Yo! Put out those fires!
For generations, merchants at their stalls in the open-air Italian Market - a Philly tradition along with the Liberty Bell and soft pretzels smeared with mustard - have warmed their hands around roaring trash fires in metal drums. And millions of moviegoers watched doo-wop singers crooning around street fires in "Rocky."But in a state where clean-air laws have banned the burning of leaves for years, the street fires of South Philadelphia must go, says city Managing Director James White. He wants the fires doused by Jan. 7.
Produce vendors at the Italian Market paused between sales Thursday to say they'll probably obey, but not cheerfully.
"I was born here in 1928 and there's always been fire cans on this street to keep warm," said Anthony Messina. "But times change. What can I do? What can I say? I'll probably get a kerosene heater, but I don't like it."
Next door, Lawrence Lacovara, 31, fed cardboard boxes and boards into a steel-drum fire. What will he do in two weeks, when the ban will be in force?
"Get a kerosene heater, probably, or a heater with a blower. It's going to cost more, though," he said.
Up the street Joseph Girado carved up empty produce boxes while his wife and son waited on customers. The cardboard went, piece by piece, into a drum 20 feet away, where the flames helped ward off temperatures in the low 30s.
"I don't see any damage from that fire, do you?" he asked. "That's a tradition. It keeps me warm. It keeps my customers warm."
"We're trying to make an honest living here. We're working like dogs - like animals. If I had any sense I wouldn't be here. We don't get any benefits, no paid vacation, no retirement - and now this."
City Councilman James Tayoun, who is going to bat for the vendors, said the ruckus started because of Health Department complaints.
"The merchants cannot physically operate without a decent source of heat," Tayoun said. "They've been there long before us. I see no reason we can't allow them to burn clean wood. If they burn other trash, they should be cited."
The federal Environmental Protection Agency isn't involved, but an EPA spokesman said putting out the fires is probably a good idea.
"Research indicates that any kind of open burning is a serious problem," said Lee Blackburn, an EPA expert on air quality. "A lot of particulate matter comes out. Inks, solvents and plastics being burned can release a lot of toxic components."
Standing over a roaring trash fire on Ninth Street, Pervis Adams was unconvinced.
"I think kerosene heaters give off as much pollution as this," he said. "What about fireplaces? Are they going to make people quit using them, too? Go look at junkyards, they're burning there all the time."