It's 30 degrees and an icy rain is falling, but as Michele Gambino stands in the center of the Italian Market, she's feeling surprisingly warm.

Not from the flames snapping in the fire barrels.

But because in 10 days, a change four years in the making comes to the venerable market, one that Gambino and others believe will enrich shoppers and enliven the assembly of grocery stores, butcher shops, and restaurants that line Ninth Street in South Philadelphia.

On Jan. 1, the business-district association takes control of the market's iconic, outdoor rows of wooden stands.

Why is that important?

Because the stands, the modern equivalent of turn-of-the-century pushcarts, are the market's front porch, its open door, its most prominent symbol of old-world roots and charm, its advertisement for regular shoppers and first-time visitors to come and experience something they can't get elsewhere.

And right now, nearly 40 percent of the stands are vacant, others rundown.

"You see a stand that's a little dilapidated, and people say, 'Ah, what's happening at the market?' " said Dave Brown, who runs Talluto's pasta and cheese store.

What, indeed.

The change gives the market the ability to quickly fill empty stands and adjust the mix of businesses, maybe bringing in an artist or a crafts-maker. It comes as the 1880s-era institution is aggressively moving to secure its future, even as it faces the challenge of a fast-changing South Philadelphia and growing competition from suburban and Internet food vendors.

Stroll the market, and you hear merchants call out in Italian, the same as a century ago. But you also hear Spanish and Vietnamese. As always, you can buy selections of fine Italian meats and pastas, but also tamales and chorizo, and soccer cleats, and red-and-white jerseys of Chivas de Guadalajara, one of Mexico's most popular teams.

Last month, City Council passed legislation that transfers management of the stands from the government to the South Ninth Street Business Association. In the past, if a stand operator became delinquent on fees, or moved away, or died, the responsibility for follow-up lay with the city. Sometimes it was impossible to determine who had licensed the stands, much less where to find them and make them pay up.

So the stands sat vacant, making the market look dull.

"This is the next step in our evolution," said Gambino, business manager of the merchants' association. "By May, we hope to have every stand filled."

The Italian Market was born of the great European migrations near the end of the 19th century, as thousands of newcomers sought the familiar shopping areas of home.

Among a half-dozen outdoor markets that once lined Philadelphia streets, the Italian Market is the lone survivor. There were times when it easily could have vanished.

In the 1940s, a city magistrate led a health-and-fire-safety campaign to try to force the pushcarts to a new site - and certain death - on 11th Street. In the 1960s and '70s, the explosive growth of supermarkets and the entry of women into the workforce ended daily food shopping. In the 1980s, the market shuddered as old Italian families died off, nearby factories closed, and the city population shrank.

Today, many original businesses remain and thrive, even as the market, its customer base, and the surrounding neighborhood have evolved.

"It's ever-changing," said Tina Grassia, who runs Grassia's Italian Market Spice Co., which opened in 1932.

The Italian population that once was the market's lifeblood has shrunk by half in 30 years. Today, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic church at 10th and Dickinson Streets offers Masses in Spanish.

At Sixth and Ritner, what once was the Adath Shaloma synagogue is now the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple, serving Cambodian worshippers. The Bo De temple at 13th and Washington, home to Vietnamese Buddhists, used to be an Italian tavern.

Many of the Vietnamese who began arriving in South Philadelphia after the 1975 fall of Saigon settled around Eighth and Washington. Between 1980 and 1990, the city's Vietnamese population doubled, and by 2000, it had doubled again, to 11,608. Since then, it's grown 24 percent to 14,431.

The greatest concentration live in South Philadelphia, in the rectangle formed by Tasker and Mifflin Streets, and Broad and 18th Streets. There, they constitute 13 percent of the population, compared with 1 percent citywide.

Meanwhile, the Italian population has been dropping, census figures show. In 1980, people of Italian ancestry made up 38 percent of South Philadelphia, defined as South Street to the Navy Yard between the Schuylkill and the Delaware River. By 2010, that had fallen to 23 percent.

In real numbers, Italians declined from 70,771 to 36,789, according to the census.

At the same time, the Mexican population grew from 424 in 1980 to 6,037 in 2010, an increase of 1,300 percent. Mexicans now make up 4 percent of South Philadelphia, up from less than 1 percent in 1980.

The area around the market has become quite diverse, with 29 percent of residents either Latino or Asian, and African Americans accounting for a further 8 percent.

More immigrants are establishing businesses in the market, "and I say, 'Thank God,' " said Mariella Esposito, who owns Fante's kitchen wares shop.

Always, she said, the market has been a place of immigrants, of people who took hard work as a given and knew they didn't need English skills to sell vegetables. Esposito was 17 when she got a job at Fante's in 1970, hired because the store needed someone who could speak Italian.

Today, Jonathan Rivera helps his father run Tortilleria San Roman, known for its fresh tortillas. Ernesto Atrisco owns Lupita's Grocery Store and with a partner also runs a restaurant.

"My business is down," said Atrisco, who blames a slow economy and competition from other Mexican stores. "They keep opening up and opening up. It's like a cake. You slice it 10 ways, it's a larger slice. Twenty ways, it's going to get smaller."

The Italian Market, a living symbol of tradition, has moved on to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Di Bruno Bros. runs a large catering and Internet-sales operation, and you can buy Talluto's pasta at Acme.

Eighteen months ago, the market opened a visitor center, creating a base where people can get maps and directions - and access to a public bathroom. After quickly expanding to six part-time employees, the center expects to soon hire a seventh, as "stand manager."

Of the market's 140 stands, 87 are active and 53 are empty.

Business leaders say that will change - and soon. Starting next month, vendors will pay their fees to the association, and the association will pay a lump sum to the city. Delinquent stands will revert to the association.

"Having control of the stands is going to make the experience of the customer better," said Brown, who has worked for Talluto's since the 1960s. "I'm excited for it."



Inquirer staff writer Casey Thomas contributed to this article.