Now, some say that because of the efforts of a younger generation, the lower half is regaining its hip factor, slowly and organically, perhaps laying claim to being the last truly diverse neighborhood in the city. There are art galleries, colorful Mexican shops hawking wrestling masks and rodeo gear, restaurants selling more than pizza and hoagies, and the performance space that is Connie's Ric Rac - a same-name descendant of a knickknack store that sold radios, watches, and small electronic gear in the 1980s.
Back then, there also were food stands on the lower half. Joe Tartaglia Sr. had a corner spot at 1143 S. Ninth where he sold produce. His wife: the Connie of Connie's Ric Rac.
But as the 1990s loomed, things changed. The long-empty icehouse that stretched along Ninth Street fell into disrepair. People stopped buying from Connie's Ric Rac, so she turned it into a warehouse, selling her wares on eBay. The stands slowly disappeared, and Tartaglia converted his storefront into a storage unit.
There always was talk among businesspeople in neighborhood associations about everything from more trash pickups and better lighting to figuring out next steps. But, says Mignucci, they just weren't able to get organized.
Enter young people. In 2006, Tartaglia's sons Joe Jr. (a videographer) and Frank (a comedian who once wrote for MTV), with their childhood pal Pete Pelullo, emptied and cleaned Mom's warehouse at 1132 S. Ninth. With Dad's permission and free rent, they built a stage and held impromptu live gigs with Frank Tartaglia's Discount Heroes band. Top-notch local musicians such as Amos Lee, Dani Mari, and McRad's Chuck D held court. Connie's Ric Rac was reborn.
They're not making any money yet, but when the Ric Rac started jumping, people began inquiring about Joe Tartaglia Sr.'s other properties on the block.
Soon he rented out Ric Rac's neighboring spaces to vintage stores - a Barbarella hair salon and a small gallery named Bobo's - but none lasted.
Yet the area was gaining traction with young artists and professionals, attracted to the still-reasonable real estate that other hip areas didn't offer anymore.
"Buying a house or a business space down here, you get what you pay for: a nice space at a reasonable rate," says Live Nation booker Bryan Dilworth, who lives on 10th Street.
Two of his booking friends from Los Angeles and New York City wanted to open a large art-gallery space, but after looking in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, they found them to be too expensive. When Dilworth became their third partner, he looked at the usual areas: Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Old City.
"Too expensive," says Dilworth. "Too cold, too. Not neighborhood-y enough." So he bugged Joe Tartaglia Sr. about the unused corner warehouse across the street from the Philadelphia Archery & Gun Club.
T & P Fine Art was born in September, paying $2,000 a month in rent, Dilworth says. Since its opening, T & P has sold at least six paintings a month for between $100 and $1,500 - an affordable price range based on the reasonable rent.
Dilworth and his wife, author and community organizer Kristin Thomson, had moved from Pine Street a couple of years before, buying a house below Washington Avenue. The space was large enough to accommodate a growing family, yet was affordable. For folks having kids, South Philly is part of a busy cityscape, unlike the still seemingly remote Northern Liberties.
"The people who are buying and who live around here are young and hip, between 25 and 50," says Dilworth. "So is the foot traffic of visitors who come from all over New York City and Bucks County to hit the market. This block is really the only real melting pot left in Philly that hasn't out-priced itself."
On average, 2,000- to 2,500-square-foot homes in the area go for $200,000 to $300,000.
Soon after T & P opened, Teri's, a breakfast nook and luncheonette by day, became a linen-table restaurant by night, with Culinary Institute of America chef Davis Denick serving duck confit and brined pork chops. "I can cook anything you can find in Rittenhouse without having to charge those prices because of where we're located and where I buy my produce from - this neighborhood," says Denick.
The icehouse lot, now managed by New York City's Midwood Management, was rumored to be getting a building with retail space below and condos above. But that was before the economy's recent problems.
Joe Tartaglia Sr., a patron of the arts (he and his wife met as teenagers while studying to be sculptors at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial), is making several of his properties into artist and musician studios.
Gianna Dell'uomo, a 24-year-old painter, came to the lower half in July to rent a three-story rowhouse for $1,500 a month. Several other friends and fellow painters also came from West Philly to find affordable studios.
"We didn't even realize how close to the market and everything else we were when we moved in," says Dell'uomo. "But upon turning the corner onto Ninth, it was kind of like when The Wizard of Oz turns from black and white to color." She doesn't love the smell of the "bizarre Geno's cheesesteak/fishmonger combo," but she finds the super-secret music venues, sub-culture coffee shops, and Mexican bike stores exhilarating. "Plus, I love Fante's Kitchen Wares shop and the tiny grandma who peeks into my first-floor window on the way back from the Lebanese church every Sunday."
Now that Mignucci has been named president of the Ninth Street Business Association, his immediate goal will be tying together Ninth Street's two halves into a bustling whole.
Mignucci is closing DiBruno's Pronto upper Ninth Street sandwich shop in May and plans to reopen it in September as an osteria where you can, day and night, get a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta and hang out. Hanging out in Ninth Street's lower half didn't happen until Ric Rac. So now Mignucci and others are pushing coffeehouses - Gleaners in the upper half to Rim Cafe in the lower half - to stay open late. He's pushing to get more wine bars and trattoria-style restaurants to open down under, near the Mexican-operated Mr. Rodeo Western Wear, J&J's Pizza, and the Italian-American Labors Social Club.
And, at a meeting at St. Mary Church in late April, Mignucci, Tartaglia, and a host of their association's 75 members discussed bringing back the produce stands on Ninth Street's lower half - and filling them with organics from the White Dog Cafe Foundation's Fair Food Project for a farmer's market that would compete with Whole Foods. "It'll be like the old days," says Tartaglia.
"I'm tired of seeing young professionals dragging Whole Foods bags through the Italian Market," says Mignucci. "Rather than leave the neighborhood for groceries, art, entertainment, and a glass of wine, they could do it all right here."