Piero Francisco: Singing, Dancing Mob Murder Witness


Curb Market – Southwest Corner 9th and Washington Avenue. May 23, 1937. Frank Siegner, photographer. Nearby was one of John Avena’s two gambling houses. (PhillyHistory.org)

Piero Francisco spent only three years in Philadelphia in the 1920s, and more than half of his time was behind bars. To earn this, Francisco had the misfortune to witness a pair of mob murders and the willingness to share what, and who, he saw.

Francisco was only following the lead of his employer Anthony “Musky” Zanghi. Talk about making bad choices.

Zanghi, owned La Tosca Café at 9th and Fitzwater, but Zanghi was no restaurateur. He was a gangster who hired Francisco, a down-on-his-luck dancer, to entertain café clientele. In the Spring of 1927, Zanghi was target of a failed hit that claimed the lives of his 19-year old brother Joseph, and Vincent Cocozza, an associate. After the shooting, Zanghi broke the code of silence and named names. He talked to the press, the police, the district attorney and the judges. But when it came time for the murder trial of Luigi Quaranta, the first of the assailants to face murder charges, Zanghi disappeared, leaving the State with Francisco as its one and only star witness.

Piero Francisco’s American tour wasn’t supposed to go this way. In fact, Francisco hadn’t even figured on visiting Philadelphia when he and his dance partner set sail from Italy for New York the year before. They planned to make their way to Hollywood and display their mastery of the edgy, new Apache dance style. But Francisco’s partner died while crossing the Atlantic. And having no luck finding a new one in New York, the “small, sleek-haired young ‘Apache’ dancer” made his way to Philadelphia where he earned “a comfortable salary” giving “dancing exhibitions” in Zanghi’s “cabaret”

Until the day of the Zanghi-Cocozza murders.

Iva, Avena and Quaranta - 1927

Joseph Ida, John Avena and Luigi Quaranta in a Police Lineup, May 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

“Dancer Replaces Zanghi as Witness, Names 3 in Slaying” reads one headline, reporting on the first of what officials planned to be a dozen trials of the six men charged with murder.

“When the court convened . . . Francisco, a pleasant faced, dark complexioned” man in his mid 20s took the witness stand. “His dashing brown suit, his patent leather shoes, and general dapper appearance contrasted strongly with his air of perturbation.”

Throngs packed the Court in City Hall (Room 453), where Judge John Monaghan presided. And they would not be disappointed.

“Do you remember Decoration Day,” Assistant District Attorney Charles F. Kelley asked his witness. “I do, replied the dancer in a low voice” beginning more than an hour of testimony. “Francisco’s identification was positive,” Philadelphians would learn. “His account of the double murder was clear cut and unshaken on cross examination.”

“I was within three doors of this restaurant when I saw a blue sedan automobile going down 8th st. I saw John Scopoletti at the drivers wheel and saw Quaranta in back with another man I do not know.”

“When Francisco pointed to Quaranta, the stocky, immobile prisoner’s face relaxed into a cynical smile. Then Mr. Kelley asked that the other defendants be brought into the court room. The atmosphere seemed to grow tense as the men came in, and many of the spectators rose and peered at the defendants as they entered in single file.”

“Looking over the prisoners with a hesitant yet deliberate air, Francisco pointed to Scopeletti, who was standing in the middle, and said, “That man was driving the car. Make him put on his hat.”

“With a half grin, not unlike the savage grimace of Quaranta when he was first identified, Scopoletti put on his hat and Francisco then said, emphatically, “That’s him. He was driving the car.” Francisco also identified Dominick Sesta as the other man with the shotgun sitting beside Quaranta.

“I went into a cigar store three doors from the restaurant and when I came out I saw Quaranta, Sesta and Scopoletti in the car. Then I heard shooting. The first shooting was very loud. The second shooting was like pistols. I could see smoke around the automobile.  The shooting was coming from the blue sedan they were riding in. There were about eighteen or twenty shots in all, and some of them sounded like pistol shots.” Francisco saw Joseph Zanghi fall to the pavement; he saw Cocozza being put into a car to be taken to Pennsylvania Hospital where he would be pronounced dead.

There had never been such a trial in Philadelphia. According to the newspapers, “The word went out in gangland to get” Francisco. The morning of his first appearance in City Hall, as the witness “walked along the street, downtown . . . a number of shots whizzed past him, missing him narrowly.” A few days later, Francisco “was awakened . . . to find the house where he lived burning and shots riddling the walls in a further effort to bump him off.”

To protect his witness, Judge Monaghan sent Francisco to the House of Correction. When Zanghi resurfaced, the Judge sent him there, as well.

After Quaranta’s conviction and sentence to life in prison, the other trials proved less successful. Some resulted in acquittals, others were postponed or never materialized. After twenty months of protective incarceration, Francisco and Zanghi were both released. Zanghi left Philadelphia for New York, where, in 1934, he would be killed in a fight over the spoils of an otherwise successful crime. (.PDF). Francisco, who gained fluent English reading novels during his incarceration, had no intention of staying in America. “Free Gang Witness to start a New Life,” read the headline.

Francisco had saved just enough from his daily witness fee to pay for a 2nd class ticket on a steamer to Italy. “Officials would not reveal the exact date of his sailing, nor the ship.” And detectives accompanied him as he left the District Attorney’s office, “a free man at last.”

In newly acquired, perfect English, Francisco “thanked all those who had helped protect him” and set off, the newspaper reported, “to live quietly under Italy’s Fascist regime” having had his fill of “America’s gangland entanglements.”

(Newspaper articles consulted at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center include “Dancer Replaces Zanghi as Witness, Names 3 in Slaying,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, June 16, 1927; “Free Gang Witness to start a New Life,” Evening Public Ledger, March 9, 1929; and “State Aids Zanghi Witness to Flee,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 10, 1929.)

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The Philadelphia Ice Cream Tradition of Innovation

700 Block of Sansom. 1963. DOR Archives.

Abbott’s Ice Cream advertised for sale on Sansom Street, 1963.

By Brady Dale.

With spring and summer upon us (not to mention an announcement that even Yuengling has entered the ice cream business, the history of local ice cream has been on our mind.

