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East Passyunk Guide: The Avenue, the restaurants and how Frank Sinatra got to be ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will be celebrating many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll cover their history, their demographics, their entertainment options and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love East Passyunk? Buy the stuff.

We start with East Passyunk. It’s home to arguably the most famous strip of restaurants in the city, history that predates the founding of Philadelphia, a woman who gave a signature singer his famous nickname and much more.

Boundaries

Broad to Sixth and Washington to Snyder.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For simplicity’s sake, we’re combining Passyunk Square and East Passyunk Crossing, using the Square and the Avenue as anchors for the area.

Population 

26,562

Population age 20-to-34

8,002 (30 percent)

Rent vs. Own 

4,627 to 6,042 or 43.4% to 56.6%

Median rents and median home values

Depending on where you live in East Passyunk, these values differ greatly. It’s much more expensive to live closer to Washington and gets less expensive the farther south you go. Click on the various sections to see the median rental prices and median home values.

Diversity 

East Passyunk has significant numbers of Hispanics and Asians, though it is still a predominantly white neighborhood.

Ancestry

The Italians and Irish dominate the neighborhood, and they have since the 19th century. Clearly only a portion of the population shared their ancestry.

Name Origin

Passyunk is a Delaware Indian word. Its meaning differs slightly depending on the source. It either means “a place of sleep,” “a level place” or “a place below the hills.” Oh, and it’s pronounced PASH-unk.

History

Passyunk predates Center City and almost everything else in Philadelphia. The Swedes started settling this area in the middle of the 17th century. When Billy Penn arrived in 1682, he established a treaty with Delaware Indians for this area that he called Southwark. It was split into two parts: Moyamensing and Passyunk. Passyunk back then stretched farther west, encompassing what we now call Point Breeze, too.

This ‘hood quickly gained a measure of historical prominence when George Washington housed troops during the Revolutionary War on Federal. But it wasn’t popular for many years. Southwark stayed separate from Philadelphia as its own district up until 1854. Until then, South Street was Philadelphia’s southern border, according to Murray Dubin’s book “South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories and the Melrose Diner.” Passyunk was largely for people priced out or purposely segregated from Philadelphia, home to immigrants, largely Irish, and blacks. The Southwark residents were notorious for picking fights or rioting over racial, ethnic and even religious tension.

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Things got better in the 20th century. Passyunk remained a melting pot, except the people of different ethnicities and races got along. Italians in particular started to migrate in large numbers to Passyunk and define the neighborhood.

Mexicans and Southeast Asians have been moving in since the 1990s.

Legendary Event

Legend has it, Frank Sinatra got his nickname “Ol’ Blue Eyes” thanks to a Passyunk woman. Connie Patrone, a longtime waitress at Marra’s, was in Miami Beach and saw Sinatra at a hotel in the 60s or 70s. As he walked by she said, “Oh my God, those beautiful, blue eyes.” Sinatra stopped and blew her a kiss.

Backdrop

What’s the real deal with Pat’s and Geno’s (9th and Passyunk Avenue)?

Pat’s came first. Its owners Pat and Harry Olivieri are credited with inventing the cheesesteak in 1930. Joey Vento opened Geno’s in 1966. Legend has it that the owners have been enemies over the years, but that’s probably not true.

Why East Passyunk has thrived 

Industry and East Passyunk Avenue (or as people call it in the neighborhood: The Avenue or Downtown)

According to Dubin’s “South Philadelphia,” the neighborhood began thriving because so many immigrants were coming. They literally got off the boat at the Delaware River by Washington Street and settled nearby, with Passyunk being one of those neighborhoods. Jobs beckoned nearby at the Navy Yard and at other industries along the Delaware.

The Avenue has always been important. When the Native Americans had the land all to themselves, they used the same path East Passyunk Avenue travels for a key trail. The new Philadelphians weren’t about to change that. For much of the 20th century, East Passyunk Avenue was the commercial hub for the Italian American community. They bought their furniture, shoes and Catholic school uniforms and dined at old-fashioned, “red-gravy” Italian restaurants.

Passyunk stroll

And now? The Avenue has gotten downright trendy. The beginning of its renaissance traces back to the early-aughts and the creation of the East Passyunk Business Improvement District and the restaurant Paradiso. It is now one of the most dynamic streets in the city. According to the East Passyunk Business Improvement District, it features 150 independently owned businesses, of which its restaurants are best-known.

Those restaurants still aren’t overly expensive or glib; they’re just really good. Food and Wine magazine named East Passyunk one of the 10 best foodie streets in America in 2013. Some of the most popular spots include Cantina Los Caballitos, Paradiso, Marra’s, Le Virtu and Stogie Joe’s.

What used to be

Wharton Street Field and Moyamensing Prison, at 11th and Wharton about where the ACME Supermarket is now.

According to “South Philadelphia,” Wharton Street Field was home to the Pythians, an all-black baseball team founded in 1866. They played home games against other all-black teams from Albany, Washington and Harrisburg at Wharton Street Field. The team’s star player was Octavius Catto. He was a civil rights activist who was assassinated on Election Day 1871. White gangs were roaming Philadelphia that day intimidating blacks to try and prevent them from voting.

Next to Wharton Street Field was the Moyamensing Prison. It was operational from 1835 to 1963 and demolished in 1968. There, America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes was executed.

Moyamensing prison

Also, Edgar Allan Poe spent a night at Moyamensing Prison in 1849 because he was really hammered. This was his cell.

Edgar Allan Poe prison

Best thing to do 

Hit up an event on the Avenue. There are so many to choose from. See a complete listing here, but know that it seems like one or two take place every month. They range from craft and flea fairs to the Avenue’s own restaurant week to holiday-themed pub crawls.

Take an Instagram here

The Singing Fountain, 11th and East Passyunk Avenue

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The Singing Fountain looks like a historical artifact, but it’s actually quite new, symbolizing East Passyunk’s 21st century rebirth. Councilman Jim Kenney is credited for coming up with the idea to build it.

Controversy

One of the crazier criminal cases of the 20th century happened in East Passyunk and elsewhere in the Italian-immigrant communities of South Philly. It involved three men who targeted largely Italian-immigrant women with marital problems. They would sell them new life insurance policies and have their gang murder a woman’s spouse, often by arsenic poisoning. The three men would receive a cut of the insurance money. This poison ring was said to have led to the death of anywhere from 50 to 100 people.

Alumni

Joey Giardello: Giardello was once the middleweight champion of the world. He famously beat Rubin (Hurricane) Carter to hold onto that crown.

Joey Merlino: Mob boss who used to sell coffee and cigars at the Avenue Cafe.

Willie Mosconi: The Babe Ruth of pocket billiards.

Historical photos from Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University Libraries

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