How Scranton’s Hispanic community is driving the rebirth of the city’s South Side

‘When you drive through the streets it seems nice, everyone smiles,’ merchant Michelle Lloyd said

By: - April 18, 2023 7:22 am
Gerardo stands behind the bar at Italo’s (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla).

Gerardo Sanchez stands behind the bar at Italo’s (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla).

SCRANTON, Pa. – The sun shines down from a cold, gray April sky as customers make their way into the South Side Farmers Market. When the weather warms, the market will move outdoors and a block up Cedar Avenue. For now, the shoppers mingle with vendors inside a refurbished storefront. 

Kati Beddow Brower, who makes a 20-mile drive from Gouldsboro each Saturday, shows off her art. 

Customers admiring her work might notice shoppers heading into La Chingada, a Mexican restaurant across the street from the market that can be seen through the window behind her.

Beddow Browder appreciates the community she’s joined at the market, which is run by United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization that serves low income families, seniors, young residents, and immigrants. The century-old organization works to bring house, economic opportunities and education, among other services, to those groups. 

“Not only do I like the directors and the vendors, many times you see the same customers, and you get to know them,” she told the Capital-Star. “Every single person is nice.”

The market attracts a vibrant mix of people, some lifelong residents of Scranton’s South Side, others come from the city’s developed Hispanic communities, and some from its emerging immigrant communities.

It’s a far cry from the South Side of 15 years ago.

Scranton’s withering economy at the turn of the century hit the South Side neighborhood particularly hard. Prostitutes and drugs were common on some street corners. 

“[Cedar Ave] had its problems and decades of decline,” Marty Fotta, the vice president of community relations for the United Neighborhood Centers, told the Capital-Star. “It gradually went downhill.”

The city and such groups as United Neighborhood Centers have spent time, talent and treasure for a decade attempting to spruce it up. The results are showing, especially thanks to Scranton’s growing communities, which have opened many restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses. 

While there are still some vacant storefronts and dilapidated houses, the improvement is noticeable.

“When you drive through the streets it seems nice, everyone smiles,” said Michelle Lloyd, a resident of nearby Carbondale, who sells pet treats at the farmers market.

Advocates such as Fotta and local elected officials such as city Mayor Paige Cognetti point to the South Side as an example of what works in Scranton. It’s a community that’s grown more diverse, with a lot of new businesses coming from immigrant and Hispanic communities.

Brian Mattson, a north Scranton resident who sells mushrooms at the farmers market next to Beddow Browder, agreed.

Mattson reflected on his first visit to the market as a shopper 10 years ago. Now,the street is cleaner, and more storefronts have businesses in them. 

“I think it’s a dramatic development,” Mattson said.

‘We have established a community’

Gerardo Sanchez smiles at a family as they walk into Italo’s Mexican Restaurant, a popular eatery in South Side. He stands in a fit, black Under Armour T-shirt behind the bar and watches the afternoon crowd grow. 

He walked into the restaurant in 2017 just looking for a job. Now, a recent University of Scranton graduate, he’s proud of what the Hispanic communities have done in South Side.

Walk up and down the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares — Pittston and Cedar avenues — and you’ll see several groceries, restaurants and other businesses, such as Chicano’s, Floresitas Bakery, La Mexicanita and Brooklyn Deli. Walk along the back streets and you’ll hear people speaking  in English, Spanish, and a few other languages.

“We have established a community,” he said, referring to Italo’s. But also South Side, in general. He  said he knows the new businesses have improved the area, but also, “I think South Side has made us better.”

Connecting with South Side’s traditional German, Irish, and Italian communities has been a blessing and a challenge, Sanchez said. Like any other new businesses, these places had to put in the work.

“It means long hours,” he said. “There are no shortcuts around it.”

Sanchez said he thinks the community has been pretty welcoming, and he wants people to get an accurate picture of the diverse Hispanic communities in the city.

Some, like him, a graduate of Dunmore High School, grew up just outside the city and have lifelong connections to the region. Others are coming from big cities, or directly from other countries. 

Sanchez, who graduated with a degree in finance, wants to continue to help the community. He sees a lack of financial literacy that needs to be addressed.

Older members of the community with more financial success need to invest in themselves, he said. There just aren’t enough people reaching into the community to help in that area, he added.

As a first-generation college student, he had to traverse the complicated field of financial aid. Others, with more of a language barrier, might be even further behind the curve.

Behind the bar at Italo’s

Before it was Italo’s, it was Tom & Jerry’s.

Customers flocked there for pizza and other traditional American fare from 1977 to 2001. Images of classic cartoons, such as  Tom and Jerry, or Dagwood, from the classic “Blondie” newspaper strip, adorned its walls. Its basement had a room customers used for parties. 

Efforts in the early 2000s to bring the restaurant back weren’t successful. But the space found new life when Italo’s moved to the building in in 2010.

That was at the beginning of the Hispanic restaurant boom in the area.