Philadelphia has long been a leader in ice cream production, and the city is still home to Bassett’s Ice Cream, which started here in 1861. In a previous Philly History post on another famous brand, Breyer’s Ice Cream, we wrote about the ups and downs of a company that changed hands many times before it finally left Philadelphia in 1993. Breyer’s started here in 1866 and its first store was at Frankford Ave and Somerset, in Port Richmond, which the company opened in 1882.

By 1900, the North Bros. Manufacturing Company (acquired in 1946) was a leading manufacturer of ice cream freezers and other ice related equipment. So even if companies made ice cream elsewhere, they still needed Philadelphia goods to make it happen. Founded at 23rd and Race Street, the company really became big when it moved its operation to Lehigh and American Streets.

Abbott’s Dairies, Chestnut and 30th St. 1930.

Abbott’s Dairy shut down in 1984, after 108 years. It is too bad. It sounds like it was a fun company. In 1937 they put out a book called Raggedy Ann and Maizie Moocow, with an ice cream driven plot (meant to illustrate the healthful benefits of ice cream). It’s dairy truck drivers are remembered to have been known to throw kids free ice cream sandwiches, in Philadelphia ReflectionsIn truth, Abbott’s core business wasn’t ice cream so much as dairy. It had a home delivery business that started selling non-dairy products in 1967. By 1975, non-dairy sales by milkmen were making up some 20% of their home delivery sales, according to The Times-News.

Here’s a photo of some Abbott’s trucks in South Philadelphia. Here’s a photo of stacks and stacks of Abbott’s branded ice cream.

Ice cream for sale near UPenn’s campus, 1952.

Let’s talk ice cream innovation, too. To start, let’s focus on something that’s been subject to a long history of debate: the city origin of fried ice cream. Today, the inventive dessert is often found in Asian and Mexican restaurants, though it’s connection to those cuisines is debatable. Some say the desert was introduced at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but other sources around that time credit it to Philadelphia. A recipe called “Alaska Bake,” effectively the same thing as Fried Ice Cream, turned up in the Philadelphia Cook Book in 1886.

Philadelphia is also the birthplace of another spectacular snack. While the Jack & Jill Ice Cream Company was still operating here, one of its VPs created the Choco-Taco in 1984, an ice-cream confection that continues to engender cavities to this day.

There’s something about ice cream that’s meant for travel. While the milkmen is a fondly remembered icon of the past, the ice cream truck is still going strong. One of the pioneers of wandering trucks luring children’s allowance away from them started here in 1956, the still familiar Mister Softee.

Fulleborn's Bakery, Germantown, 1957. DOR Archives.

Bassett’s and Dolly Madison Ice Creams for sale in Germantown, 1957.

Unfortunately, this last story is not as great as it could be. All the good details seem to have been lost to the winds of time. Augustus Jackson was an African-American man who was born in Philadelphia in 1808 and worked as a chef at the White House. He came back to Philadelphia after a while, though, in his early 20s, and started an ice cream company. We don’t know its name. There are accounts of Jackson all over the web. They say he was prosperous, that he invented new flavors that are still popular today and that he improved the process of making ice cream. That’s where the trail goes cold. He never filed for any patents, so the details of his contributions to the creamy confection business seem to have been lost. If anyone knows any more, please let us know in the comments.

Here’s to your first ice cream cone this season: Let it not melt.

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Parkside Revisited (Again): A Look Inside 4230 Parkside Avenue

Note: the author has previously covered Parkside in “After the Fair” and “The Slifkin Family.”  A walk-through of the house with the author and University of Pennsylvania lecturer Hanley Bodek will be featured on an upcoming segment of WHYY’s Friday Arts

The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 17, 1954.

The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 27, 1954.

On the outside, the houses on the 4200 block of Parkside Avenue are grand indeed, a brick parade that marches proudly along West Fairmount Park. Their roofs are a jumble of scalloped and stepped gables topped by terra cotta urns and copper cornices. Their yellow Roman brick facades boast bow-front windows, latticed dormers, and terra cotta angel faces.  Alleyways are secured with high scrolled iron gates, possibly made by the workshop of Samuel Yellin.

Built in the 1880s and 1890s by brewer/developer Frederick August Poth, they were pitched towards Gilded Ages executives and factory managers, as well as prosperous business owners and professionals.  Some were probably occupied by the top leadership of F.A. Poth & Sons, who could commute to the brewery by taking the eastbound trolley across the Girard Avenue bridge. These homes were meant to impress and dazzle passers-by on foot, trolley, or coach.  Less was not more in those days.  And why not?   Philadelphia was one of the richest cities in the world in the 1890s, and many of the architectural, mechanical, and decorative features were made right here, in the self-proclaimed workshop of the world.  And these homes were located across the street from the site of the 1876 Centennial Expositions, one of the crowning events in Philadelphia’s history.

Poth must have taken a special interest in his Parkside development.  He sold his freestanding mansion at 33rd and Powelton to his daughter Mathilde and son-in-law Joseph Roesch, and moved with his wife into a brand-new mansion at 4130-40 Parkside Avenue.  He died there in 1905.

During the early 20th century, Parkside changed from an upper-class German-American neighborhood to a middle class Eastern European Jewish one. During the Depression, most of these big twin homes were divided into efficiency apartments and rooming houses, and lost most of their interior fixtures.  Yet at least one of these homes survives with its original floor plate and some of its interior detailing intact: 4230 Parkside Avenue, situated directly across from the Centennial Exposition’s Memorial Hall (now the Please Touch Museum).

The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 27, 1954.

The 4200 block of Parkside Avenue, May 27, 1954.


