Market Matters: Ethnography of the 9th Street Italian Market

Introduction

The different societies that evolve around the world differ distinctively from each other. Most of these differences persist to date. Apart from the more evident cultural diversity that exist between people, such as their dressing codes, their language and even traditions, there are also marked differences in the way societies structure themselves, in their shared formation of ethics and also in the way they interact with the environment (Hughes 32).

I choose to carry out my ethnography in the neighborhood of the 9th street and especially the Italian market. This study aims at looking at the cultural diversity and the social interaction of the community that live there.

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From the large pharmacies, supermarkets play grounds, the community garden, the various eateries, and coffee shops, the artistic paintings, all acts together in attracting people from all occupations there. This, therefore, provides a good chance of observing the ways of life of people from different social backgrounds, and as they go about their daily businesses.

The population that lives in this area indicates a liberal, creative, and an upwardly mobile community. The ambiance is literally exciting to the senses and the mind. I collected most of my data from observation, but I also interacted with a few people, who helped me in supplementing my information.

Background

The 9th street at the 600 south of Philadelphia is a common street in the area because of the many opportunities it offers to the people around it. From big supermarkets like Super Fresh Supermarket, food courts, coffee shops, pharmacies and different types of recreational facilities, it acts as a one-stop shop centre for the people living in the neighborhood.

The street has for long acted as the dividing line between South Philadelphia and the City centre. This region was historically, acted as an area where the freed African prisoners worked and lived and formed an all-encompassing community.

It also served as a place where the Jewish business people met to conduct their businesses and for social gatherings, which is still the case today as the market is commonly composed of Asian business people.

There is also one of the largest markets in the town, the Italian Market, commonly referred to as the 9th street market. It is among the oldest markets in the country and was started in the late 1800 and it still operational to date. It is a famous place for neighborhood shopping due to its diverse ethnic eateries, and for its magnetism to visitors from different parts of the world (Ivory, 24).

As the number of businesses increased, the area came to be known as the Italian market. Due to lack of refrigeration facilities in most homes, it was therefore essential for the people to buy their food supplies daily.

The market therefore, offered a centralized and convenient place for the locals to get not only their food products but also other things like household goods and clothing. As times changed, so did the market to accommodate the ever increasing tastes and preferences of the communities and it continued to grow steadily.

Today it has grown to include big supermarkets, pharmacies, departmental stores, eateries and even play grounds. The sidewalks are usually busy during the day with shoppers and at night with diners, as the numerous quality eateries fill up with customers from near and far.

Even though frequented mostly by people from around, it is still one of the most popular destinations for tourists in Philadelphia. Most of the earlier stores are still there having withstood the tests of time, the carts still have wheels on them with canvas over hangings to protect the seller’s from rain and sun, and the side streets are still covered with corrugated roofs. Politicians still come to address their followers on the sidewalks during elections and most celebrities still go to the numerous stores to shop.

Observational Data

I choose to carry out my study on a sunny afternoon from 2.30 Pm to 5.30 because that is the best time that most people go shopping there. As I walk towards the street, I met with the strong and sweet smell of freshly brewed coffee, and baked pastries, which tempt me to inside and have some.

Dogs are a common sight and they can often be seen strolling with their owners, despite the fact that the health code in this area does not allow such things. They are usually tied up to lampposts whenever their owners want to shop, and this too provides a good opportunity to observe the behaviors of both the dogs and their owners.

Tattoos were also a common feature among most customers especially the young ones. This was usual in this neighborhood and in fact, most people complimented each other’s tattoos and other body decorations. There was a particular young man who had almost his body covered in tattoos, which he told me he had got from a holiday tour of tattoos in Thailand.

Most of the people here also seemed to have open offices from where they worked. It seems all was required was a laptop for the said work or for job hunting. There was this ever-busy man, who seemed to have an open office at the star bucks, which he totally declined to talk to me about. He continually thwarted my advances to talk to him by telling me that he had an appointment with another client.

