But as the nineteenth century progressed, so did the march of industry. As the same publication lamented, “the age of utility has shorn Gray’s Gardens of its beauties, and the ‘classic stream,’ which once echoed with festivity and mirth, now re-echo to the hoarse trumpet of the locomotive.” i The once verdant banks of the Schuylkill sprouted wharfs, tanneries, and factories. Brick streets and rowhouses replaced forests and fields. By 1900, Grays Ferry was a sprawling, working class neighborhood, home to a tight-knit immigrant Irish-American community. Its unofficial boundaries were Grays Ferry Avenue and 32nd Street on the west, Moore Street on the south, and 25th Street on the east.
“It was a poor time but there was such a feeling of unity,” remembered her daughter Nora Schneider. “People make a big pot of soup and shared it with their neighbors. My mother got sick a few times and a neighbor would do her wash. This was a time when there were no dryers, and you had to use a wringer. Everyone knew each other’s needs.”
Big Catholic families meant close quarters indoors, so young Nora and her friends made the streets their playground. Green spaces were few, and there were no trees shading the streets. Since money was tight, they made toys out of whatever they found. “We learned to use our minds and hands,” Schneider remembered. “We had to make our own entertainment. Kids made their own scooters and skateboards. We built snow forts in winter. We played jacks on the steps. We were proud of the things we built. It was a nice way to grow up.”
Yet dating someone from outside the neighborhood was not just taboo; it was dangerous. “If a boy wanted to take a girl out from Schuylkill,” Schneider remembered. “he’d come back from Schuylkill with a black eye and no girl.”
One place where the residents of Grays Ferry sought solace was St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church at 29th and Dickinson. The massive Romanesque structure was constructed around 1900, its foundations dug and walls lofted by the young men of the community. Its polychrome nave, resplendent with marble and stained glass, was a beautiful oasis in the heart of the stark, tree-less neighborhood.
As in Ireland, church festivals overflowed into the streets. “We went to church every day in October –the month of the Holy Rosary—and every day in May –the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary,” Powell continued. The climax of the May festivities was a neighborhood procession, “reigned over by the May Queen, usually one of the most pious eighth grade girls.” Church was a strictly formal affair, and social life in Grays Ferry revolved around the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Even for families on a tight budget, white gloves and polished shoes were de rigeur at Mass.
“Any holiday was a big deal,” remembered Tom Curley, whose mother Elizabeth had been May Queen in her home parish of St. Anthony’s. “You bought new clothes and planned big family celebrations and meals. You didn’t eat meat on Friday and every Saturday you had to go to Confession.”
By the early 1970s, racial unrest and a heroin scourge shook Grays Ferry to its foundations. As a result, many third and fourth generation residents who could afford to move out did so. “I had a great time growing up there,” recalled Tom Curley, now an artist and gallery director residing in Upper Darby. “The kind of upbringing I received sustains me now.” Ken Powell, now a municipal court judge living in Chestnut Hill, agreed with his cousin. “It was a neighborhood of great joy, but also of great anxiety,” he said. “I have a quick wit, necessary to survive cut-up fights…You always knew where you were and constantly looked over your shoulder…I have achieved a lot but am still unabashedly a Grays Ferry boy.”
Their 87 year old aunt Nora Schneider now lives in the Northeast. She still fondly remembers her immigrant mother’s reaction when she heard people singing nostalgically about Ireland: “I never want to go back!”
For a musical portrait of Gray’s Ferry, listen to “Tom’s Café” by neighborhood native James Curley (Tom Curley’s brother):
[i] Charles P. Dare, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore railroad guide (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fitzgibbon and Van Ness, c.1856), p.118-119.
Interview with Thomas Curley, June 8, 2010.
Interview with Kenneth Powell Jr., June 10, 2010.
Kenneth Powell Jr. to Steven Ujifusa, November 13, 2008.
Interview with Nora Schneider, June 9, 2010.