An Irish Village in Philadelphia: Grays Ferry

The area now known as Grays Ferry was named after George Gray, who maintained a floating bridge across the Schuylkill in the mid-18th century. He also operated a well-known pleasure garden popular with Philadelphians who, according to one guidebook, “sought a few hours’ relaxation from the cares of business; near enough to court the visits of the idler and pleasure-seeker, and abounding in facilities for rational enjoyment…”

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.

Nora McCarthy arrived from County Limerick, Ireland in 1909. Ten years later, she married Patrick Delargey, a wagon driver fresh from the trenches of World War I. The newly-weds purchased a rowhouse on Oakford Street and started a family. Patrick, like many men in Grays Ferry, took a job at the nearby DuPont plant. They had three daughters (Nora, Mary, Elizabeth) and one son (Jack). Tragically, Patrick Delargey died in 1932, at the nadir of the Great Depression. There was no welfare or child assistance, so Nora Delargey cleaned houses and cooked meals at a nearby convent to make ends meet. She also relied on the support of the community, which was full of friends and relations. Eventually, Nora’s family received a small stipend from the Mothers’ Assistance Program: $40 a month.

“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.”

The Delargey house was a typical Grays Ferry rowhome–most of the neighborhood’s housing stock was constructed between 1880 and 1910. It was two bays wide, with steps leading up to the front door. The first floor consisted of a parlor, dining room, and a kitchen in the rear. A narrow staircase led to three bedrooms on the second floor. A coal-fired furnace in the kitchen heated the entire house, but not well. Boys were usually relegated to the back bedroom, which was icy in winter. Although the houses were modest in size, they were almost always well-kept. Sweeping the steps, washing the windows, and polishing the doorknobs were weekly family rituals in Grays Ferry.

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.”

The years following World War II were an improvement from the bleakness of the Great Depression, but life for Grays Ferry residents was still basic. Most of the men still worked at the DuPont paint plant, which spewed waste into the river and fumes into the air. Others worked at Bond Bread, the Sun Oil storage facilities, or the slaughterhouses along the Schuylkill. After their shifts, men would gather for drinks at Tom’s Café, cheek-by-jowl with the Grays Ferry Avenue railroad tracks. Few families owned cars, relying instead on buses and trolleys to visit relatives in other parts of the city. House cleaning was still a weekly ritual. Step railings had holders where the milkman left a bottle each day. Some houses were still heated by coal and had cast-iron boot scrapers outside. A home telephone was still considered a luxury until the late 1940s. Because there were few public parks, kids still played on the streets, and fire hydrants gushed freely during the sweltering summer months. Toys were still mostly cobbled together from found objects. And although families looked out for each other, bullies and hooligans were constant menaces to Grays Ferry youth.

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.

Nora Schneider’s nephews Kenneth J. Powell Jr. and Thomas Curley attended St. Gabriel’s both for church and parochial school. For young Ken Powell, church was where he picked up his lifelong love of singing. “I sang in the church choir which required about two hours of rehearsal a week and two hours on Sunday,” he remembered. Yet he was pressured by his mother and the St. Gabriel’s nuns to be an altar boy, which meant dropping choir. “I resisted because I loved to sing. I finally succumbed and became an altar boy when a nun convinced me that smart boys should serve God at the altar.”

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.”

Churches in Grays Ferry were also rigidly segregated by ethnicity. St. Gabriel’s was strictly Irish. St. Aloysius was German. King of Peace was Italian. Few Irish boys dared go to Confession at King of Peace. Powell and his brother once did, and the parish priest told them to leave and never come back. Interactions between boys and girls were strictly controlled. Teen pregnancies were unthinkable. If they did occur, the girls were packed off to a convent for the duration of their “shameful pregnancies.”

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):

http://www.reverbnation.com/artist/song_details/1030839?play_now=true

Reference:

[i] Charles P. Dare, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore railroad guide (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fitzgibbon and Van Ness, c.1856), p.118-119.

Primary Sources:

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.

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