Redefining Urban Folklore in Philadelphia’s “Camingerly”

421 South Iseminger Street, March 2, 1959.  (PhillyHistory)

The neighborhood called Camingerly doesn’t exist. What’s more, according to the list of nearly 400 Philadelphia neighborhood names, current and defunct, it never did. But thanks to the fieldwork of the late folklorist Roger Abrahams, Camingerly survives in scholarly literature, if not in the hearts and minds of would be Camingerlites.

Abrahams explained his work of more than a half-century ago: “Camingerly was really just us white folks name for what the [African-American] men called the 12th Street neighborhood, the place the old Twelfth Street gang used to rule until they got old enough to have jobs, ‘old ladies’ and to get thrown down by circumstances. ‘Camingerly’ was our abbreviation of Camac, Iseminger, and Waverly between Twelfth and Thirteenth, Pine and Lombard.” If not for his living at 421 South Iseminger Street in the late 1950s, Abrahams wouldn’t have done the work that led him to initiate University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Folklore & Ethnography.

So what’s the deal with the neighborhood a few called Camingerly?

“These old row houses built as servants’ quarters as satellites to the square and townhouses on the larger thoroughfares,” wrote Abrahams. We called them ‘Father-Son-Holy-Ghost Houses,’ as did some of our neighbors, because they each had three rooms, one on top of the other. Some of them, in fact most of them, had a lean to kitchen appended to the first floor; and some of them had indoor plumbing. All the houses on our street were electrified, but not those two blocks to the south of us. The local hardware stores carry the stock of the country store, because in many ways the city life hadn’t reached these parts completely.”

Abrahams continued: “This was not the heart of black Philadelphia, though it was only a block from one of its main centers of activity, South Street. It was a little too far north, too close to the high-priced townhouses and stores. It was pimp country. Alice’s Playhouse [an African-American bar at 522 South 13th Street] barbecued-chicken-on-the-corner country, but just one block north was Pine Street with all its antique stores and its police station (run by Frank Rizzo…”

By 1970, Abrahams noted, the neighborhood had “become all white.” And even as he lived there in the late 1950s, gentrification was beginning to take hold.  “Camingerly already had a number of invaders from Center City,” he wrote. “Miss Haines, had lived there for years, a Quaker nurse of great sensibility who was home wherever she found herself. And there were four or five others, more recently come, attracted by the closeness to downtown Philly.”

“But,” Abrahams observed, “in 1958 the place was unmistakably black.” And, for an emerging folklorist, full of possibilities.

Abrahams’ story as to how he arrived: “I was a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and I needed quarters close to transportation to Penn. …I had a friend, a roommate from college, living just a block away, and he was willing to take me to his landlord and to help me strike the same kind of bargain he had been able to make—reduced rent if improvements were made by the tenant. … So I moved to 421 S. Iseminger and began the never ending job of fixing the place up.”

419-421 South Camac Street, 1963 (PhillyHistory.org)

“One of the reasons why moving into the area was exciting was that a couple of years before, my wife-to-be and I had been driving through the area and had seen an old man sitting on a doorstep playing his five-strong banjo. I was a folksinger then, just beginning to collect songs and singers, and so we leapt out of the car and had a delightful hour with “Old Banjo,” as he called himself. So in moving to Camingerly I had hopes of collecting oldtime songs, survivals of the trip north by immigrant singers. However, after I moved I soon found that “Old Banjo” had been dead a year and that not only were there no old bluesmen in the area, but that kind of ‘down-home’ music was scorned by my neighbors. So I quickly gave up hope of finding a store of folkloric material.

“Ultimately, it was not vestiges of the past traditions that exploded in my folkloric imagination, but the oral traditions that were largely the product of the urban experience—the performances of ‘sounds,’ the openly heroic, wildly imaginative, coercive, often violent stories and epic poems manufactured and performed by the young men.”

According to anthropologist and collaborator John F. Szwed, Abrahams rejected the “argument that black Americans suffered not only from poverty but from a deficient culture.” What Abrahams found in Camingerly was “a portrait of a highly verbal, articulate people whose daily lives are charged with the importance of wit, metaphor, and subtlety in a thousand ways.” Abrahams took what he observed from his base at Iseminger Street and “redefined what folklore was, in every sense. He moved it from the written text toward performance, and put the material into a political and cultural framework.”

Abrahams described meeting Bobby Lewis who performed his material and introduced others. “Fortunately for me,” wrote Abrahams, “a number of good performers from the neighborhood liked the idea of getting their entire repertoire down on tape (and listening to it played back). … John H. ‘Kid’ Mike was the first of the great talkers to come by, and he soon agreed to tell me his stories and toasts. He recorded a few of them—‘Shine,’ ‘Stackolee’ and one of the ‘Signifying Monkey’ toasts—and I immediately made transcriptions. Being a graduate student in folklore, I brought the texts to my professors, MacEdward Leach and Tristam Coffin. They both became excited about the stories and their performance and encouraged me to write about them in a term paper.”

Abrahams did more than a paper. He completed his dissertation “Negro Folklore From South Philadelphia” in 1962 and published a book one year later. “Abrahams described a new and vibrant verbal world, exuberant, profane and endlessly inventive” wrote William Grimes in The New York Times’ obituary.  “He explained the fine points of the dozens — a street-corner battle of wits in which participants traded insults — and analyzed traditional poems like “The Signifying Monkey,” whose opening line provided Professor Abrahams with the title of his book.”

Szwed and others described that book, Deep Down in the Jungle, as an “underground classic.” Twenty more books and scores of chapters and scholarly articles by Abrahams would follow. And much of it transformed the field of American urban folklore.

Even if the neighborhood name of Camingerly never caught on.

[Sources: Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970,) 2nd edition; John F. Szwed, “Review of Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Sep., 1971), pp. 392-394; William Grimes, “Roger D. Abrahams, Folklorist Who Studied African-American Language, Dies at 84,: The New York Times, June 29, 2017; Bonnie L. Cook, “Roger D. Abrahams, 84, Penn folklorist, writer, and performer,” Philly.com, July 7, 2017.]

Next Time: A Sampling 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

After 200 Posts, What Left in the Void?

Row of Houses, 1406-08-10-12 North 7th Street, August 30,
1904 (PhillyHistory)

After six years and 200 posts here at PhillyHistory, I have a handle on what’s in the archives, at least the portion of it that’s online. So now’s a good a time as any to take a moment to reflect on what it means to delve into thousands upon thousands of images and write the better part of 175,000 words. To consider what’s next and what’s likely to never be the subject of posts.

