A change behind the scenes for iconic Italian Market stands

 Vegetables are displayed at a vendors stand at the Italian Market in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

Vegetables are displayed at a vendors stand at the Italian Market in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

One of Philadelphia’s most distinctive places will see a change behind the scenes on Jan. 1.  Control of the Italian Market’s iconic fruit and vegetable stands will move from the city to the neighborhood merchant association.

“Everybody eats,” observed Leo Pracopio, who has worked at Hollywood Meat Market since 1983.

“They want to fill up all the stands that aren’t used. And I think it’s a great idea. The more people you bring to the area. The more attractions you have,” he said. “Empty stands are definitely an eyesore.”

Early on the morning of Christmas Eve, lines stretched out of shops and down the sidewalk on the busiest stretch of Italian Market.

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The Ninth Street Association says the city, which has controlled the wooden stands since 1907, hasn’t made it easy to repopulate empty tables out front of the storefronts. In some cases, renters passed away, but new vendors never came in to take their place.

Michele Gambino, the association’s business manager, took a break from preparing Christmas dinner for 40 to explain the goals of the change in administration. 

“Since we are the only stand district that’s still in existence in the way it’s still in existence, the city sort of acts like it’s the last thing on their radar. But for us to improve it, we’re the ones who have to manage it. We’re the ones who have to populate the stands,” she said. “We have to take ownership.”

With notable exceptions – Mario Giraldo has operated his produce tables between Carpenter and Kimball streets for 50 years – the fruit and vegetable stands on the sidewalks are mostly run by more recent immigrants, who are mostly Latino and Asian.

Gambino says communication with these vendors is still in the early stages.

Joel Ramos and his wife, who have run their produce tables for seven years, said they have heard about the transfer of the stands.

“Here it doesn’t change anything,” Ramos said, in Spanish, “because things are already established.

When Gambino talks about empty stands — the figure is that 40 percent of the tables go unused — she’s mostly talking about ones south of the Hollywood Meat Market with its singing butcher, at the end of the Italian strip.

South of Washington Street, the brick and mortar businesses are mostly Mexican.

There’s going to be some effort to “shape” what  will go into the new stands. Gambino explains that the jury that will review applications will likely favor things more in tune with the history of the market, for example home-made bread and kitchen pottery over audio speakers.

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