In 1880, the population of Italians living in Philadelphia was modest, according to an article by Stefano Luconi. However, in the years immediately thereafter, a wave of immigration would make Philly second only to New York in the number of newly-arrived Italians. During this first great influx, the settlement concentrated around what is today Bella Vista. The area between 7th, 9th, Christian and Carpenter Streets, shown in G.W. Bromley’s 1875 Philadelphia Atlas, was quickly transforming into something of a Little Italy.
As Italians continued to arrive in greater numbers at the turn of the century, they began to develop their own community and economy. This development proceeded with the added complexity created by a wide range of dialects and customs. Though the Italians had gravitated together in Philadelphia, they actually represented a diverse cross-section of regions and cultures. For this reason, many preferred to conduct business and seek services within the confines of their respective Italian sub-groups. This phenomenon is reflected by such structures as that which stands at 638 Christian St. today. The Banca Calabrese was erected in 1902 and was one of roughly two-dozen such banks, targeting the specific needs of different immigrant industries. The photo here below, taken from Old Images of Philadelphia, shows the bank in 1906.
According to Old Images, the large crested sculpture above the entrance is the coat of arms for Reggio Calabria. The book Italians of Philadelphia indicates that, based on its name, we can presume the bank was established to serve the needs of people that came from Calabria, which comprises the tip of the Italian boot. The text, The Ethnic Experience of Pennsylvania, notes that Banca Calebrese’s dealings were largely with construction companies and building contractors.
The article by Luconi notes that quite a number of these community banks failed to survive out of the Great Depression. Largely based on the lack of available information since that time, we presume the Banca Calabrese probably ceased operations in the early 1930s. The next available bit of information does not surface for another 70 years. According to The Commodity Traders Club News, the building was “a cigar wholesaler” in 2001. The photo below, taken from Italians of Philadelphia, shows the building as it appeared in the late 20th century.
Today, 638 Christian St. is home to apartments. Though the clock tower is gone and vinyl now rules the day, engravings remain visible over the doorway as evidence of the building’s past.