4230 Parkside Avenue. Note the polished granite columns. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

I recently got a look inside the house, thanks to the current owner.  It has been vacant for over a decade. The inside of the house is cavernous and musty, with soaring ten foot ceilings.  The walls, once wainscoted with dark stained paneling, are painted white or gray.   After passing through the front hallway, I marveled at the massive grand staircase, which rose three stories up through the center of the house.  The newel post was probably once topped with a finial, or even a bronze statue light fixture. The dining room, filled with wood scraps and other debris, can easily hold a table set for a dozen.   The second floor library, which faces the park,  still has its original shelves topped by carved cornices.  The bay window once had curved glass panes and sashes, now replaced by standard flat ones. Almost all of the massive wood mantelpieces, save the one in the basement butler’s pantry, had been yanked out years ago, leaving their outlines behind.  The brass fireplace grates and polychrome tiles remain, giving a hint of the fine craftsmanship that once graced these Parkside homes.   A pencil diagram, probably drawn by the carpenters who built the house 120 years ago, is still extant in the dining room.

The main staircase of 4230 Parkside Avenue.  It rises three stories. There are two other service staircases in the house, one of which has been floored over. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The main staircase of 4230 Parkside Avenue. It rises three stories. There are two other service staircases in the house, one of which has been floored over. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Pencil sketches once hidden by a mantelpiece (now stolen probably left by the construction crew that built this house in the late 1880s or early 1890s.  Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Pencil sketches once hidden by a mantelpiece (now stolen probably left by the construction crew that built this house in the late 1880s or early 1890s. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The dining room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The dining room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The house’s layout is not completely intact. A previous owner had attempted to convert the mansion into a boarding house, adding shoddily-built bathrooms and partitions.  A piece of plywood covers over the archway between the foyer and the parlor, which originally was separated by sliding pocket doors.  A large, twisted chunk of pressed copper lies in the kitchen.  It originally came from the rear window bay, torn off by thieves scavenging the vacant house for scrap metal.  Squatters once stored drugs underneath floorboards and behind radiators.

Tile fireplace surround and brass grate in the front parlor. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Tile fireplace surround and brass grate in the dining room. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

At 5,300 square feet, this was a house built for a very large family. There are six bedrooms, located on the second and third floors. The built-in armoires remain in place, as is some of the decorative plasterwork.  The window of the third floor front bedroom perfectly frames the Please Touch Museum.  A large cedar closet, located off the master bedroom, could have stored many wool suits with room to spare.

View from the third floor front bedroom, towards Memorial Hall, once the main building of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, later the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now the Please Touch Museum

View from the third floor front bedroom, towards Memorial Hall, once the main building of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, later the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now the Please Touch Museum

Built-in armoire in the master bedroom. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

Built-in armoire in the master bedroom. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa

When Frederick Augustus Poth built 4320 Parkside Avenue, it was at the cutting edge of Victorian domestic technology.  One expert who has renovated many large homes in Fairmount described the house as equivalent to today’s Toll Brothers mansions, built for an aspirational and demanding clientele.  Although equipped with several gas fireplaces, the house was originally heated by steam radiators, powered by a hand-stoked coal boiler in the basement.  The house may have originally been piped for gas lighting, as electricity did not become widespread in American homes until the early 1900s.  With its flickering pale glow, gas lighting was an improvement over pre-Civil War whale oil candles. But houses such as 4230 Parkside were almost invariably dark and gloomy, with their stained paneling, overstuffed furniture, heavy drapery, and piles of curios and knick-knacks. Dust must have been a problem, especially for anyone with allergies.

Plaster moulding in the second floor library.  Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Plaster molding in the second floor library. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The front parlor, full of debris. The window looks out on Parkside Avenue. Note the Delft-style tiles.

The front parlor, full of debris. The window looks out on Parkside Avenue. Note the Delft-style tiles.

In their fleeting glory days, these Parkside Avenue homes were Downton Abbey in miniature.  In Victorian Philadelphia, immigrant servant labor, usually Irish, was inexpensive and plentiful.  A house like 4230 Parkside would have a staff consisting of a cook, laundress, maid, governess, maybe even a butler.  They worked long hours, received only one weekday evening plus every other Sunday off, and received an average salary of $3.50 per week (about $45.00 today), well below the modern minimum wage.* They were quartered downstairs.  The butler’s pantry, accessed by a separate back staircase that is now floored over by a later bathroom addition, survives almost intact.  The kitchen, located at the rear of the first story, has lost all of its original fixtures except for the china cabinet and the lower half of its wall tiles.  The cook toiled over a mammoth coal fired iron range, which lacked the temperature controls we take for granted today.  The iceman would make frequent deliveries to restock the icebox.

The butler's pantry/servants' dining room, located in the basement. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The butler’s pantry/servants’ dining room, located in the basement. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

China cabinets in the kitchen, located in the rear of the house on the first floor. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

China cabinets in the kitchen, located in the rear of the house on the first floor. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The future of the house remains in question.  Two doors down, however, the owner of a nearly-identical house has recently completed a total restoration. The copper trim has all been renewed, the brick scrubbed, a new balastrade added to the front porch. He has even replaced the curved sashes and panes in the second floor bay windows.  The view of the park and the newly-restored Please Touch Museum from the new roofdeck must be spectacular.

Is this a harbinger of things to come?

*Glessner House Museum: http://www.glessnerhouse.org/Servants.htm

Roof details. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Roof details. Note the stepped Dutch gables and the terra cotta corbel. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exposition and now the Please Touch Museum.  Photographed on March 22, 1924, when it housed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Memorial Hall, built for the 1876 Centennial Exposition and now the Please Touch Museum. Photographed on March 22, 1924, when it housed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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Zanghi’s Revenge: A Pivotal Mobster Moment

Police Lineup at City Hall (left to right): Joseph Ida, John Avena and Luigi Quaranta, Memorial Day, 1927. (PhillyHistory.org)

The third attempt on John Avena’s life took place on March 11, 1927 as the 32-year old gangster stepped out of a restaurant at 822 South 8th Street.

Avena knew exactly who was behind the failed hit. And, as we learned last time, he had no intention of turning anyone in. “I like to settle these things myself,” Avena liked to say.

Avena worked for Salvatore Sabella, who also liked to settle things for himself. Growing up in Sicily as a butcher’s apprentice, Sabella killed his abusive boss. Now in Philadelphia, this seasoned head of the Philadelphia mob joined Avena and a handful of others to send a  message, loud and clear: the streets of South Philadelphia were theirs—and would remain theirs.

