Annette John-Hall: A food festival bridges a neighborhood gap

Gabe Marabella, with wife Judy, and Lisa Wilson, (not pictured), had adjacent food-fair booths. (Clem Murray / Staff Photographer)

It was the quintessential Philadelphia neighborhood story.

Even more delicious than the flavorful meatballs handmade by Gabe Marabella or the chicken and mango salsa served up by Lisa Wilson was the friendship that developed between the two small-business owners, who on paper were supposed to be adversaries.

The story began during a Welcome America event at Penn's Landing last month. Marabella, the legendary meatball maker, found himself operating a vending stand right next to Wilson, owner of the Jamaican Jerk Hut.

You know the Marabella name. For almost 40 years, his family has owned restaurants here and in Stone Harbor. Marabella Meatball Co. continues the tradition on Walnut Street.

As fate would have it, the two eatery owners wound up working side by side for four days during the Taste of Philadelphia.

"We set up shop next to her. She was very helpful, very gracious," Marabella remembers of Wilson.

"She was a lot busier than we were. She worked and worked and worked. She was terrific."

Neighborly chit-chat over the course of the week turned into mutual harmony. Which is why Marabella decided to come clean with Wilson, even if it meant hitting a sour note.

"I might as well tell you," he said. "I live in the Symphony House."

"Oh!" a shocked Wilson replied. "You guys don't like me!"


Pitched battle

For almost three years, Wilson has been embroiled in a pitched battle with some residents of the Symphony House, luxury condominiums at Broad and Pine, over live reggae music she offers customers during the spring and summer on a lot next to the Jerk Hut. The Jerk Hut, on South Street between 15th and Broad, has been a neighborhood staple for more than 20 years, though Wilson is not the original owner.

The city's Zoning Board of Adjustment ruled last year in the Jerk Hut's favor, but that didn't stop Symphony House from filing an appeal in Common Pleas Court. Since my column in January, a hearing was postponed. The two sides now await a new court date.

"It's King Kong beating his chest," says Joseph Beller, Wilson's attorney, who said his client's outdoor season accounts for 70 percent of her business. "What Symphony House is doing is piling on."

Gary A. Krimstock, Symphony House's lawyer, did not return my call.

For her part, Wilson has tried the neighborly approach, everything from inviting Symphony House residents to dine at the Jerk Hut to offering to stop the music at 10 p.m. instead of 11, as approved by the Zoning Board. All to no avail.

Which was why it was so hard for her to believe Marabella actually lived in the enemy's camp.

"He was so nice," Wilson says. "He and his whole family were nice. . . . I guess it's not everyone at the Symphony House who doesn't like me."


Regrets petition

Ironically, Marabella and wife Judy were among those who signed the original petition to fight the Jerk Hut's music.

"But the more we found out, the more we [regretted] it," says Marabella, who was one of the high-rise's first residents after downsizing from Chestnut Hill four years ago.

Granted, the Marabellas' condo faces the north side of the complex, away from the Jerk Hut. But it's not as if they live in a monastery. If they wanted silence, they wouldn't have chosen to live on Broad Street.

"We hear the fire engines, and we hear the [parking lot] gate of the Symphony House going up and down all night, but it becomes white noise," Marabella says. It's all part of living in the city."

Marabella wishes the legal fight would go away, but is careful not to criticize his fellow residents. He loves living in Symphony House, loves that he can walk to work, loves his neighbors.

And that neighborly love now extends to Wilson.

"As a small-business owner, it's hard enough dealing with the city in certain aspects," Marabella says. "It's a shame, because [Wilson] was here first. . . . Just let it go."

That's what being a good neighbor is all about.


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, or on Twitter @Annettejh.