Yes… I’m asking, what’s it all mean? For what earthy reason do I persist in researching and writing? And why do you continue reading?

First a little background. This blog was underway long before I got here. It started in 2006, May 30th to be exact, a year after the launch of its parent site, PhillyHistory.org. I was working then as head of WHYY’s Arts & Culture Service. About the same time, web manager Rich Baniewicz urged me to start a blog about the city’s creative culture. An opportunity soon presented itself with the 45-day deadline to keep (or lose) Thomas Eakins’ painting, The Gross Clinic. On November 16th I published the first in a series entitled “Eakins Countdown” in an effort to help keep the painting in Philadelphia.

I liked to think the name of that blog, The Sixth Square. was resonant in a city with five original, physical squares. The stated upfront purpose: to “serve as a convener of ideas, a framer of issues, and a source of facts relevant to this important civic conversation.” A few others agreed with this mission. When I left for Temple University in 2008, WHYY kept The Sixth Square alive—for a time.

In 2010, Jonathan Butler invited me to write a weekly column at the Philadelphia clone of his successful Brownstoner Blog in Brooklyn, New York. Thirty-four columns later that project came to an end, but proved again that we had more than enough material, and sufficient interest, to share discoveries about Philadelphia.

Then the folks at Azavea offered me this gig. I jumped right in and got to know many of the city photographers. Some were identified only by partial names: Thum, Primavera, Madill in the 1920s. A few others: D. Alonzo Biggard, Andrew D. Warden and Julius Rosenberg (also in the 1920s). Wenzel J. Hess in the 1930s, Francis Balionis and Atheniasis Mallis in the 1950s. I got to know and appreciate work by Haag, Ebba, Cuneo, and Abuhove. And then there’s the unnamed and immensely talented photographers whose identities may be lost to history. I’m partial to the anonymous master worked on North 7th Street (and elsewhere) in the first decade of the 20th century, producing images that always stand out. The “Row of Houses” illustrated above is more than a document, it’s a testament to architecture, to the poetry of frontality and symmetry.

I got hooked. There’s a rich, wonderful and still untold history to those photographers and their fantastic work. Someday they’ll get their due.

West side of 7th Street – 1340 to Corner of Master Street, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory)

The images are more than illustrations. I’d be adrift without the photographs, just as I’d be lost without the foothold of historical research. Where the books and articles help me grasp what I’m looking at, the images offer an aesthetic connection more emotional than informational. When the photographer made a connection with time and place, we get to “feel” the scene, the moment, the time and the place. The images ground the stories, making them readable beyond the words. They enable us to connect place, space and story with an emotional grasp; they are the glue that morphs information into meaning. From my point of view, experiencing that burst of discovery again and again makes the search all the more exciting. When a connection is made, when a nugget of visual realization joins historical narrative, we’ve accomplished something special.

There’s nothing like the combined power of images and narratives.

Which is why blogging has worked (mostly, I think) for a couple of hundred times—and why Rutgers University Press will publish 95 in a book to be entitled Insight Philadelphia. (More on that another day.)

What’s next for me during year seven here at the PhillyHistory Blog? I’ve kept a running list of ideas, a list that I started with every intention of ticking off the topics, and shrinking the list, one by one. But darn if it doesn’t grows longer every time I look at it. And then there are image files I’ve compiled. They grow, too. There are hundreds awaiting research. I have no doubt, if I was so fortunate to write another 200 posts here, or even 400, that there’d still be a long and promising list for the future. That’s the kind of collection the City Archives is. That’s the kind of city Philadelphia is.

I am looking forward to publishing posts on subjects from displacing the pig farmers of South Philadelphia to the manufacturing of subway cars and the evolution of street games. And then there are those images that don’t easily attach themselves to any narrative. Those images can be powerful in what they project, yet weak in that not much can be found out about them. These I keep in a growing file entitled “Too Good To Ignore.” It includes the “Row of Houses” of 1904 (illustrated) and others by the same photographer. And then there’s another file entitled “Word on the Street,” my compilation of signage, painted walls, etc. Pictures just too good to let go of. “West side of 7th Street,” also by the 1904 photographer (illustrated above) is a stellar example. Call it urban visual vernacular. Call it worth the effort.

Turning to the “VOID” photograph (below) as metaphor, I’m pleased to report there’s much more out there in the void. Only some of it is in hand, other of it is yet to be found. But when it is uncovered, I am absolutely certain, there’ll be no shortage of images and stories to reconnect.

That’s the kind of collection the City Archives is. That’s the kind of city Philadelphia is.

Northwest Corner of Broad and Somerset Streets, May 14, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Century of Selling the Parkway as Cultural Cluster

The Parkway Model, Fairmount from the South, (detail), 1911. (PhillyHistory.org)

The lost 30-foot model of the Parkway from 1911 was hardly the first time Philadelphia’s professional, public and political following was wowed in 3-D. In April 1875, Philadelphians enthused over a 40 by 20-foot model of Fairmount Park complete with the Centennial buildings exhibited at the Masonic Temple. And in 1947, the Better Philadelphia Exhibition featured a gigantic, rotating model of the entirety of Center City.

The big idea about the Parkway in 1911? It wasn’t the grand diagonal boulevard. That notion had been around since 1884. (See this image at the Free Library.) New here was the plan “advocated by the Fairmount Park Art Association in 1907 and … formally accepted and approved by the city government in an ordinance by councils, approved September 20, 1909.”  This plan promoted a Parkway, lined, end-to-end, with civic, religious, and cultural institutions, the latter clustering on and at the foot of Fairmount itself.

It was hardly a given that this grandiose, extravagant idea would be widely accepted. And so the opportunity to sell it arrived in the Spring of 1911 when Philadelphia hosted city planners from around the world.