This message would be delivered on Memorial Day. Anthony “Musky” Zanghi, 27, a bootlegger, bank robber, bigamist, hold up man, counterfeiter, and alleged cop killer had been making his way into the Philadelphia crime scene. He was standing on the very same stretch of sidewalk on 8th Street where Avena had been shot two months before, talking with his 19-year old brother, Joseph, and Vincent Cocozza, 30, whose own arrest record included burglaries, robberies and the sales of narcotics.

As “Musky” Zanghi later told it, Avena walked by and “gave me a Judas greeting.” Moments later, a car pulled up and as many as 20 shots rang out from pistols and sawed-off shotguns. “I saw two men lift shot guns and fire,” Zanghi stated. “After the shooting, I saw Cocozza on the ground in a pool of blood. Then I saw my brother had been shot. At the hospital I had found out that they had blown his brains out and he was dead.”

Zanghi had been warned that Sabella and his men were after him. “I was sent for by Sabella,” he told police. “The plan was when they fired at me to take my kid brother, too, he choked,” talking to the authorities.  According to The Public Ledger, Zanghi “was hysterical over the death of his brother.” And, for the first time “in the history of the police department” a gangster had broken the code of silence. From the newspaper clippings at Temple University’s Urban Archives we learn of  Zanghi ‘s willingness “to break all traditions of gangland and ‘squeal.’”

Police rounded up Sabella’s men, and Zanghi placed each one at the crime scene, except for Joseph Ida (at the left in the photograph). Zanghi “was positive in his identification of Avena as the man who fired the fatal shot as Joseph.”

As “he was taken past the ‘lineup’ at City Hall, Zanghi paused before Avena, his face turning purple with rage: ‘Oh, you rat,’ he shouted. ‘Why did you fire when my back was turned?’”According to reports, Zanghi “attempted to assault Avena, but was restrained…”

Zanghi also fingered Luigi Quaranta (at the right in the photograph) as the one who shot Cocozza with a shotgun; he identified Sabella as another shooter and John Scopoletti as the driver. In all, Zanghi identified six men involved in the incident.

On June 3, the day after the victims’ funerals, all six were led to their arraignments through cleared corridors of City Hall. “The faces of the prisoners were covered with heavy growth of beard” as they listened to the charges of murder and manslaughter. Each one responded to the charges through an interpreter. “Twenty four detectives sat on the two benches behind the defendants. The prisoners did not even glance at them. Their eyes were fixed on Judge McDevitt throughout.”

“A tough, hard-looking lot of thugs,” observed Mayor W. Freeland Kendrick, who inspected his Police Department’s unprecedented catch.

But star witness “Musky” Zanghi would drop from the scene before the trials started. Word on the street was he had been offered as much as $50,000 to disappear. The authorities would hold off on their original plan to try Avena first. On June 13, the District Attorney announced, and the newspapers reported that Quaranta, described as “a swarthy and rather dapper little man” was “unexpectedly chosen as the first to stand trial.”

Two days later, Quaranta “nervously twisted his gray-banded straw hat in his hand” and “transferred his gaze to the foreman of the jury” before they read the verdict: “We find the prisoner guilty of murder in the first degree.”

If Quaranta understood, he showed no emotion. He turned away from the jury and stared at the floor. “After a few moments elapsed, he looked questioning at his attorney, but finding the latter’s attention engaged elsewhere shrugged his shoulders.” Then Quaranta, who would be sentenced to life in prison, “was led from the courtroom and down winding stairs to the waiting patrol wagon” and taken to Moyamensing Prison, in what now seemed, to some, a safer South Philadelphia.

(The story continues… Piero Francisco: Singing, Dancing Mob Murder Witness.)

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Stetson Hats: the western icon made here

By Brady Dale, for Technically Philly.

Workers at the Kensington Stetson Factory, 1897.

It’s often worth taking in the names engraved on old Philadelphia buildings. Sometimes, they are surprising.

For example, If you’ve stopped into RAW: Sushi and Sake Lounge, at 1225 Sansom Street, you may have noticed that its ornate entryway says “John B. Stetson Company” in several places. Stetson Hats are one of the greatest names of the Philadelphia manufacturing tradition. The Stetson Company, at its peak, employed 5,000 people in its factory at 5th and Montgomery St.

Still Philadelphia has several photos of teams of men and women at work on different parts of the hat assembly process, which was celebrated across the country and a strong representation of American manufacturing at the turn of the century.


A drawing of the Stetson factory, shown along Germantown Ave.

The building at 1225 Sansom was the backdoor of a large Stetson store on Chestnut St. The front side has since been torn down. The Stetson Store’s designated address was 1225 Chestnut st, as evidenced by these photos of a collectible matchbook advertising the store.

Collectible matchbook for sale on Ebay.

Though the store wasn’t really the epicenter of the Stetson empire, it is one of the few remaining physical artifacts in the public space of the legacy of John Stetson in the city. Another being the John B. Stetson School, at E. Allegheny Ave and B. St. Seen below, which was once a charter school, as pictured below.

Stetson School, click for more info

While the hats were made here on the East Coast, they do have frontier origins. John Stetson had been trained as a hatmaker by his father. He was working as a trapper in Colorado, and made his first wide-brimmed hat out of felt made from the fur of his catches. He showed fellow trappers that it was faster and lighter than hats made from tanned hides. When he brought his creation back to Philadelphia, he decided to make a business of it.

He opened his first hat shop in Northern Liberties, at 7th and Callowhill, and by all accounts had almost immediate and wild success. The hats weren’t cheap, but they were ideal for cowboys who wanted to keep the sun off their face and to show that they were doing well financially. After growing out of this first little shop, Stetson set himself up at 4th and Chestnut. In 1872, the company would open its the Kensington factory, shown in the illustration above. at  By 1917, the company is reported to have been earning $11,000,000 per year (approximately $200,000,000 in today’s dollars).  Ninety-nine years later, in 1971, the factory was torn down. There are photos of its demolition in Temple University’s collection of old photos from The Evening Bulletin.

More info, click here.

Stetson Factory in the snow


1897 Stetson Hat Factory Workers, George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin CollectionTemple University Libraries, Urban Archives.

