philadelphia history

Neighborhood Histories: Bella Vista

One of Philadelphia’s oldest and most desirable residential neighborhoods, Bella Vista is also among the most visited due to its abundance of restaurants and its famous outdoor Italian Market. It’s impossible to explore this charming neighborhood without falling in love with its shops, restaurants, and residents.

A veritable melting pot of nationalities, this historic area reflects Philadelphia’s ability to adapt to constantly changing patterns of immigration.  Bella Vista is bordered by South Street to the North, Washington Avenue to the south, 11th Street to the west, and 6th Street to the east.

Bella Vista History

Bella Vista is located within walking distance from what once was Philadelphia’s main port of entry, Pier 53, the Washington Avenue Wharf. From 1873 to 1915, a little over 1 million European immigrants came here directly from ports in Liverpool and Hamburg, bypassing Ellis Island.

Washington Avenue Immigration Station
Washington Avenue Immigration Station on Pier 53 – Image: City of Philadelphia, Dept. of Records

One of the first waves of immigrants to settle in Bella Vista was Irish, starting in the 1850s. Around the same time, former slaves from the South relocated to Bella Vista, establishing the Institute for Colored Youth in 1852 at 10th and Bainbridge. In the late 1800s, Italian immigrants began settling in the area in large numbers. Then in 1881, tens of thousands of Jewish peasants fleeing Russia and Ukraine migrated to South Philadelphia between South and Catherine Streets. Although many of these groups eventually moved to other sections of the City, suburbs, and Southern NJ, evidence of their former businesses, factories, and houses of worship can be found throughout Bella Vista.

Institute for Colored Youth Building Historical Marker 915 Bainbridge St
Institute for Colored Youth Building Historical Marker 915 Bainbridge St

Formerly known as Moyamensing, in the early 1970s, developers rebranded the neighborhood as Bella Vista (Beautiful View) and change followed. In 1978, this formerly deeply entrenched Italian neighborhood adapted to a large influx of Vietnamese, bringing with them popular restaurants along Washington Avenue. In the 1990s, Mexican immigrants arrived, opening taquerias, groceries, and other shops in the Italian Market. 

Historic Bella Vista: Walking Tour Highlights

Below are just a few of the historic sites recommended by The Bella Vista Neighbors Association:

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House at 1006 Bainbridge is one of the two Underground Railroad sites in Bella Vista. Known as “the mother of African-American journalism,” Frances Harper was a writer, poet, novelist, lecturer, and civil rights leader. She lived in this three-story house from 1870 until her death in 1911.

Tripoli Barber Supply Company is located at 606 S. 9th Street and was built in 1911 by Italian-American architect Enrico Coscia. Although the property has changed hands several times, the original signage is still visible on this historic building.

The Bozzelli Bank, 735-37 S. 7th St., was originally part of South Philly’s “Bankers Row”. Built in 1892, this elegant 128-year-old building was altered in 1903. 

Hope Engine Company, 733 S. 6th Street, was built in 1851–1852 by Hoxie and Button Architects. It originally served as a firehouse for Hope Engine Company №17. The firehouse was eventually disbanded in 1871, one year before the city created the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1872.  

Bring your appetite

One of the oldest and largest open-air markets in America, Philly’s Italian Market, simply called 9th Street by locals, runs ten blocks from Fitzwater Street to Wharton Street. Here are some of our favorite foodie destinations in the area:

Anthony’s – If you love coffee and chocolate, pop into this indoor and outdoor spot for breakfast or lunch for an espresso, panini, and gelato.

Claudio’s – This specialty food shop offers olive oils, extra-aged balsamic vinegar, specialty imported pasta products, imported cheeses, meats, and many other Mediterranean delicacies. Sampling encouraged.

Esposito’s – For over 100 years, this purveyor of prime meats has been supplying Philly’s finest restaurants and homes.

DiBruno – Visit the original DiBruno Bros location where the choices of cheeses, olives, and other gourmet Italian treats are endless. 

Fante’s Kitchen Shop – You can’t eat here but you can drool over the most extensive collection of kitchenware in Philly, from French rolling pins to Italian espresso machines and milk frothers. 

Isgro’s – Located at 1009 Christian St., a block from the Italian Market but not to be overlooked. This traditional Italian bakery offers some of the best cannoli in the City.

Anastasi Seafood – Visit this fresh seafood mecca to take out or dine-in restaurant and bar offering Philly’s best crabs, lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, etc.

South Philly BarbacoaThis acclaimed Mexican restaurant is headed up by Chef Cristina Martínez who won a James Beard Award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region this year and also owns Casa Mexico on 9th street. During weekends at this small restaurant, lines trail out the door, and customers gather at the outdoor tables to feast on their namesake slow-roasted “barbacoa” style tacos.

South Philly Barbacoa
South Philly Barbacoa – Image: Bon Appetit

John’s Water Ice – Youse want “wooder” ice and soft pretzels? This is the only legit place to go. Order lemon water ice for the real deal. 

Villa Di Roma – Do you like velvet Sinatra paintings and giant meatballs? Villa Di Roma is the spot for Sicilian-style specialties, heavy on red sauce.

No matter how many times you have been to Bella Vista, there is always a reason to return and immerse yourself in its beauty, history, and international flavor.

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