As the Fairmount Park Art Association (now the Association for Public Art) put it in 1912: “Very satisfactory progress has been made by the movement for improved City Planning, to the promotion of which the energies of the Association have been largely devoted in recent years. The movement is now thoroughly organized on national and even international lines and the Third National Conference on City Planning, which was held in Philadelphia on May 15, 16, and 17, 1911, was much the most important and successful event of this kind that has ever occurred. The conference was held under the joint auspices of the City Government, the Fairmount park Art Association, and the City Parks Association. His Honor Mayor Reyburn gave the conference his cordial and active support and its sessions were held in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall. Out of the fifty cities having a population of over 100,000 in the United States more than forty were represented, a very large and instructive exhibition of the projected improvements planned by the different cities forming one of the most impressive features of the conference. It was the first exhibition of this kind, arranged on any such lines as these, to be held in America and the expressions of appreciation and approval which were elicited from all who attended it were extremely gratifying. Some 900 exhibits were brought together, showing plans for the betterment; partly it is true, on economic and sanitary, but very largely, after all, on artistic, lines of more than one hundred cities of this country, Canada, South America, and Europe. They bore eloquent testimony to the strength and vitality of a great movement in which the Fairmount Park Art Association was one of the first, if not the very first, to lead.”

“The central feature of the exhibition at City Hall was a large model of the Fairmount Parkway constructed in the Bureau of Surveys.” Demolition had been underway since 1907, but this model made it clear that the improvement was not merely about creating a street, or even a boulevard, but a civic and cultural district populated by, according to the model, 18 public buildings of various types stretching from Logan Circle to Fairmount. One would be the Free Library. Another, dominating the Parkway atop Fairmount itself, would be the “Municipal Art Gallery” – a/k/a the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The Parkway Model, Fairmount from the West, (detail), 1911. (PhillyHistory.org)

At the time, only two institutions, the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Roman Catholic Cathedral, were in place. Over the next several years, no less than 22 institutions several would at least consider relocating to the Parkway. The comprehensive array included the American Catholic Union; American Philosophical Society; Architecture Department of the University of Pennsylvania; Art Club; Boy Scout Headquarters; Cathedral (Episcopal); Central Manual Training School; Convention Hall; Franklin Institute; Free Library of Philadelphia; Johnson Collection; Medico-Chirurgical Hospital; Museum of Commerce and Industry; Pennsylvania Museum’s School of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia College of Pharmacy; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Post Office; Rodin Museum; School Administration Building; Temple University; Wills Eye Institute.

The city built the Parkway, though only six institutions of the 22 listed above (those in bold) came.

At the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, the notion of a cultural cluster of Parkway-based cultural destinations had a revival. A contingent led by Mayor Ed Rendell attempted to persuade the estate of sculptor Alexander Calder to relocate its collections in a promised new museum on the Parkway. That idea failed. And in 2002, 95 years after the idea of the cultural cluster first surfaced, Rebecca W. Rimel, president of Pew Charitable Trusts, claimed that if the way could be cleared to move the Barnes Foundation to the Parkway from Merion, “Philadelphia will have a “magic museum mile.” The Barnes opened at 19th Street and the Parkway in 2012, 101 years after the big idea was first promoted.

[Sources:  David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989); Fairmount Art Association, Fortieth Annual Report of the Board of Trustees, (Philadelphia, 1912); Patricia Horn and Patrick Kerkstra, “Barnes Wants to Move Art Collection to Philadelphia,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 25, 2002; Edward Sozanski, “Rendell Courting Museum of Alexander Calder Works,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 29, 1999.]

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Centennial Celebration: Eight Views of the Long-Lost Parkway Model

Architects of the Renaissance would have expected more for Philadelphia. Oh, they’d have seen some wisdom in the city’s original city plan. Leone Battista Alberti imagined grandiose “public ways” leading to “some Temple, or the Course for Races; or to a Place for Justice.” Andrea Palladio concurred in the importance of creating large, “Broad” streets and “High” streets, “whence the Mind is more agreeably entertained and the city more adorned.”

Upgrade those streets into public avenues and boulevards lined with worthy buildings. Cities should have built-in expressions of “moral” and “political” significance; they should project “public magnificence.”

But in their “green countrie towne,” William Penn and Thomas Holme avoided any kind of unctuous, obsequious expression. Their plan for Philadelphia was quite the opposite: modesty and restraint. That’s the original vision for Philadelphia’s center square, the nucleus where the city’s DNA would propagate.

But then, in the 1870s, they blew the lid off Philadelphia’s planning toolkit. It started with the design for City Hall, which grew more immense and more ornate every year. And, as if this bright white-marble building rising out of a sea of red brick in a style akin to the Louvre wasn’t enough, its designers encrusted the exterior with hundreds of allegorical and historical sculptures. Then they topped it all off with a giant bronze rendition of the founder. Apparently Philadelphians had enough after two centuries of understatement. Now was the time to indulge in full-blown “public magnificence.”

How would this new city be made to look and feel? That was the question for the time.

The Parkway Model Looking [North]West, [Mayor’s Reception Room, City Hall, May 1911.] (PhillyHistory.org)

At first, the answer was to create a “way to the park”—the newly expanded Fairmount Park. Then that concept got an exuberant upgrade. Replicate the axis of Broad Street by cutting a new diagonal swath northwest from City Hall. Make the boulevard a bold starting and ending point for a grand boulevard. Here would be more, much more, than a mere way to the park. Here was a destination in and of itself: The Parkway.

The idea caught on and grew. And in 1911, when 200 city planners gathered in Philadelphia for their conference, the centerpiece in the room where they deliberated (the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall itself) was nothing less than a 30-foot model of the vision. This was how public magnificence was going to play out in the 20th century. A departure and a glorification. A Quaker apotheosis—if such a thing was possible—something big enough and new enough, to play in the same ballpark as City Hall. Who knows, the Parkway might even up the game.

The Parkway Model Looking [from the Northwest], Mayor’s Reception Room, City Hall, 1911. (PhillyHistory.org)

No longer would the 17th-century grid hold back urbanity. Here, in all of its diagonal glory, severing an entire quarter of Penn-Holme Philadelphia, was a contrary vision of a fresh, new city—a City Beautiful, though still in plaster and papier-mâché.

Charles Mulford Robinson , the man who gave the City Beautiful movement it’s name, came to the conference in 1911 and declared it so.

“America is waking up,” declared W. Templeton Johnson in anticipation of the exhibition. “Conservative Philadelphia is taking a great step forward” in its new priority to turn “away from the checker-board plan, the curse of our American cities.”

“They have planned radial streets after the French manner, but with a constantly increasing width on leaving the center so as to create a great path for fresh country air to come blowing in to the very vitals of a great city.”

“The great purpose of the Philadelphia exhibition is to start a campaign of education, to attract people to the City Hall, and once there to show them graphically and expeditiously by means of plans, beautifully prepared perspectives, and photographs what far-seeing men are doing to make the cities of the world not only more beautiful to look upon, but better places to live in. It is hoped that not only Philadelphians, but people from all parts of the country may come to this exhibition, and with the aid of the competent guides which it is proposed to have, learn the great lesson of good city planning, and spread its propaganda through the city and over the land.”

