BY MIKE WALSH I never met Joey Vento, but in 1986 I purchased a home about a block-and-a-half from Geno’s and the infamous cheesesteak junction (Wharton, S. 9th, and E. Passyunk). Back then, the intersection was popular, but it wasn’t the loud, crowded, 24-hour-per-day hotspot it is today. A large, stone church occupied one corner, and the other restaurants and shops you see today at the intersection had not moved in yet. The neighborhood was not in good shape in the mid-80s. Many homeowners had abandoned the neighborhood, and hundreds of single family homes had been converted to apartments. Each block also featured one or two empty, dilapidated homes. Many of my neighbors were elderly and living on Social Security. The south end of the Italian Market, just north of Pat’s and Geno’s, had many empty storefronts and was generally shabby. I occasionally ran into elderly Italians in the neighborhood who spoke no English, but that wasn’t a problem as far as I could tell. Why would I care what language they spoke?
At about that time, Frank DiCicco and others created a neighborhood organization to fight the apartment conversions. The organization got the neighborhood zoned residential and successfully opposed wrong-headed apartment and industrial conversions at zoning hearings. They also closed a nuisance bar on my block and kept a White Castle (with a drive-thru) from moving in at cheesesteak junction, which would’ve made the spot even more of a problem for neighbors.
I bought a cheesesteak at Pat’s or Geno’s occasionally, but the gruff service and poor quality drove me away. I would eat there only when I was too lazy to cook or go somewhere else. That was about once a year. I generally avoided cheesesteak junction. I soon learned that the gruff service at Pat’s and Geno’s was a tradition. If you didn’t order within seconds of your turn and with the right lingo (“cheesesteak with provolone and a medium Coke”), they rolled their eyes and snapped at you. They might even take the order of the person in line behind you until you got it straight. All of this was supposedly part of the character and charm of the intersection.
During the ten years I lived there, the Mexican and Vietnamese populations in the neighborhood expanded exponentially. By the mid-90s the neighborhood had numerous Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants. The food was better, the prices were good, and the help was more polite. Even though the wait staff often didn’t speak English, I somehow got them to understand my order. Coupled with the reasonably priced Italian restaurants already in the neighborhood, the area was great for cheap eats, even if you didn’t like cheesesteaks.
Asians immigrants soon renovated two of the shells on my block. And by the late-90s, artists, musicians, writers, students, and people who worked in Center City started moving to the neighborhood. Soon there were almost no unoccupied homes in the neighborhood. This were looking up, as were real estate values. As the neighborhood grew in popularity, the cheesesteak intersection did so too. The neon lights seemed to get brighter every year, and the intersection was deemed the most well-lit in the city. The intersection was frequently featured in national media representations of the city. It is the failsafe cutaway shot whenever Monday Night Football is in town, and no Presidential campaign is complete without a steak-in-the-mouth photo op. Joey decorated his store with thousands of police department badges, pictures of him with celebrities, pictures of Daniel Faulkner, and large red, white, and blue signs proclaiming his support for the military and police. He also opened a Harley shop next door and took to wearing large, bright necklaces and rings. Other restaurants opened at the intersection, as did a sports bar.
Late at night after sporting events, the place was packed, with traffic backed up in all directions, the drivers honking their horns and people yelling. Unfortunately, the cheesesteaks weren’t getting any better. The prices stayed exorbitant, and you could get a better sandwich for less at almost any deli, yet the hordes still came. The sandwich wrappers, drink cups, and straws migrating down the gutters from Pat’s and Geno’s to the sidewalks in front of our houses increased each year too. The south end of the Italian Market, between Geno’s and Washington Avenue, became primarily Mexican, with Mexican shops and restaurants filling most of the vacant store fronts. The stores had speakers outside playing Spanish music, and Mexican kids in hip-hop clothing hung out on the sidewalks. I could see how Vento might have felt intimidated by this cultural shift next to his store. The south end of the market was no longer Italian and Caucasian.
Then in 2005, Vento put up his infamous sign. “This is America. When Ordering, Please Speak English.” He got a lot of media attention, which he seemed to enjoy. Despite opposition to the sign, he vigorously defended it and became a right-wing celebrity, ranting about illegal immigrants on Fox News and talk radio. I’m not sure how he could tell the difference between legal and illegal immigrants, but he never seemed concerned about that. You have to wonder about the logic and purpose of the sign. Did some immigrant who spoke both English and another language choose to order a cheesesteak in the other language, thereby holding up the line and baffling the ordering clerk? The sign could not have been for an immigrant who spoke no English, because that person wouldn’t be able to read the sign or heed its message. Perhaps the intent was to scare immigrants away—small-scale racial cleansing. Or perhaps it was to amuse and appease Vento’s right-wing friends.
And like most right-wing celebrities, as soon as they taste fame, they make even more obnoxious, illogical, and nasty pronouncements. So Vento put up more immigrant-unfriendly signs, like “I am mad a hell. I want my country back” and “Joey Vento says, Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Deportation.” The ironic thing is that Vento profited from the very people he wanted to keep away. The improvements brought to that neighborhood by Vietnamese and Mexican immigrants brought more customers to the intersection. But Joey, with his grade school education, couldn’t see through his xenophobia. Or maybe he did, but he enjoyed the attention too much to admit it. Obviously, his harsh attitudes didn’t hurt his business.
Now, after his death, we hear of Vento’s many charitable donations. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t erase the disservice he did to the people who helped him gain the wealth to make those donations. His “Speak English” sign might’ve been forgiven if he had made a contribution to a school that taught English to the immigrant community, but I read of no such donation.