Since the time of its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, Point Breeze has been a no-frills working class neighborhood. It was first settled by Eastern European Jews, many of whom set up shops on Point Breeze Avenue and lived in apartments above their businesses. Italian and Irish immigrants soon followed.i Conditions were primitive: chickens in backyards were a common sight. By the 1930s, these immigrant groups were joined by African-Americans from the Deep South, who had come to Philadelphia looking for work and to escape Jim Crow.
During the nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s African-American community was centered east of Broad Street, near Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 8th and Lombard. The Great Migration, however, pushed the boundaries of the African-American settlement west of Broad Street to Point Breeze. This expansion often brought them into conflict with neighboring Irish-Americans, described by W.E.B. DuBois as the “hereditary enemy” of urban African-Americans.” ii Many of Point Breeze’s African-Americans worked for Center City hotels, the Pennsylvania Railroad, local factories, and city government.
Until the late 1960s, Point Breeze was a relatively stable, self-sufficient neighborhood. Its residents almost never went into Center City, as they had everything they needed within a few blocks of their two story rowhouses. At night, Point Breeze Avenue (known by residents as “The Breeze”) was illuminated by scores of shop signs advertising clothing, fresh produce, appliances, ice cream, and soda. There were two five and dime stores (Woolworth’s and Kresge’s), and the Curson family operated a dress shop patronized by residents for First Communion and weddings. There were also kosher butcher shops that catered to the still-large Jewish community.iii
“It was a very busy, beautiful area,” remembered Claudia Sherrod, whose parents came to Philadelphia from Georgia during the Great Depression. “There used to be over a hundred stores on the Breeze.”
Claudia spent her childhood in a rowhouse at 21st and Kater, just south of Fitler Square. The family had no refrigerator, indoor plumbing, or hot water until the early 1950s. As a ten year old, Claudia took the lead in beautifying her block by planting the first flowerbox. “It was a diversified community, with Caucasians and African-Americans living and working together,” she said. “We had a beautiful community growing up. I could go to anyone’s house and eat a meal. As children, we never looked at culture. We knew one was white and one was black and that was it.”
After Claudia married in 1959, she and her husband – who worked for the city — moved across Washington Avenue to Point Breeze. “It was a great place for raising our children,” Claudia said. “My husband would go to the Landreth School to play ball with the kids…I didn’t have to worry about my kids being out-of-hand. If the neighbors felt they were, they’d call me. And we don’t have enough of that today.”
On Sundays, Claudia returned to her old neighborhood to attend New Central Baptist Church at 21st and Lombard, where she had worshipped and sang in the choir since she was a child. “It was my whole life,” she said. “We lived to go to church, and we spent all Sunday there.”
Claudia and her husband raised four children and two grandchildren in Point Breeze. “My children recently told me we thought we were rich,” Claudia Sherrod concluded. “We were rich,” she replied “…with love.”
Claudia’s friend Alice Gabbadon, who grew up at 22nd and Dickinson, also had fond memories of life in Point Breeze. “After church, we would look in the store windows and fantasize about what we could buy,” Alice remembered about her childhood. “It was safe. We were allowed to go as a group to the 1700 block of Point Breeze to buy water ice.” When she wanted to go to see a movie at the Victory or the Dixie on Point Breeze Avenue, her mother would give her 16 cents: 5 cents for a bag of pretzels, 10 cents for the movie, and a penny for the tax.
Yet Alice realized she was not welcome in certain places. One day, she went to see a film at The Breeze, another theater on Point Breeze Avenue. But when she and her friends entered the theater, the white audience began harassing them. Alice stood in back, endured the tormenting, and never came back. There was no “Whites Only” sign, but segregation at this movie theater was an unspoken rule.
And at the 26th and Morris playground, Alice and her friends would wait for the white kids to get off the swings. They would often wait for a long time, then give up and go home.
Wharton Square, one of the few green spaces in the area, was a friendlier place for Point Breeze’s African-American community, popular with picnickers. The three story houses fronting the square were the largest in the neighborhood. During the 1950s, Wharton Square was the home of Congressman Bill Barrett, who made sure Point Breeze got its fair share of city services. “If you had a problem,” Alice remembered, “you were told to ‘Go see Bill Barrett.’”
The race riots of the 1960s — which triggered mass “white flight” –signaled the decline of Point Breeze as a self-sustaining, relatively integrated neighborhood. Many Jewish shopkeepers sold their businesses and moved elsewhere, part of a pattern that repeated itself throughout the city of Philadelphia.iv Then, like adjacent Grays Ferry, Point Breeze was hit by the heroin epidemic of the 1970s and then the crack scourge of the early 1990s. Residents went into alleys to shoot up, and often never came out alive. Houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair.
In recent years, however, groups such as South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. and the Universal Companies built new affordable housing to replace some of Point Breeze’s dated and deteriorating housing stock, as well as help entrepreneurs start new businesses on the decimated The Breeze. The Point Breeze Performing Arts Center, founded in 1984, has helped keep neighborhood kids off the streets with its intensive music and dance programs. During the past few decades, immigrants from Korea and Southeast Asia have moved to Point Breeze, steadily taking the place of those residents who left many years ago.
Alice Gabbadon is optimistic about the future of her native Point Breeze, citing rebuilding of businesses on The Breeze and positive involvement with members of the community. “We went through some rough times,” she said recently, “but now I think we are going through some positive changes.”
[i] “A History of the Point…” The Power of the Point: A Pictorial History of Point Breeze, July 1, 1996. Collection of South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S., Inc.
[ii] W.E.B. DuBois, as quoted by Murray Dubin, South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories, and the Melrose Diner (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1996), p.60
[iii] Nintha C. Johnson, “My Memories of Point Breeze: Businesses As I Remember Them,” The Power of the Point: A Pictorial History of Point Breeze, July 1, 1996. Collection of South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S., Inc.
[iv] Jennifer Lee, “The Comparative Disadvantage of African-American Owned Enterprises: Ethnic Succession and Social Capital in Black Communities,” from Richardson Dilworth, ed., Social Capital in the City: Community and Civic Life in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 2006, p.142.
Interview of Claudia Sherrod by Steven Ujifusa, July 21, 2010.
Interview of Alice Gabbadon by Steven Ujifusa, July 28, 2010.