16 December 2007

Speak English or starve: The Philly cheesesteak saga continues

It's back in the news again.

On Friday, December 14, a hearing was held here in Philadelphia on whether Joey Vento, owner of the popular South Philly cheesesteak shop Geno's, violated non-discrimination policies when he put up a sign that reads: "This is America. When Ordering, Speak English." A decision by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations is at least two months away.

This has been a very divisive issue in Philly and beyond ever since it first hit the news in 2006. People seem to have very strong feelings about this -- those who are offended by the perceived bigotry vs. those who seem to be offended by foreigners and immigrants who aren't so fluent in English.

A very amusing aspect to the story is that, when you visit Geno's or any of several other cheesesteak shops in Philly, the ordering hardly sounds like English:

"Gimme a Whiz, wid."

"Provolone widdout. Scoop it."

At Geno's, this is the "English" you must speak in order to get your cheesesteak quickly and with minimal harassment.

That irony aside, when this issue first hit the news, I found the sign offensive, and I still do. My immediate reaction was that it is discriminatory and should not be allowed. But then I cooled down and started to look at it as a free-speech issue. And this is exactly the argument that Vento's attorneys are using.

Let Vento keep the sign up, I thought, and let fair-minded people boycott his shop and support Vento's competitors, like Pat's Steaks across the street. Money talks.

But then I heard the argument set forth at Friday's hearing by Rev. James Allen, chairman of the Commission, who said that the sign at Geno's reminded him of signs he saw while growing up in the segregated South.

And I thought about my own Grandma Leoni, who immigrated from Italy in the early 20th century but never really got a good grasp on the English language. She was loved by all in her neighborhood, even though her English was very poor. She was a warm and kind-hearted person, always ready to set another place at the table. And people gladly made the extra effort to communicate with her.

If Grandma Leoni were alive today, how would she feel about that sign at Geno's?

Isn't Vento himself a first- or second-generation Italian American? Did his grandparents speak English as fluently as he would like to require of his customers?

What would Grandma Vento think?

Finally, we need to think of the tourism industry. What does Vento's sign say to all the people from around the world who visit our city and want to experience our most famous cuisine? If Philadelphia is ever to be seen as a world-class city, can we as a city really condone this kind of apparent discrimination?

I said it when this issue first arose in 2006, and I want to end with it again: Philadelphia is supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love, not the City of Xenophobic Bigotry.

Philly's own Ben Franklin, that great proponent of brotherhood and tolerance, is surely spinning in his grave.


  1. Hey Mary: I don't know this guy, don't know the shop. But, do you suppose he means that people should speak a dialect South Philly American English or merely have taken the time to learn English to the best of their ability, and employ it when they order? I'm serious that I don't know the answer to this. If that is the case, whatever. Go to the shop or boycott it. It is a weird idea, though. Did he have people coming in presuming he would understand their Mandarin or Quechua? When it comes to government/public issues, not being able to speak comprehensible English seems like a real indulgence, one that the SF-area public transit authority engaged in. Frequently a Muni driver would seriously be unable to make himself or herself understood AT ALL. Considering they are responsible for people's lives, this seems a real terrified-by-looking-like-a-racist policy. But cheese-steaks? Delicious, but not life threatening.

  2. Curt -

    Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    Have you ever traveled to a country where you were not fluent in the language? Perhaps on a group tour or a business trip? Assuming so, did you get hungry?

    How would you have felt if you had walked into a restaurant in, say, Paris or Beijing, only to see a sign saying that you must be able to speak the native language in order to be served?

    And what about my Grandma Leoni? Should Joey Vento have turned her away rather than take the extra 10 or 20 seconds to interpret her pointing and sign language in order to take her order?



  3. Yes. I've traveled extensively. The last time I learned enough Latvian to order coffee and beer. And in case it wasn't clear in my rambling note: I'm not supporting Mr. Cheesesteak. I just had some questions, which I asked and you didn't answer.

    Hopefully, I have answered yours. Regards.