Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
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July 19–26, 2001


There Goes the Neighborhood

Bella Vista residents’ battle with a decades-old family business shows just how much the community has changed.


Booted Out: Some Bella Vista residents have requested that Brocco’s smarten its image, starting by removing its large signs and awning.

photo: Christina M. Felice

When Lydia Hunn moved to Bella Vista 27 years ago, she never guessed she’d witness an astonishing neighborhood transformation. Though she is pleased that her property is now worth several times what she paid for it, there’s a lot she misses about the old, once largely Italian-American neighborhood. "I relished the village feel of it," she explains. "The area used to be much quieter, and it used to be safe."

And it’s not just "South Street spill-over," as Hunn puts it, that has put the community "at risk;" she and several other neighbors say there’s an inside threat as well: 35-year-old Brocco’s Deli, at Sixth and Fitzwater.

Brocco’s was a candy store from 1955 until 1966, when it began selling beer and malt liquor and making sandwiches. Ryan Brocco, the 26-year-old grandson of founder "Sneezy" Brocco, is the manager today.

Some neighbors contend that over the past ten years, Brocco’s focus has shifted from making sandwiches to selling alcoholic beverages, malt liquor in particular. The neighborhood men that hung out there have either died or moved away, giving way to a noisy, disrespectful clientele, they say.

"When their grandfather ran the place," Hunn says, "you could get a decent cup of coffee and a sandwich. You could count on it being very safe on the corner at night. The opposite can be said now."

The deli "is in a state of disrepair," says another long-time resident, who asked not to be named. "There’s the Dumpster on the street. The physical presence is the biggest problem."

So a group of neighbors is saying that Brocco’s has become a "nuisance bar" and an eyesore. The Liquor Control Board cited the deli for selling alcohol to minors several times in the ’90s, and the interior supports the neighbors’ claims that numerous health- and building-code violations need to be corrected.

The Broccos see things differently, however. They say that newer residents want to tell them how to run a business that’s been in operation since 1955, in a location that’s been in the family for longer than that. Frank Brocco Jr., Ryan’s brother, puts it simply: "It’s changed around here."

In the wake of hard feelings and fallout from a recent zoning application, a sale sign has gone up at Brocco’s and some neighbors are crossing the street to avoid passing the business. How did it go so wrong?

The problem seems to be this: A family from old South Philly has collided with gentrification and a new approach to community that involves discussion of facades and zoning meetings. Surviving, with a few extra bucks, was enough in the old neighborhood; now newcomers are paying $250,000 for homes. They want to protect their investments. They don’t mind their own business.


Ryan Brocco stands behind the counter at Brocco’s on a recent sunny afternoon. Trim and clean-cut, he speaks softly and shrugs off his family’s "tough guys" reputation with an easy smile. He says that although he always thought he’d inherit the business, he got it sooner than he expected, after his father, Frank Sr., died of cancer in 1998. Running the deli, he says, "just sort of happened."

Around the middle of last year, Ryan applied to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance to change the business to an eat-in/takeout restaurant that sells beer and malt liquor. Brocco’s, it turned out, was still zoned as a candy store. A group of 10 or so neighbors, advised by Bella Vista Town Watch, saw the application situation as an opportunity to get problems with the location corrected.

The Broccos, more than one neighbor says, had been "unapproachable" about the matter. Response from city officials had been lukewarm up until then.

According to Hunn, neighbors concerned about Brocco’s got together six or seven years ago and approached then-Councilman Joseph Vignola. "He said, ‘I’d love to help you, but I can’t.’ That was interesting to me," says Hunn.

Vignola, who grew up in Bella Vista when it was still simply known as part of South Philly, remembers being approached, but says he couldn’t support them. "This is a family that has been here for 75 years," he says today. "The people that have been here and stayed are the reason [the neighborhood] can be gentrified. My own family was those people. [The city] wanted to put in a cross-town expressway around here at one point. We went through the good and the bad. Now that it’s a popular neighborhood, you want to come in and chase these people out, close a business down? I wasn’t going to be a part of that."