The model stood at the heart of the “International Exhibition of City Planning” which was “on view free to the public, in the corridors of the City Hall from May 15 to June 15” 1911.  The headlines screamed approval: “Splendid Municipal and Educational Buildings Will Line Sides of Parkway;” “City Planners Loud in Praise of Philadelphia.”

The model is gone, long gone, but we have these and other photographs of it. Eight in all: From the City Hall end of the model there is this one (a detail of which is illustrated, top) and another. There’s a bird’s eye view from Broad Street South. And yet one more from the East. At the Northwest end of the Parkway, there’s this view of Fairmount from across the Schuylkill. And another from further downstream. On axis from the Northwest there’s this view (a detail of which is illustrated above) and other at a similar angle showing more of the park.

You’ll find other historical material as well: William E. Groben’s Bird’s Eye Perspective of Fairmount, the subject of this earlier post. And if this is all a bit of Déjà vu, maybe you read this post back in 2011, which, as we see it, would have been the best time to celebrate the Parkway’s Centennial.

[Sources:  David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989); W. Templeton Johnson, “The Coming City Planning Exhibition,” in The Survey, April 1911, pp. 183-184; “Nation’s Experts to Inspect New Plan: Splendid Municipal and Educational Buildings Will Line Sides of Parkway,”  The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 1911; and “City Planners Loud in Praise of Philadelphia” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 16, 1911.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Would Rocky Run Up These Steps?

Fairmount Park Plaza – Municipal Art Center, William E. Groben, Architect, Department of Public Works [1911], detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

When architects first designed the far end of the parkway at Fairmount, the biggest challenge was to make an extravagant project palatable to taxpaying Philadelphians.

In the Spring of 1907, street car magnate and would-be philanthropist Peter A.B. Widener proposed an art museum, acropolis-style, atop Fairmount. As architect Paul P. Cret first designed it, the steps would zigzag upward, emphasizing the verticality of Fairmount and ignoring the sweeping power of the parkway axis. In the Spring of 1911, William E. Groben’s drawings, accompanied by a 30-foot model, would be centerpieces in a month-long exhibition at City Hall. These sold the public on the grand vision for the parkway, but the zigzag steps remained as proposed. It took several more years before architects extended the broad axis of the parkway up to the top of Fairmount. And it would take another six decades for the site to come alive with a narrative powerful enough to have mythical proportions.

Who’d have guessed the parkway’s original references to ancient classicism would, so many decades later, become electrified in the public imagination by an emerging Hollywood action hero? That the parkway’s magic sauce would be in the museum’s steps?

To facilitate this kind of animation, however, the scene would require wide granite steps sweeping upward to a plateau overlooking the city’s skyline. The original design wouldn’t have inspired Sylvester Stallone to write and produce his famous scene. The original steps defied Rocky’s exuberant spirit and the scene’s visual openness. Those steps would have clashed with the sight and sound of Rocky bounding up at dawn, forging, in a cinematic crescendo, a spiritual connection with the film’s protagonist and Philadelphia’s imagination.

As redesigned and built, the steps merge axis and access, providing Stallone and Rocky director John G. Avildsen a place to craft a scene for posterity. In de-industrializing Philadelphia, Rocky brought the city’s faux acropolis to life with a story worthy of ancient legend.

To help pull that off, Avildsen brought in inventor Garrett Brown, who had “developed a harness to wear on his shoulders from which he could suspend a camera” allowing it remain “balanced and stable (and) cushioned…” Brown’s Steadycam enabled him “to move with, and around, his subject while filming with a fluid intimacy.”

For the musical score, Avildsen reached out to Bill Conti, a young graduate of the Juilliard School. Avildsen sat Conti down with a glass of red wine, showed him “a few of the rough cuts of Rocky boxing Apollo Creed” while playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

“That’s the kind of sound I want, rather than a rock and roll,” Avildsen told Conti. “This music makes boxing more important, almost more ethereal.”

According to Michael Vitez, in Rocky Stories, “Conti began his fanfare with “a blast of trumpets… That brassy sound is what the Greeks and Romans want you to hear going into battle,” he said. “That is the part that makes guys want to die.”

“’The genius of Rocky,’ film historian Jeanine Basinger once told Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey, ’is how it used the Steadicam not merely to create movement, but to get us into Rocky’s shoes and his skin.’”

“It’s a fairy tale,” claimed Avildsen, albeit one tailored to a modern-day attention span. “This is the peak, a pinnacle that is accessible to people,” said Brown, “it’s not like climbing the damn Alps … It can be done in thirty seconds.”

“You can’t borrow Superman’s cape,” agreed Stallone. “You can’t use the Jedi laser sword. But the steps are there. The steps are accessible. And standing up there, you kind of have a piece of the Rocky pie. You are part of what the whole myth is.”

The as-built steps make the scene, they enable the myth. Together, claims Buzz Bissinger, the site and the myth make the steps “one of the great architectural icons of the modern world.”

The architects weren’t the only ones who needed to tweak their original thinking for this to come together. Stallone’s first idea for the scene had Rocky carrying his dog, Butkus, a 120-pound bull mastiff, up the museum’s 72 steps. Just as the architects moved beyond their original zigzag design, Stallone, too, “abandoned” his original idea.

And the Philadelphia story is better off for both changes.

[Fairmount Park Plaza – Municipal Art Center, William E. Groben, Architect, Department of Public Works, 1911] (PhillyHistory.org)

[Sources:  David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989); Laura Holzman, “A Question of Stature: Restoring and Ignoring Rocky,” Public Art Dialogue, October, 2014; Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps (Paul Dry Books, 2006) .]

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Atop the Shifting, Toxic Dump Now Known as The Logan Triangle

825 West Roosevelt Boulevard, October 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

“Should nothing be done,” warned engineers after the 1986 Valentine’s Day explosion and fire that destroyed a row of houses in Logan, “catastrophic failure of numerous dwellings is highly probable.”

But doing something would have been the exception to the rule.

A powerful early warning that the neighborhood of Logan was sinking came 27 years earlier, right around the corner from the 1986 incident at 10th Street between Courtland and Wyoming. On the afternoon of Halloween eve—mischief night—a trio of explosions a few hours apart rocked the rowhouses of the 800 block of West Roosevelt Boulevard, causing damage and alarm. Then the 1959 incident conveniently slipped from public memory. Not one of the dozens of news stories from the 1980s and 1990s  recalled what happened in 1959.

