Philadelphia made national headlines when police greased the city’s lampposts and street signs to prevent revelers from climbing the poles during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run.
The grease pole tradition continued on Sunday in South Philadelphia, but this time in a sanctioned competition at the annual 9th Street Italian Market Festival.
The tradition has origins in Italy, where it is known as the “Albero Della Cuccagna,” and tests the mettle of those brave enough to try. In fact, the grease pole returned to the Italian Market in 2016 after a near 20-year hiatus due to liability concerns.
At the top of a 30-foot pole, greased with lard, hang prizes including pieces of cured meats, balls of mozzarella, and envelopes of money. But the main goal for those who attempt the climb are bragging rights.
The contest is a team sport — organized or impromptu. Bigger members of a team must act as a base as smaller, more nimble climbers create a kind of human pyramid by standing on each others’ shoulders. Some teams came prepared with leaders and game plans, while others just winged it.
Tyler Dallas of South Philadelphia was the first volunteer on Sunday, and he got a rude awakening as he tried to scale the pole on his own. Dallas slipped and fell onto the mat in about one second, and he was quickly joined by the much larger Mike Sirera of Lancaster, Pa. The pair gave it a go, but quickly realized a team of two wouldn’t cut it. They were then joined by a small rotating cast of spectators-turned-participants, but could not get the manpower needed to reach the top.
As this rag-tag team was near giving up, a larger, more organized team called David’s Mighty Men swept in with beach towels to help make it to the top. The group of young men piled on top of each other and reached the top of the pole with relative ease, tossing a piece of cured meat down in to the crowd on 9th Street.
Next up was a much-touted South Philly group whose members make the climb successfully each year. The men stack themselves wisely and with relative fearlessness. Even when faced with a torrential downpour, they attempted the climb anyway. While the first attempt in the rain was unsuccessful, once the clouds parted, the group was joined by newcomer Dallas and veteran climber Nick Cordisio who was able to make his way to the top of the pole several times. Cordsisio climbed with the confidence and at such a quick pace, he could mistook the top of a teammate’s head for a shoulder on his way to the top, where he tossed down as many prizes as he could get his hands on before the men at the bottom began to buckle under the weight.
Lindsay Lazarski contributed reporting.