The City of Philadelphia as it Appears in the Year 1894: A Compilation of Facts Supplied by Distinguished Citizens for the Information of Business Men, Travelers, and the World at Large, by The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, 1894. On Google Books.

Northern Liberties: The Story of a River Ward, by Harry Kyriakodis, History Press: 2012. On Google Books.


Story of Philadelphia, by John St. George Royce, Google Books, pages 399-401.

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Walking West Philly with Joe Washington (Part 2)

Police Station at 39th and Lancaster Avenue, across the street from Hawthorne Hall, June 21, 1933. Demolished.

Note: this is the second part of “Walking West Philly with Joe Washington.”  To read part one, click here

When Joe Washington was a young man in the 1970s, Hawthorne Hall was a gathering place for Powelton and Mantua.  Its second floor auditorium hosted dance parties and boxing matches. Now, the orange brickwork is battered. Chunks of the terracotta cornice have fallen to the pavement.  A few of its pressed tin oriel windows are painted hot pink.  Two nude figures — one male (Orpheus with his lyre) and one female (presumably Venus)– still adorn the facade.

Shabby, yes, but also potentially bohemian Victorian chic today. Unlike other large corner buildings in the area, like the old banks and movie palaces, it will not be replaced by a pharmacy or gas station. Owned by the People’s Emergency Center,  it still is partially occupied by shops and apartments.  Curtains hang at crazy angles in some of the windows. One has a bathroom scene painted in black and white.  Others are boarded up. The street level doors are plastered with stickers. Inside, the plaster is falling from the ceiling, exposing wood lathe. Last year, it was the site of a Hidden City art installation. Visitors walked through a set of rooms that were a surreal interpretation of a secret society, one of many which met in the building during the early twentieth century.

The Society of Pythagoras installation by the Rabid Hands art collective. Hawthorne Hall, June 2013.  Photography by Steven Ujifusa.

Society of Pythagoras installation by Rabid Hands art collective. Hawthorne Hall, June 2013. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Across the street from Hawthorne Hall was the “Fake House,” an old industrial building that housed makeshift apartments for artists and counterculture activists.  In the 1980s, it was the site of many punk parties.  The Fake House was demolished last Christmas, and it is  being replaced by 22 luxury apartments. The residents had no lease. As the building came down, someone scrawled “F*k gentrification” on one of the exposed party walls.


As a young man in the 1960s, Joe saw an entire West Philadelphia neighborhood get destroyed. The Black Bottom was centered around 36th and Market.  The spidery frame of the Market Street Elevated cast a dark shadow over the shops and tenements.  Trains rattled by at all hours. When Joe was growing up  in Mantua, there was a notorious gang that took the name of the heart of the Black Bottom: 36th and Market.

“If you didn’t know those cats, there would be trouble,” he declared.

The intersection of 36th and Market, the heart of the “Black Bottom,” and the Market Street Elevated. May 17, 1950.

We walked down Lancaster Avenue in the rain, from Hawthorne Hall to the former crossroads of the Black Bottom. Joe waves his hand at the sleek office buildings at the intersection.   ”All of these were once houses,” he said.  “All the people were displaced.” By the time replacement housing was built, most of the 15,000 or so former residents of the area had scattered to other neighborhoods. Southwest Philadelphia. Yeadon. Or New Jersey. Or they moved “up the way,” north of Market and further west to Haddington.

A wall mural on nearby Warren Street memorializes the Black Bottom. “Gone but not forgotten,” reads the lettering on a painted red heart. Each year, the Black Bottom Association hosts a reunion picnic in Fairmount Park, across from the Please Touch Museum. According to the Association, between 5,000 and 10,000 former residents and their descendants attend every August.  ”Although poor in an economic sense,” states the event pamphlet, “the community was rich in mind, body, and spirit.”

Black Bottom memorial mural at 39th and Warren Street. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

The 2013 Black Bottom Association picnic in Fairmount Park. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Urban horseback riding at the 2013 Black Bottom Association picnic. Click here to learn more about urban equestrianism in Philadelphia. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

Joe’s old neighborhood of Powelton-Mantua – a few blocks to the north of the Black Bottom — was largely spared from the mass-demolition. As he grew up, Joe realized that he had to look beyond employment in his old neighborhood to get ahead.  The factories were closing one by one.  Restaurants and other businesses, including his mother’s grocery store,  followed suit.  He got married in 1984 to his girlfriend Laura, who he had met as a 10th grader at West Philadelphia High School.  They moved to a new house at 142 North Wanamaker Street.  He worked at a warehouse in Trenton and as a bartender at the L&M Pub in Montgomery County.   By the early 1980s, as Joe remembered, West Philadelphia went from being rough to dangerous.  The culprit was crack-cocaine, which swept inner city neighborhoods with devastating force.  Not only would people do anything to get high — assault, prostitution, larceny — but the old street gangs such as the “36th and Market” went from wielding fists and knives to firing guns.

Street corner at 58th and Vine, near 142 N. Wanamaker Street, October 3, 1962.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 finally outlawed redlining and blockbusting, but the damage was done.  Between 1970 and 1990, the city’s population plummeted from 2 million to 1.5 million, the greatest decline in its history. Housing stock — much of it dating to the late-19th century — was deteriorating. Industrial jobs were disappearing.  Many of the children and grandchildren of the Great Migration pioneers who arrived from Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia got swept up in the addiction and the violence.  More houses went vacant, left behind by residents who had passed away, moved back South (where federal laws aimed at dismantling Jim Crow were finally taking effect), or were serving time in jail. Abandoned houses became dens for criminal activity.  It wasn’t just people in the community who bought dope, Joe remembered. Middle class and wealthy whites drove in from the suburbs to get their fix, too. Gun shots rang out at night.  Drug dealers loafed on Joe’s stoop, and refused to move.

“Arm yourself if you need to,” Joe said of the situation.