When a notice went up at Brocco’s concerning the zoning application, the neighbors began to discuss opposing the application, or offering support in exchange for concessions. They hired attorney Stanley Krakower and documented various code violations. They contacted Councilman Frank DiCicco, whose office created a survey to gauge neighbors’ opinions (overwhelmingly against the permit, according to the neighbors). Ryan Brocco didn’t attend neighborhood meetings, and let a lawyer do the talking.

It’s not clear whether Ryan regrets not paying more attention to the neighbors’ concerns prior to the hearing in April. But he signed an agreement — under pressure, he says, from the zoning board — that requires him to make changes to the building as well as the family’s business practices. Ending the practice of cleaning Frank Jr.’s vending carts on the sidewalk, for example.

In addition to complying with zoning and health-code regulations, the neighbors want Ryan to stop selling malt liquor and to limit beer sales to six-packs and drinks served at tables by waitstaff. (The business has never had the seating required to serve alcoholic beverages, and given the size of the place, this seems unlikely.) They also want extensive changes to the exterior, including the elimination of the awning and several signs. So far, the Broccos have not made any obvious changes and continue to sell malt liquor. The deadline for compliance is July 24.

"We’re not even sure what’s going on. I might sell," Ryan says. "The agreement has holes in it. I’m either going to get my lawyer to appeal it or we’re leaving."


Some say the neighbors haven’t approached the Broccos in the most productive way. "You don’t go through official [channels] to start with," says Vernon Anastasio, president of Bella Vista United Civic Association, and a resident who grew up in the area. "You go there and talk to the guys."

But the Broccos haven’t made that easy, according to residents who declined to be named. "They threaten people," said more than one.

Frank Jr. says many of the newer neighbors don’t understand what it means to be neighborly. "Years ago, everybody knew each other. If you needed something, you could knock on someone’s door. Now we don’t even know a lot of these people."

Rumor has it that the only reason Ryan applied for the variance is that L&I leaned on him. Ryan doesn’t deny that. "We started having problems with L&I," he says. "I said, ‘Okay, let’s get zoned.’" But he seems surprised that it wasn’t already worked out on paper. "We’ve had a beer license for 35 years, and we’re not zoned? Somebody wasn’t doing their job."

Anastasio agrees — to a point. "The folks who have dropped the ball are once again [those] in City Hall," he says. "The Broccos shouldn’t be made to be the villains here… We’ve been abandoned. This is what the neighborhoods have been reduced to. A town watch has had to become the police department and L&I inspectors. A civic association has had to be a ringleader."

Anastasio, is firm, however, in saying that the Broccos need to make good on cleaning up violations and prove that the business is going to be "an asset to the community."

Stanley Krakower, attorney for the neighbors, says that Ryan should take a hard look at what he’s been offered: a chance to make good rather than be shut down. Ryan could have refused to sign and the hearing would have become a trial before the zoning board; Krakower says he would surely have lost and been shut down. "[The neighbors] compromised. We were ready for a full trial."


"I can see them not wanting the sidewalk blocked [by carts]," says Frank Jr., while he cleans a cart on the sidewalk. "But they want my brother to take the boot down. What good will that do?"

The boot he refers to is a large sign in the shape of Italy. Krakower says the removal of the sign reflects a legality issue more than anything; he contends it’s bigger than allowed by law. Hunn says the sign lures people from that busy strip a few blocks away. "We don’t want the store to be an extension of South Street," she says.

An architect who has lived in the area for 13 years says the Broccos are stuck in a time warp. "In the last 10 years, half of the houses around here have been bought and fixed up. We’ve seen the upgrading of Cianfrani Park, and they’re spending over a million dollars renovating the [Café] Lido building. Right in the middle of all this, we have this ghetto place. The neighborhood around it has continued to change, and Brocco’s hasn’t even stayed the same, it’s deteriorated."

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