be actively used and adapted to stay alive. But with none of the buildings in the Market listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, the area may soon see its first new, large-scale development project. New York-based developers plan to build a seven-story apartment building at the corner of Ninth and Washington, replacing Anastasi Seafood, a market mainstay of more than 80 years. While the new building includes space for ground floor retail, there’s no guarantee that rents will remain within an affordable price range. And if this new development is a sign of shifting times for the Market, there’s no telling what the impact might be.

fter remarkable success, first out of a food cart and then at 1703 S. 11th Street, Barbacoa’s Christina Martinez saw an opportunity to infuse some energy into the Market when her team was searching for a bigger location. “I saw business leaving the Italian Market and thought I could bring life back into it. I looked all over the city,” she says, “but came to the Italian Market because there is no other community like this one. I felt safe here. The Italian and Mexican cultures have come together here as one.”

The qualities that drew Martinez to the Italian Market are the aspects of “living heritage” that can be toughest to protect, especially by conventional approaches to historic preservation. Revising those conventions, recognizing that the diverse heritages embodied in our built environment need to be shared, recorded, and passed on, presents an exciting challenge for preservationists. By innovating ways to protect cultural heritage in all the wonderfully messy complexity that term implies, preservationists can ensure that places like the Italian Market continue to collect more layers of tradition and history and retain their vital essence, which has always accommodated change.

Beyond Buildings: Recognizing Legacy Businesses

Dirty Frank’s at 13th and Pine is a legacy business and a beloved Philadelphia institution. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Owner Jody Sweitzer calls her bar, Dirty Frank’s, “the institution.” And that it is. The neighborhood standby opened in 1933 and has occupied the northeast corner of 13th and Locust ever since. “The collective crowd that calls Frank’s its living room is really wonderful,” Sweitzer says. She’s worked there for 27 years herself and owned the business for seven. But Sweitzer worries that the bar’s future in Center City, where rents have been steadily increasing, is not necessarily guaranteed. “Some places are lucky enough that they own the bricks,” she says. As a renter, she worries about the impact of tax and rent hikes on a bar noted for its broad socioeconomic appeal. “We like to span the gamut,” she says. “Our special is $2.50 and we have $2 can of beer.” Spots like Frank’s contribute just as much to the culture of a place as the buildings that they occupy.

That’s the idea behind Legacy Business programs, an increasingly popular tool for recognizing the less tangible — but no less meaningful — contributions bars, restaurants, workshops, factories and commercial businesses make to our city’s cultural identity and vitality. San Francisco introduced its Legacy Business Registry in 2013. That program offers Business Assistance grants and incentivizes landlords to provide long-term leases to registered businesses. Other cities have adapted or are considering variations of this model, tailoring incentives and benefits to fit their particular locale.

In 2018 the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance kicked off the #ISeeALegacy campaign to raise awareness of Philadelphia’s legacy businesses. Sweitzer says she’s happy to see any kind of support for longstanding businesses. “The legacy building is definitely struggling to stay legacy. But the importance of Frank’s as an institution is something that I am going to continue to fight for.”


About the Author

Starr Herr-Cardillo is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. When she’s not covering local preservation issues or writing editorials for Hidden City, she works as a historic preservation professional in the nonprofit sector. Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, Herr-Cardillo was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She holds a Certificate in Heritage Conservation from the University of Arizona and an M.S. in Historic Preservation from PennDesign.

One Comment:

  1. Randal Cowles says:

    The article erroneously states Dirty Frank’s is located at 13th and Locust. Dirty Frank’s is located at 13th and Pine. This small error aside, I found this to be a thought-provoking article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.