According to Adam Shprintzen, an associate professor of history at Marywood University who specializes in food and ethnicity and diversity, restaurants are a sign of a healthy immigrant community. . Successful restaurants show economic growth and opportunity. 

“It simultaneously introduces people to new things.,” he said, “But through those differences you see commonalities.”

Now, hungry residents and visitors to South Side can still find American fare like the Texas wieners at Yankee Lunch, pizza at Bella Pizza and Pasta House or Vince the Pizza Prince. But other now-traditional American fare such as  tacos and burritos are available at Chicanos and La Mexicanita.

Shprintzen pointed out that every emerging community in America has added its own flavor to the American experience. At one time food from Italian immigrants was considered exotic. Now, Italian grocers, such as  Catalano’s in West Scranton are local landmarks.  

“The history of immigration to this part of the world is tied to food culture,” he said. 

Shprintzen, who has lived in such big cities as  Chicago and New York before moving to Northeastern Pennsylvania, said the region has a more diverse menu of food options than most places its size.

“I think it’s a little bit of a food gem, and the more that locals are aware of that the better it becomes,” he said, comparing it to larger Philadelphia and New York. “I think that is kind of what makes this area kind of cool.”

Scranton mayor Cognetti regularly touts Scranton’s food diversity, though she admits she’s fond of the Hispanic flavors in South Side

“The food is awesome,” she said. “When it’s mom’s turn to pick take out, it’s always a Mexican restaurant in South Side.”

She’s not alone in appreciating the flavor.

The University of Scranton held a tour of Mexican and Salvadorian restaurants in the fall of 2021.

Cognetti and others said they see the recent success in South Side and want to bring those changes to other parts of the city.

Visitors to the farmers Market can see the Mexican restaurant behind Kati Beddow Brower’s artwork (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla).
Visitors to the farmers Market can see the Mexican restaurant behind Kati Beddow Brower’s artwork (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla).

At the Farmers Market

As he sells his his mushrooms in the farmers market, Mattson said he’s proud of the way most Scrantonians have welcomed the growing communities. 

“We’re pretty inclusive,” he said, though he admits some residents are hesitant to show any optimism about changes to South Side. “The revitalization is tremendous. I just wish it would spread throughout [the city].”

Cognetti and the officials at the United Neighborhood Centers hope to replicate their success in one of the city’s northern sections, Pinebrook. 

Mattson points out the city has its fair share of skeptics. “Half of Scranton doesn’t like new ideas, and the other half loves them.”

This year, after more than 30 years, Scranton exited the state’s distressed cities program. It was supposed to be in the program for three years.

“Half of Scranton doesn’t like new ideas, and the other half loves them,” Mattson said.

Fotta, the community relations official for the United Neighborhood Centers, checked off the list of the group’s efforts in South Side.

Sometimes it was simple things such as  purchasing trash cans and more lighting. Other times it was complex, like bringing old buildings back to life. 

It was also about making sure housing was more affordable.

“It’s a better place,” he said. “There’s a diversity there, and (the old communities) are all still there. … We didn’t want to gentrify anything.”

Mattson said housing was crucial.

“It was plagued with bad landlords,” he said. “Now there is fair housing.”

Another issue was getting funding to new businesses that could help them with things like their facades.

Scranton officials were able to capitalize on some of the American Rescue Plan funding in those efforts. A restaurant, for example, that had a beautiful, clean interior could spruce up its exterior thanks to some of those grants.

“We’re really in a beautiful time” when it comes to that type of funding, Cognetti said.

She’s particularly proud of a comment she heard at a public event that the city is “not just giving grants to the usual suspects.”

To Cognetti, that means everyone has a seat at the table. 

Her office is continuing to make efforts to reach emerging communities, and like others, she’s quick to point out it’s not just an area of Hispanic growth. 

Today, the emerging Bhutanese and Congolese communities in Scranton are what the city’s established Lebanese and Italian communities were a little more than a century ago.

So the city is trying to make sure it breaks down language barriers, as well as familiarity barriers. Some of those communities are coming from places where the government didn’t have a goal of helping them, Cognetti said.

“There’s a hesitation to engage with government,” she said. She wants those Scrantonians to know business is open for them, too.

Recently, news broke about more growth in South Side.

A $1 million grant secured by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., will help the United Neighborhood Centers transform a bank near the farmers market into a business support and welcome center.

Local developer John Basalyga has purchased the prominent century-old Nativity convent and school from the Diocese of Scranton. 

The parish, which has strong Hispanic attendance, is now known as St. John Neumann, and it will continue while the convent and school will become apartments.

“While it is certainly sad to see our beloved school and convent sold, we should gain comfort in the knowledge that they will be used for a wonderful purpose, to provide housing in our neighborhood,” the parish’s pastor, the Rev. Jonathan Kuhar, told The Scranton Times-Tribune. “… These wonderful buildings will continue to provide life to our community and help reinvigorate the South Side. This is just another sign that South Side is growing and being reinvented.” 

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Patrick Abdalla
Patrick Abdalla

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.