In the late 1970s, Joe got a break for a job in Center City. He got a call from his wife’s aunt Gloria Shannon, who was working on the staff of the Orpheus Club near Rittenhouse Square. Before long, Joe was tending bar at Monday night rehearsals of the oldest mens’ singing group in America.  Club president Geoffrey Dougherty brought Joe to his house in Valley Forge to tend bar, and he quickly became close with his wife Nancy and children Win, Lydia, Bromley, and Ted.  He also helped get Joe bartending jobs at his old Penn fraternity, Saint Anthony Hall,  and at the Fourth Street Club at 15th and Latimer.

263 S. Van Pelt Street, across from the Orpheus Club, 1969.

Joe Washington has worked at Orpheus for thirty years and tends bar at private parties all over town. He now lives with his wife at 61st and Vine, a few blocks north of the Market Street Elevated.  ”Up the way” from the old neighborhood, as the former residents would say.  Joe believes the worst years of drugs and violence have passed.  ”This new generation seems to have grown up,” he said. “They are more rooted in the community and are applying themselves, and there is less underage pregnancy.”  Starting in the 1990s, the city seized abandoned houses for back taxes, either selling them or tearing them down. After years of decline, new people are now moving into his neighborhood: immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and South America, as well as more caucasian college students and young professionals.

Joe welcomes the influx of new arrivals. “West Philly hasn’t lost its soul,” he said with a smile as we parted at the intersection of 36th and Market. “It’s still a melting pot. It’s had its share of ups and downs. New people from all over are bringing a new vitality to it.”

Joe Washington in front of Hawthorne Hall. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

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Big Band Jazz in Philadelphia

Broad Street’s former Pearl Theater was the site of a historic moment in 1932.

Bennie Moten and the Kansas City Stompers, key parts of the Big Band Jazz movement in the first half of the century, played so well that, according to The One O’Clock Jump by Douglas Henry Daniels, the crowd demanded encore after encore, until the theater owners opened the doors of the theater to the public. Here’s the sound that had everyone talking.

One member of the band that night was the legendary Count Basie, who just before the historic show, was recording with Moten’s band for Victor just across the river in Camden. Basie, pictured here, would leave Moten’s band in 1929, taking with him members that would form the core of the Count Basie Orchestra. Then Basie would take over Moten’s whole operation after his untimely death in 1935.

Big Band Jazz and swing music took hold so firmly that it dominated music for a decade, from 1935 to 1946. Philadelphia played a key role in that era, with many of the most notable bands coming through Philadelphia and some even rising up from the city.

The Pearl Theater played host to all the big names in big band jazz, including Duke Ellington. Jimmy Heath, one of the surviving musicians of Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, remembers seeing him at the Pearl in 1932, when he was six years old. He writes about it in his autobiography, I Walked With Giants (Temple U. Press, 2010).

Duke Ellington’s orchestra played a benefit show at the Municipal Stadium, September 7, 1962.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra played a show to 95,000 people in at the Municipal Stadium. The show was to benefit the children of policemen and firemen killed or injured in the line of duty. To get a sense of scale, see this photo from the preparations at the stadium. Ellington played Philadelphia repeatedly over the course of the height of his career. In Duke’s Diary: The Life of Duke Ellington by Ken Vail, it records his orchestra playing the Earle Theater for a week in 1952. The Earle was the most expensive theater ever built in Philadelphia at the time, with an ornate interior and exterior and seating for 2700. It had been located at 1046 Market St and was demolished in July 1953.

The Calvin Todd Orchestra, 1944

Jimmy Heath playing with the Calvin Todd Orchestra, 1944. From I WALKED WITH GIANTS by Jimmy Heath [Used by permission].

Jimmy Heath became a road musician out of Philadelphia at 18 years old, traveling with Omaha’s Nat Towles Orchestra. He writes in his book that he came back to Philadelphia in 1945. Heath saw Dizzy Gillespie as the swing era began to wane at the Academy of Music. Then he started his own band in 1946 and, for a time, John Coltrane himself was one of its members, first gigging with Heath’s band in 1947.

Also in the 40s, Philadelphia’s Pearl Bailey had begun to take off. She had relocated to New York City by then. After becoming a headliner at The Village Vanguard, she became a part of Cab Calloway’s big band orchestra; however, born and raised in Philadelphia, she has its Pearl Theater to thank for kicking off her career. She won an amateur dance contest there and got booked for her first professional job. Two weeks, at $35 per week. She was 15 years old, in the early 1930s.

Jimmy Heath Orchestra, Club Elate, 1947, from I WALKED WITH GIANTS

Jimmy Heath playing alto sax, leading the Jimmy Heath Orchestra, 1947, at Club Elate at Broad and Fitzwater [From I WALKED WITH GIANTS, Used by permission].

Accounts of Philadelphia during the 40s describe jazz clubs all over the city. All along South Broad and up in North Philadelphia, musicians would stay up late into the night and jam together. New York jazz musicians were coming to Philadelphia with the Bebop sound. The Bebop style of jazz was taking over from big band as musicians collaborated and shared ideas. Get a sample with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s “A Night in Tunisia.”

Philadelphia’s Odean Pope, a saxophonist, said that Philadelphia was an important place for spreading and sharing those ideas, which would lead to the next era in jazz.


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John Avena and South Philadelphia’s “Bloody Angle”

Demolition of Old Fire & Police Station, 7th and Carpenter Streets. October 19, 1962. Replaced by the Charles Santore Branch of the Free Library. (PhillyHistory.org)

As he liked to tell it, John Avena had friends at 7th and Carpenter Streets. Thing was, Avena, aka “Nozzone,” aka “Big Nose John,” was a Sicilian-born gangster who’d eventually head up the Philadelphia mob. And if he didn’t have friends exactly, Avena had allies at the old 33rd District police station.

Avena’s interests would come to include dope dealing, extortion, numbers and eventually two high-stakes gambling houses at 11th and Christian and 9th and Washington. The $100 counterfeit notes he passed were good enough to impress bankers, and even the Secret Service.

When federal agents set out to arrest Avena in June of 1922, the gangster bragged he got tipped off by a policeman from 7th and Carpenter. The officer told him to “beat it” and Avena went off to New York.