After the 1986 explosions, engineers found nearly 1000 houses unstable. As the then Mayor W. Wilson Goode put it, the “residents of Logan came to the city and demanded: ‘Solve this problem.’” The Goode administration responded, creating a corporation “to pool state and federal money to compensate and relocate the homeowners.”

After the 1959 incident? PGW repaired its cracked gas main and life went on; the truth buried, the inevitable ignored.

Visit that block today and you’ll see the catastrophe that played out, albeit in the slow motion of government bureaucracy. A few months after the 1986 incident, residents of 23 homes were told to move out … because they were in “imminent danger of collapse.” … An additional 56 were found to be in “dangerous” condition.” Two years later, eleven houses on the 800 block of Roosevelt Boulevard were the first to be demolished. By 2000, more than 950 more would be vacated and pulled down.

Today, the 800 block of West Roosevelt Boulevard is a small, anonymous edge of a 35-acre, no-man, no house zone, a monument to a century of greed, ineptitude and failure, the likes of which is unprecedented in urban history.

821 West Roosevelt Boulevard, October 31, 1959 (PhillyHistory.org)

Here’s how it all started in 1959:

Six-and-a-half feet under the east side of 9th Street, a 30-inch gas main developed a crack. Gas seeped into underground pockets and went undetected until five homes about 25 feet away: 819, 821, 823, 825, and 827 West Roosevelt Boulevard were racked by three explosions that shook the neighborhood and set fire to the houses. The blasts commenced at 3:05 P.M. Friday, October 30th.

At 819, windows at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Wallman and their two children were blown out, also ripping out their Venetian blinds. Lee Bamberger, 97 and his wife Anne, 87, were resting in their living room at 817 until “driven to the street” by the smoke.

Next door to the Wallmans at 821, Ella Coleman lived with her invalid grandmother. Coleman arrived home from work just in time for the third and most intense explosion. Just as she entered her house Coleman was about knocked down. Dazed, seeing that her kitchen was on fire, she managed to get her grandmother to the street.

At 823, smoke and fire drove out Dr. M. M. Mandel from his basement office and his mother, Mary Manuel, from her second-floor apartment. G. S. Yaros escaped his first floor apartment. Everyone ran to the street, “shaken by the blasts.”

“I never heard anything like it before,” Mary Mandel told a reporter, adding she saw flames coming from the cellar window of Snyder’s home” at 825.

There, Evelyn Snyder was “hurled to the floor” by the explosions. “One of her two daughters, Sharon, 13, had just returned home from Olney high school.” Both escaped, though the Snyder required medical attention at nearby Einstein Medical Center.

According to newspaper accounts, the force of the explosions “ripped joists and bulged brick walls in several of the homes. Debris was found half a block away.”

Only a few decades before, the entire Wingohocking Valley had been filled in and remade into flat, fake, developable land. When the United States Geological Survey studied samples of what lay below the surface, they confirmed that the 800 block of Roosevelt Boulevard had been built on top of 30 to 48 feet of unstable coal ash. An estimated 500,000 cubic yards of the stuff had been hauled from Center City on specially modified trolley cars in a years-long project to raise the level of the landscape.

“It took decades for the inadequacy of the ash to be revealed, explains Adam Levine. Over time, “large pockets of the fill had compacted and washed away, as evidenced by an epidemic in the neighborhood of sagging porches, cracking foundations, and warped floors…” Not to mention the occasional explosion and fire.

The Army Corps of Engineers would estimate “site improvements including soil compaction” that would cost $48,500,000, the majority of which would be for “new structural fill.” And the problem wasn’t limited to the shifting, so-called “land.”

Logan, a/k/a a dump disguised as a neighborhood, is toxic. The average urban soil background lead level is about 735 parts per million (ppm). In 2000, the EPA tested 30 acres and found that more than nine acres has lead levels of 800 to 5,000 ppm. One sample topped out at 22,300. (A level of 400 ppm is enough to trigger remedial action.)

Today, at the no-man’s land known as Logan Triangle, doing nothing may be the only reasonable option.

[Sources: “3 Mysterious Blasts Rock Boulevard area; 5 Homes Ignited,” Inquirer, October 31, 1959; “Boulevard Explosions Traced to Main Break,” Inquirer, November 1, 1959; Introduction by Adam Levine to Harold Cox, “Filling Low Land:A story of ash-dumping in the Wingohocking Creek Watershed,” (excerpt from Utility Cars of Philadelphia, 1971); Ann W. O’Neill and Gene Seymour; “The Logan Motion,” The Philadelphia Daily News, March 26, 1986; William K. Stevens, Sinking Homes Shock Neighborhood,” The New York Times, November 2, 1986; Linda Loyd, “Logan Houses Start Coming Down,” Inquirer, February 19, 1988; Larry Copeland, “A Lift from Sinking Homes Red Tape Delayed One Family’s Exodus from Logan,” Inquirer, June 14, 1994; Maria Panaritis, “Logan Residents, Saying Their Homes are Sinking, Seek Aid,” Inquirer, August 13, 1999; Mark Jaffe, “Up To $2 Million to go Toward Lead Removal Testing Found ‘Unacceptable,’” Inquirer, January 11, 2000; Logan Triangle (Urban Land Institute Philadelphia Technical Assistance Program), September 10, 2009; Thomas J. Walsh, “Redevelopment Hopes Sinking for Logan Triangle,” PlanPhilly, January 23, 2010];

Also see the PhillyHistory post: How Philly Got Flat: Piling it on at the Logan Triangle.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

David Goodis: Gritty Angel of Angst

13th Street North from Buttonwood St. March 24, 1959. John McWhorter, photographer (PhillyHistory.org)

How could David Goodis not have known John T. McIntyre, and envied his accomplishments as a writer?

Goodis was a journalism student at Temple in 1936, shooting for a writing career. McIntyre’s novel, Steps Going Down, published by Farrar and Rinehart that year, landed a top award in the All Nation’s Prize Novel Competition. If Goodis wasn’t contributing to The Owl, Temple’s student magazine, he would be working on his own novel, which would be published in 1939, shortly after his 23rd birthday. In Retreat from Oblivion, Goodis crafted an international tale of intrigue, love and war—drenched in alcohol. Its publication would propel his writing career from Philadelphia to Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side in New York, then onto Hollywood.