I could see several customers streaming to where he was seated after every 20 minutes, where he listened to them while typing on his computer after which he would press the send key with obvious gratification and wait for his next customer. For all I know, he could have been anything from a businessperson or even a spy. Thrilled and even offered to explain to me what SEO copywriting was all about but it sounded very technical to me.

At around 3.30 pm, there was a huge inflow of mothers and fathers with their kids strolling in. The parents were here to bring their kids to participate in the different activities that take place here. The activities involved such things as baseball, ballet, martial arts, and tutorial lessons on different subjects.

At around four, a group of women came and occupied a full table, allowing their obviously pampered adopted Asian children to order what they wanted from the menus. I concluded that these might be some of the elite homemakers from the neighborhood who had come together to gossip.

However, from the way they talked, theirs looked like an official meeting and I therefore, decided to go there and find more about them. They told me that they were there for a formal meeting concerning their group. They had started a mutual support group for them and their children after discovering how difficult it was for their children and on them as parents whose skin color did not match those of their children, from the fact that they were adopted.

Some of the mothers were in pairs, indicating that some of them came from households with two mothers or from same sex relationships. Nonetheless, they were not discriminated against. However, none of these mothers was very comfortable with my presence there may be because I was not a parent. They were also not so willing to disclose much on the times and locations that they normally hold their meetings, and I deducted from their reluctance that they were probably concerned about their children’s safety.

As the day ended at around 5.00 pm, there were large numbers of people carrying grocery bags from some of the supermarkets and a grocery store, indicating it was almost time for preparing dinner. There was also the smell of take away foods from some of those bags, an indication that some of those people preferred to buy ready to eat foods rather than cooking. The people here however, do not go home that early. The market serves as a pub, a commons place, and a town square among other things and closes at around 9.30 pm.

Though most people were friendly and looked harmless, the one thing that frightened me was the stories on rapes and other attacks, which happened at the neighborhood’s coffee shop the previous winter, which is still freshly etched on the minds of the people here. I tried to get some remarks from the employees at the coffee shop, but they were rather reluctant and instead referred me to the Media relations department.

Before I left, I enquired from the people what was there before the market and got different answers from different respondents. According to a middle-aged woman, his grandfather used to own a grocery shop in the market, which was doing well in those days before other business persons came and took away all their customers.

She also said that the place was once a vibrant area with a variety of small scale businesses, with its own places for social gatherings like night clubs, movie theatres among other things which all catered for the relatively well to do African-American community around there.

According to one old day, the 9th street market was not much of a good a market today as it was before. She was also rather unhappy with the recent influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Central America, whom she said were overpopulating the area and making it unattractive.

Findings

From the information I gathered, I found out that the area is mostly made up of working mothers and stay at home dads. There were also many marriages and couples of the same gender. The women also, dressed more formally compared to the men who dressed casually.

This could be attributed to the fact that most of the women are working while most of the men stayed at home with the children. The market is largely made up of Asian merchandise. This is due to the increased inflow of immigrants of the Asian and Latino origin and merchandise from the South East into the area. Most people also use their laptops as their offices.

Conclusion

I must say that I really enjoyed my day studying then S Street neighborhood and especially the market. The experience was exhilarating but a bit challenging from the fact that, all the people were strangers to me and not connected to me in any way or from my campus.

On the other hand, it was also comforting that no one knew me there so, I did not feel like I was being watched too, which helped me to carry out my work freely.. Though I did not have any preconceptions on their way of life or their behaviors as a community, I however learned that people all over the world behave pretty much in the same way.

Before I started interviewing the people, I felt a lot like a researcher and I was not very comfortable with that. I was watching everything the people did while writing it down on the notebook that I had carried with me.

However, when I got the chance to talk and interview the members, they were very open and friendly to me. Most were comfortable around me, and we even carried out conversations that were beyond my area of study. This helped me to relax a little. Talking to them also made me feel less of an outsider, and instead helped me feel better about being out of my usual comfort zone.

Works Cited

Hughes, Holly. Frommer’s 500 Places for Food and Wine Lovers. New York: Framer’s Publishers, 2009.

Ivory, Karen. Philadelphia Icons: 50 Classic views of the City of Brotherly Love. London: Globe Pequot Publishers, 2011.

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