When they caught up with Avena and arrested him, the bail was set at $10,000. It wouldn’t be the last time. There was a lot going on in the 1920s in the vicinity of “Dope Row” (the 800 block of Christian Street) and nearby. And cornering prohibition, gambling, and the protection rackets would grow fierce as Avena made his way to become the biggest numbers man in South Philadelphia.

A decade-long war would claim as many as twenty five lives in the neighborhood surrounding the police station. The area would earn the nickname the “Bloody Angle” (the same as the most fatal places on the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Spotsylvania). And along this stretch of Passyunk from Christian Street to Washington Avenue, Avena himself would survive several assassination attempts in the 1920s.

According to this Bulletin clipping of August 17, 1936 from Temple University’s Urban Archives:

The first time came early in 1926, when police had marked him as a bootlegger. They missed that time, missed altogether. Then it was July 29, a few months later. Avena was running a cigar store at 12th and Webster streets. It was night. Outside the store “Big Nose” heard a persistent whistling, a peculiar whistle, short and sharp, as though someone were calling. He went out. He met a burst of fire, and three shots ploughed into his back as he turned around to see where the whistling visitor was. An innocent woman bystander was wounded that night.

The word went out that they had “Big Nose” at last. Three shots. The boys shook their heads. But he made the grade, and then came March 10, 1927. He was in a restaurant on 8th street near Catharine. It was night again. He stepped out and two men, lurking in the shadows, sent twin streaks of fire across the pavement. They missed. A bootleggers’ feud.

“South Philadelphia’s Public Enemy No. 1″ would become famous for denying death. “He’d been news for years. Always, they said: ‘Well, Big Nose beat ‘m again. He’s going to live.’”

“And always, when he was shot, or shot at, or whenever he was on the police records, the cops used to ask him: “Come on Nosey, who did it? And what did “Nosey” always say?”

“I like to settle these things myself.”


The story continues…Zanghi’s Revenge: A Pivotal Mobster Moment

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Walking West Philly with Joe Washington (Part 1)

Joe Washington in front of Hawthorne Hall, 38th and Spring Garden. Photograph by Steven Ujifusa.

“West Philly hasn’t lost its soul. It’s still a melting pot. It’s had its share of ups and downs. New people from all over are bringing a new vitality to it.”

Joe Washington and I met for lunch at the Hamilton Restaurant on the last day of winter.  It’s a narrow, old-fashioned diner at 40th and Market with formica counters, brown-stained paneling, and cracked vinyl stools.  A neighborhood fixture for decades, it is run by Asian immigrants.  The Market Street subway rumbles underneath.

Construction work on the Market Street subway at 40th and Market, November 26, 1950. Note the diners and the old-fashioned movie theater.

Joe Washington has worked as the bartender of the Orpheus Club since the late 1970s.  He has also tended bar at a University of Pennsylvania fraternity, and as a young man worked in construction. He and his wife now life at 61st and Arch, a few blocks north of the Market Street El.

I asked if he could tell me the story of his life in West Philly.

Like many African-Americans in the city, his grandparents moved to the city from the rural South during the early twentieth century.   Joe’s maternal grandmother Myrtle Tucker came from from Lynchburg in Southside Virginia.  She purchased a few Victorian homes on the 4100 block of Parkside Avenue, which she ran as rooming houses for single men.  Her daughter Marion helped with the cooking and the cleaning.  Myrtle also made some extra cash running a basement speakeasy. In the 1950s, she sold her rooming houses and returned to the “Possum Hollow” farm she had purchased back in Virginia.

41st and Parkside Avenue, looking east. April 29, 1952.

Marion stayed in Philadelphia, where she worked as a seamstress and cook.  She married ironworker George Washington — yes, Joe said kids teased his dad a lot about his name  – whose family had come from Macon, Georgia. George Washington made good money with Delaney Construction, but suffered from vertigo as he grew older.  So did many other ironworkers.  Joe thinks his dad may have gotten sick from the construction site fumes.   George then took a job at ground-level as a steamroller driver.  On one school trip to the Philadelphia Airport, young Joe — born in 1956 at the Presbyterian Hospital — recalled proudly pointing out his old man to his classmates, driving his steamroller along the freshly-paved tarmac.

A family stands outside of their home at 632 Hutton Street, not far from the 700 block of Brooklyn Street. July 30, 1960.

The Washingtons moved to a house at 736 Brooklyn Street, just south of Lancaster Avenue.  In the 1950s and 60s, there were scores of factories nearby that employed entire neighborhoods: Bond Bakery (bread), Fels-Naptha (soap), and the garment center at 57th and Chestnut.  Eateries such as the Hamilton Restaurant served hot meals to workers at the beginning and end of their shifts.  Yet as the 1960s continued, the factories either closed down or moved to where the labor was cheaper and taxes lower.

After we finished our cheeseburgers at Hamilton, Joe and I then walked north up 40th Street into Powelton, towards his childhood home on Brooklyn Street.  The neighborhood is a maze of small streets and trapezoidal lots.  Some houses are worn and grungy, missing porches, stoops, and mansard roofs.  A few are still abandoned, their windows and doors boarded up with moldy plywood.  Most of the homes however have been renovated recently, with crisply painted doors and repointed brickwork.  New residences are popping up in the once-weedy gaps.  The naked steel frame of a new addition to Penn Presbyterian Hospital looms above the rooftops.

Joe remembers how he played on these stoops with other children. “It was fun and vibrant,” he recalled. “People cared and watched each others kids.”  I ask him about the high rise housing projects, bordered by Lee Park several blocks to the west.  ”I prefer living in a house,” he said. “Sometimes the elevator in one of those towers wouldn’t work.  As a kid, I carried bags up 18 floors to help out this one lady.”