Actually, Goodis never completely left Philadelphia. In Hollywood he’d survive in part by couch surfing; when in Philly he’d return to his childhood bedroom in East Oak Lane. Within a few years, Goodis would come home for good. What drove him back? Goodis didn’t exactly take to California culture. Sure, Hollywood adapted his second novel, Dark Passage for a film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but ditched his original ending for a happy one. Meanwhile, at home, Goodis’ new wife Elaine filed for divorce. Goodis wrote a revenge novel, Behold This Woman (1947) that was set—where else—in Philadelphia. “The book is raw,” declares davidgoodis.com. “Goodis’ pain is raw. His scars are unhealed. The novel oozes with resentment. Clara [his Elaine character] teases men. She manipulates men. She exploits men.”

Goodis had found his footing—even if he didn’t entirely know it at the time—writing Philadelphia Noir.

After wrapping up obligations out west, Goodis returned to Philadelphia full time in 1950 and makes the seamier side of his native city the subject of a dozen novels, finding inspiration in Philadelphia’s own distinctive noirscape: skid row, the waterfront; working class neighborhoods and dark, frigid, wind-blown streets. Goodis put out as many as 10,000 words per day and took gritty to new levels of literary despair.

Cassidy’s Girl, published by Gold Metal in 1951 (the year of McIntyre’s death) turned out to be Goodis’ proof of concept. This sodden tale of sympathetic losers living and drinking on the Delaware waterfront sold a million copies.

On the river side of Dock Street the big ships rocked gently on the black water like monstrous hens, fat and complacent in their roosts. Their lights twinkled and threw blobs of yellow on the cobbled street bordering the piers. Across Dock Street the stalls of the fish market were shuttered and dark, except for cracks of light from within, where purveyors of Delaware shad and Barnegat crab and clam and Ocean City flounder were preparing their merchandise for the early-morning trade. As Cassidy passed the fish market, a shutter opened and a mess of fish guts came sailing out, aimed at a large rubbish can. The fish guts missed and landed against Cassidy’s leg.

Cassidy moved toward the opened shutter and glowered at the fat, sweaty face above a white apron.

“You,” Cassidy said. “You look where you’re throwin’ things.”

“Aw, shut up,” the fish merchant said. He started to close the shutter. Cassidy grabbed the shutter and held it open. “Who you tellin’ to shut up?”

Another face appeared within the stall. Cassidy saw the two faces as a double-headed monstrosity. The two faces looked at each other and the fat face said, ‘It ain’t nothin’. Just that liquored-up bum, that Cassidy.”  

Hunting Park Avenue – Underpass. East of East River Drive., June 19, 1950. Charles J. Bender, photographer. (PhillyHistory.org)

The next year he put out more novels: Street of the Lost and Of Tender Sin. The year after that Moon in the Gutter and The Burglar, adapted to film starring Dan Duryea and Jane Mansfield.

He turned his back on her, moved to the cashier’s stand. He paid his check, left the restaurant and stood on the corner waiting for a cab. The night air had a thick softness and the smell of stale smoke from factories that had been busy in the day, and the smell of cheap whiskey and dead cigarettes and Philadelphia springtime. Then something else came into it and he breathed it in, and he knew the color of this perfume was tan. 

She stood behind him. “Usually I don’t gamble like this.” He faced her. “Where would you like to go?”

“Maybe someplace for a drink.”

“I don’t feel like a drink.”

“Tell me,” she said. “Are you hard to get along with?”

“No.”

“You think we can get along?”

“No.”

And then Down There, from 1956, begins with a classic Goodis scene of relentless despair and desolation:

There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they’d better find a heated cellar. The later November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened window’s, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.

The man was kneeling near the curb, breathing hard and spitting blood and wondering seriously if his skull was fractured. He’d been running blindly, his head down, so of course he hadn’t seen the telephone pole. He’d crashed into it face first, bound away and hit the cobblestones and wanted to call it a night.

But you can’t do that, he told himself. You gotta get up and keep running.

Filmmaker Francois Truffaut picked up Down There and produced Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) in 1960.  The setting shifted from Philadelphia to Paris, from Port Richmond to whatever the equivalent French quartier might be.

All good. Truffaut captured the feel—the existential texture—just right. And that’s what mattered most to readers and audiences not familiar with the authentic desperation known in Goodis’ Philadelphia.

[Sources: David Goodis and Robert Polito (editor) David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America: 2012); David Goodis, The Burglar, (originally published by Lion, 1953); David Goodis, Cassidy’s Girl, (originally published by Fawcett, 1951); David Goodis, Down There, (originally published by Gold Medal, 1956); David Goodis Internet Movie Database (IMDB); Dennis Miller, “Dark Journeys: The Best of Noir Fiction,Huffpost, THE BLOG, December 11, 2014, Updated Feb 10, 2015; Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell, Encyclopedia of Film Noir (ABC-CLIO, 2007), pp. 31-33.]

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Rise of Neighborhood Noir

Garbage Wagon – Loaded and Empty, January 26, 1938, Wenzel J. Hess (PhillyHistory.org)

The “Philadelphia Gothic” genre enjoyed a major breakthrough in the 1840s thanks to riots, crippling poverty, racial and religious discrimination and the lurid literature of George Lippard and Edgar Allan Poe. But the genre’s debut goes back to the 1790s, when Charles Brockden Brown mongered his brand of Philly-based fear.

As we said in a recent post: Philly Noir has always been with us. So what other literary stopping points are there along that gritty, smoke-veiled alley?

Enter John T. McIntyre, the Northern Liberties native who left school at eleven and graduated “into the streets.” For a time, McIntyre hauled “buckets of cow’s blood from an abattoir across a lot to a tannery” and did “pretty much nothing” until the age of twenty in 1891 when he began a balky writing career for newspapers and theater. His first stab at fiction, The Ragged Edge: A Tale of Ward Life & Politics, appeared in 1902 and begins:

Weary horses dragged ponderous trucks homeward, the drivers drooped upon their high seats and thought of cans of beer; a red sun threw shafts of light along the cross-town streets and between the rows of black warehouses. (3)

“McIntyre’s analytic eye examines the neighborhood drama to its minutest detail,” writes Ron Ebest, “the campaign, the clubs, the bars, the weddings, the wakes—complete with keening mourners—the schools, the churches, the houses and streets down to their dustiest brick.”

They turned into a quiet street leading toward the river. A cellar door opened, and a broad barb of light shot across the sidewalk; from the midst of this rose a pallid, spectral form, and stood looking calmly into the night. But it was only a baker, clad in his spotless working dress, popping out of his overheated basement for a breath of air. A great stack, towering skyward, and vomiting a blazing shower of sparks into the night, showed that they were nearing the mill. The huge, low, shed-like buildings lifted their corrugated walls, like the beginnings of greater structures; a knot of men were gathered about the wide doorway; they had limp, damp towels twisted about their necks and all smoked short pipes. Rows of puddlers, naked to the waist, their bodies glistening with perspiration, stood before the furnaces “balling” the molten metal; from time to time one would drench himself with water, and once more face the Cyclopean eye glaring so angrily upon him. (219-220)

900 North Front Street, October 20, 1915. Alonzo D. Biggard, photographer (PhillyHistory.org)

Beyond rich descriptions of the city, Ebest praises McIntyre’s “uncanny ability to replicate speech. So skillfully does he render Irish dialect, Irish-American pidgin, urban slang, and Yiddish-inflected English that complex conversations between multiple speakers can be read and followed without such guidelines as ‘he said’ or ‘she said;’ McIntyre’s people are recognizable by the sound of their voices.”

A red-faced, bare-armed woman opened a door in Murphy’s court and threw a pan of garbage into the gutter. Her next door neighbour was walking up and down the narrow strip of sidewalk, hushing the cry of a weazened baby.

“Is Jamsie not well, Mrs. Burns? “inquired the red-faced woman.

“Sorry the bit, Mrs. Nolan; he’s as cross as two sticks. It’s walk up an’ down the floor wid him I’ve been doin’ all the God’s blessed night. Scure till the wink av slape I’ve had since I opened me two eyes at half after foive yisterday mornin’.”

“Poor sowl ! Yez shud git him a rubber ring till cut his teeth on; it’s an illigant t’ing for childer’, I’m towld. (32)

“I am an incurable Philadelphian,” McIntyre liked to say. “I know it. I know the people. I’ve lived with them and they are part of me.”

“Mr. McIntyre’s people are the teamsters, the saloonkeepers, the corner grocer, the secondhand dealer, the undertaker, the sewer builders, the contractors and their gangs, and the families of all these people,” wrote the Chicago Daily Tribune. “The book is written in the language of the tenement house district and the conversation…abounds in the racy and picturesque vernacular of the race-track, the saloon, and the political club.”

The saloon was the only all-night establishment in the neighbourhood. It glittered with clusters of electric lamps and broad, gilt-framed mirrors; a marble- topped bar backed by pyramids of glasses and bottles stood upon one side.

They talked in a desultory way for some time, consuming much beer and many plates of sandwiches. Dawn stretched a grey hand through the window and dimmed the clusters of lights; and when they ranged along the bar for the last drink, the streets were filling with people hurrying toward their work.  (224)

Southwest Corner – 15th and Carpenter Streets, February 15, 1917 (PhillyHistory.org)

But Ragged didn’t make waves in literary circles. It would be another thirty-four years before McIntyre received major recognition, this time for Steps Going Down, his Depression-fueled novel also embedded in Philadelphia.

“It is the world of the rooming houses that exist handy to the burlesque theatres,” wrote Robert Van Gelder in The New York Times, “a world removed from the established order and largely inhabited by persons who at some time in their lives have developed the habit of trying to live by their wits, but have imperfectly mastered the procedure. The houses are drearily furnished, poorly lighted, damp and cold in Winter, hot and noisy in Summer; the rooms are painted in dirty, sickish green; the air heavy with the odors of slatternly living. … The men play pool, drink beer, find cocaine handy if they can get it and brood a great deal over lost opportunities.”

And the talk, “the sharp-edged talk of the wise guys” according to Van Gelder, is “here more artfully caught than in any book I have ever read…”

Percy Hutchinson, also in The New York Times, also applauded McIntyre’s ear for American dialogue. His characters “do not speak so much as volley forth words and phrases as a machine gun spits bullets. A foreigner knowing this book could be excused for concluding that American speech is a continuum of explosive sentences, and conversation a marathon contest in repartee.”

A novel ripe for Hollywood?

According to one of McIntyre’s obituaries in 1951, Hollywood lacked “the nerve to turn a John McIntyre book into celluloid. They were ‘too true to life.’”

[Sources include: John T. McIntyre The Ragged Edge: A Tale of Ward Life & Politics (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902); “Good First Novel,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 4, 1902; “John T. McIntyre,” Book News: A Monthly Survey of General Literature, November 1902, Vol. 21 No, 243 (John Wanamaker: Philadelphia, New York, Paris); Robert Van Gelder, Books of the Times, The New York Times, September 3, 1936; Percy Hutchinson, “Mr. McIntyre’s Story of the American Underworld: Steps Going Down by John T. McIntyre,” The New York Times, September 6, 1936; “John T. M’Intyre, Novelist, 79, Dies,” The New York Times, May 22, 1951; Ron Ebest, “Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down (1936),New Hibernia Review, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2004) pp. 86-99; Kevin Plunkett,Noir Town; The hard life of John McIntyre, the legendary Philly novelist nobody’s heard of,” by Kevin Plunkett. Philadelphia City Paper, March 16-22, 2006]

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Rowhouse Boom: Populist Victory or Philadelphia Noir?

Looking West on McKean Street from Front Street, July 20, 1901. (PhillyHistory.org)

The proudest moment for the Philadelphia rowhouse was in Chicago, of all places.

A two-story “Workingman’s House” was “put up at the Columbian Exposition,” reported Talcott Williams in 1893. And “there’s nothing more wonderful in all that marvelous Exposition than this proof that the laws, the habits, and the business of a city of one million people can be so arranged that even the day labor earning only $8 or $10 a week can own the roof over his head and call no man landlord.”

Williams noted that Philadelphia’s 80,000 rowhouses of the previous six decades had dramatically refashioned the city. “Philadelphia is not a city of palaces for the few, but a city of homes for the many—which is better,” he wrote. “It may not be “magnificent, but it is comfortable.”

Seven out of eight families in Philadelphia lived in “separate houses.” By comparison, in New York “only one family in six lives in a separate house…”

More than a matter of a family enjoying the “daily blessings” of “its own bath-tub, its own yard, its own staircase, and its own door step,” according to Williams, this was nothing less than “one of the world’s great industrial miracles.” He imagined the modest Philadelphia rowhouse as a declaration of independence in brick and mortar, a moral, populist victory that earned the city both domestic and civic superiority.