The Homeowners Loan Corporation map of Philadelphia, 1936. Note how most of the neighborhoods in West Philadelphia north of Market Street have been “redlined.” The full effects of this policy would not be fully realized until after World War II. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

In the 1960s, this part of West Philadelphia was changing from an ethnic white area (German, Irish, and Jewish) to predominately African-American.  The city’s banks, working hand-in-glove with federal Homeowners Loan Corporation, had declared most of the housing stock north of Market Street to be “hazardous.”  This policy, known as “redlining,” meant that getting a mortgage or homeowners’ insurance was either impossible or exorbitant.  The result was “white flight” to tract-home suburbs such as Levittown.  In addition, the city was seizing large tracts of land for urban renewal by eminent domain.  One of the biggest redevelopment projects in Philadelphia was centered at 36th and Market, the heart of the so-called “Black Bottom” neighborhood.  And the city’s population was declining, falling from a peak of over 2 million in 1950 to 1.8 million by 1970.  According to Joe, it was not just white people leaving town.  Many African-American residents moved back down south or died off, leaving behind vacant houses that no one seemed to want.

Joe’s parents separated in the late 1960s. Marion Washington opened a grocery store at 42nd and Aspen. She rented  the space for “Miss Marion’s Store” from the Johnson family, who owned a supermarket just up Lancaster Avenue.  She made enough money to put her son Joe through St. Ignatius Catholic Elementary School. On Fridays and Saturdays, teenage Joe served up platters of BBQ ribs, chicken, cabbage, and string beans, which were a hit with the Powelton residents.  ”We made $1,000 one day selling platters!” Joe said proudly.

801 N. 42nd Street, at Aspen Street. Miss Marion’s Store was located at this intersection in Mantua. March 24, 1961.

Yet he also remembered that the Johnsons were jealous of his mother’s success. A fire ripped through the store in the early 70s, soon after the landlords had installed newfangled aluminum wiring in the building. Joe’s mother opted not to rebuild.

We then walked north towards Lancaster Avenue and the hulking, curved brick facade of Hawthorne Hall.  Zara’s Bar and “Mighty Writers” occupy the first floor.  The upper stories, which include apartments and an auditorium, are partially abandoned.

“This building is in the Gray Area,” a sign hanging above the main entrance declares. “Gray Area is an experiment and public dialogue to encourage new ways of thinking about old buildings in Philadelphia and beyond. ”

“Oh, there were some great parties there back in the day!” Joe said.

Hawthorne Hall, 38th and Hamilton, c.1965.





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A century of Philadelphia parties

Get on the Party Car — we’re touring the city’s history of celebrations.

By Brady Dale.

With Spring set to usher in the city’s inexhaustible festival season, we can’t help but dream about gathering with friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Big parties are an anchor of any city and Philadelphia has a long, proud history of them. From the dozens of legendary Fourth of July’s to the annual Mummers Day Parade, parties are a local tradition. Here’s some parties of all shapes and sizes you can see documents of in the photo archives here on Philly History.


Founder's Day 1908, S. Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

Founders Day Celebration, Broad and Spruce, 1908.

The Founders Day Celebration in 1908 celebrated 225 years of Philadelphia as a city. From an earlier post on this site about that specific celebration.

Historical Day on Friday, October 9, featured a large historical pageant held on Broad Street. The pageant was divided into nine divisions with multiple floats illustrating the historic events that occurred in each division. Ellis Paxson Oberholtzer, a local historian and one of the pageant’s organizers, felt that the event should provide a historical and civic education to Philadelphians, rather than simply serving as another form of entertainment.


Clean Up Week Parade, Philadelphia, 1914

Broom Army marches south of City Hall, 1914.

The Clean Up Week Parade. Let’s bring it back? Here’s another great photo of this ensemble.


Hundreds of people gather in 1927 at the city’s market house, at 2nd and Pine.

A party at the New Market House, at 2nd and Pine, which was established in 1745.  There had already been a market attached to the court house at 2nd and Market, a bit to the north.

That first court house went up in 1707. According to Market Street, Philadelphia by Joseph Jackson (1918, a free ebook on Google Play). The court house got a market added to it in 1710.  The court house was the site for local elections and, notably, proclamations:

In all the pictures of the old Court House there is seen a little balcony projecting from the second story. … from the same balcony, in provincial days it was customary to read all proclamations. It was from this place that the citizens of Philadelphia in 1714 heard proclaimed that George I was their new king.

The court house was demolished in 1837, according to Watson’s Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. You can see a drawing of the original court house in this History of Philadelphia.


Opening of the Philadelphia airport in 1938, marked with a model airplane show.

The opening of the airport gave the city something to celebrate. The marked the event exactly as we would today. By bringing out guys who build model airplanes to demonstrate their hobby for a cheering crowd.


United Service Organization Party, 1942. Historic Photo

New Year’s Eve formal dance at the Benedict Club, U.S.O.-N.C.C.S., 157 North 15th Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Photographed by Edward Hagan. The Benedict Club was apparently a space designated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for social affairs during war time, based on this record.


1951, the Curtis Institute’s Christmastime Costume Party.

The Curtis Institute’s Holiday Party goes back all the way to 1926. Here’s a photo of a costume party, in the tradition, from 1951.


Luncheon Party of Italian Mayors, 17th and Locust, 1962

This photo might seem a little sedate for the 1960s, but it is worth marking the fact that a group of Italian Mayors came to Philadelphia. Not so long ago, our Mayor Nutter joined a delegation of city leaders to go to Florence, after all.


July 4th parade, 1977

To make sure that July 4th, 1977, was really a party, Mayor Frank Rizzo got Frank Sinatra to come back to town and receive the Freedom Medal.


1987′s Africamericas Festival took place in North Philadelphia.

North Philadelphia’s Africamericas Festival included a wide array of avant garde and traditional arts, and culturally spanned from America to Africa to the Caribbean. More from Philly.com:

“When the City Representative’s office told me that they wanted to do the festival in North Philadelphia, I viewed it as a chance to do something positive for the area,” said coordinator Kofi Asante, a performing artist who has worked with such cultural organizations as the Arthur Hall Afro American Dance Ensemble, the Avante Theatre Company and the Black Theater Festival.

Also in the 80s, John Travolta marked the occasion of completing Blow Out with Brian DePalma.


West Oak Lane Neighborhood Festival, 1997.

Mayor Rendell greets future voters. In 1997, ten neighborhoods held festivals around July 4th to welcome America. West Oak Lane’s included a gospelrama, as well as the usual festival atmosphere.

Do you have photos from parties in years gone by? Upload them somewhere and let us know how to find them.


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