Philadelphia’s expanses of two-story rowhouses, claimed this oft-cited passage (also from 1893) “typify a higher civilization, as well as a truer idea of American home life, and are better, purer, sweeter than any tenement house systems that ever existed. They are what make Philadelphia a city of homes, and command the attention of visitors from every quarter of the globe.”

Looking East on McKean Street from 2nd Street, July 20, 1901. (PhillyHistory.org)

Southeast Corner, 25th and Kimball Streets, May 11, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

But for all the praise, there was a definite downside. Even Williams admitted that “street after street of small-two story brick houses looks rather mean and dingy,” noting that cobblestone pavements were bound to appear “rough and dirty.” But, he concluded, it’s “better to have bath-rooms by the ten thousand in small homes, than to have brilliant fountains playing in beautiful squares.”

No denying the “monotonous architectural effect” caused by endless miles of rowhouses. According to city planning pioneer Andrew Wright Crawford in 1905, the real estate developers were to blame. “In order to build the greatest number of houses on a street, they “want it straight and rectangular. They don’t care for the persons who are to live in these houses afterwards, and still less to they care for the good of the city as a whole.”

“This idea has been carried out with unremitting perseverance,” stated Crawford. All natural undulations had been leveled “throwing [a] severe mantle of unloviness” over the city’s many neighborhoods. “It is too late for Philadelphia to profit much by the broader intelligence of the present time,” admitted Crawford, “but it is possible that other cities and towns may learn something from her misfortune.”

2400 North Bancroft Street, November 12, 1959. (PhillyHistory,org)

It wasn’t as if Philadelphians hadn’t been warned early and often.

Visiting from industrial London in the 1840s, Charles Dickens described Philadelphia as “a handsome city, but distractingly regular. “After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street.”

In the 1830s, Thomas Hamilton visited and noted “the traveler is at first delighted with this Quaker paradise,” but “every street that presents itself seems an exact copy of those which he has left behind.” Hamilton’s patience wore thin and he soon felt “an unusual tendency to relaxation about the region of the mouth, which alternately terminates in a silent but prolonged yawn.”

“Philadelphia is mediocrity personified in brick and mortar,” he wrote. “It is a city laid down by square and rule, a sort of habitable problem,—a mathematical infringement on the rights of individual eccentricity, —a rigid and prosaic despotism of right angles and parallelograms.”

As early as 1790, none other than Thomas Jefferson advised those contemplating designs for the nation’s next and permanent capital to avoid Philadelphia’s “disgusting monotony”—a complaint that Jefferson claimed was shared by “all persons.”

By the 1940s, when novelist Jack Dunphy set his tale of the unpleasant life and desperate death of John Fury in working-class South Philadelphia, he employed the city’s endless rows with their familiar, expressive, depressing power. As Fury walked home from yet another hard day on the job as a coal-wagon driver, he crossed “Washington Avenue and walked down Nineteenth Street past Mifflin Street and Snyder Avenue until he came to a narrow side street. The street crushed between bigger streets was a poor affair, similar in width, to an alley. Its houses smothered close together, jammed two stories high, and with small wooden porches hung on their fronts, looked like stony red-faced criminals serving a life sentence. Stuck together and dependent one upon the other, they seemed to live in constant fear that someday and somehow one would be pardoned and leave and so jeopardize the rest of them. They stood then, these square red bricked houses, and there were many of them in Philadelphia, tortured row upon row of them, doing penitence and allowing life with its worn semblance of freedom to crowd within them.”

No coincidence that “Philadelphia noir” became a thing in the 20th century.

Actually, it always was a thing.

[For more posts on the Philadelphia rowhouse, see “The Quintessential Object of Industrial Philadelphia;” “How Philly Got Flat: Piling it on at the Logan Triangle;” and “The Philadelphia Rowhouse: American Dream Revisited.”]

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Pearls on Ridge

Ridge Avenue, West from 2064, December 6, 1960 (PhillyHIstory.org)

Ridge Avenue, West from 2064, December 6, 1960 (PhillyHIstory.org)

“Did you know,” asked the Tribune’s Joe Rainey in July 1931, “that never in the history of theatricals has one playhouse presented to the amusement lover as many stars as the Pearl Theatre…in the past six months?”

“A vaudeville and picture house” at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue, the Pearl opened Thanksgiving Day, 1927. First up was Lottie Gee, “the scintillating star of ‘Chocolate Dandies,’ ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Shuffle Along.’” Edith Spencer performed her “clever, original and unique song and dance numbers.” The audience enjoyed Sheldon Brooks, the Okeh recording artist, as well as the Taskiana Four, “melodic harmonizers without peers.” Don Heywood and his New York Syncopators were joined by Beano, “The Dancing Phool” and Watts and Ringold provided a comic finale before the “feature picture:” Tom Mix and his horse Tony in “Silver Valley.”

“Come end enjoy vaudeville and photoplays at their best,” promised the Pearl. “Watch our shows each week grow bigger and greater. Nothing in the history of amusements in Philadelphia has even equaled our effort for novelty, variety, comedy, ensemble, beauty and importance.”

The Pearl paired up Wilbur Sweatman, “The Colored King of Jazz with “The Loves of Carmen” starring Delores Del Rio. Soon after came Clara Bow in her Paramount production, “Hula,” directed by Victor Fleming. But not before a live feature with heavyweight pugilist George Godfrey, “The Black Shadow” and Wilbur De Paris with his band.

A seat in the orchestra? Fifty cents in the evening, thirty cents for a matinee. Balcony seats? Thirty five cents in the evening, twenty cents for a matinee.

“Meet your family, your girl or boy friend but do not stand outside or in the lobby. Meet them where you will be comfortable while waiting in our Salon on our Mezzanine Floor.” The ushers—and the Pearl’s want ads said only “light colored” and “good looking” applicants need apply—would welcome you.

“One of the greatest dispensers of rhythm in the land today,” Cab Calloway, stood for a long run, from January to July, 1931. “Night after night, millionaires have been seen rubbing elbows with the colored patrons…when their desires have carried them to this uptown house to see the paramount colored performers of the land under the spotlight. Many have driven from sixty to one hundred miles to see some of the sable actors and actresses who have made history for themselves…”

“Colored people didn’t have to go to a white house to see a stellar attraction.” Instead, “whites had to come to a colored house”—and according the Tribune, “it looked as if they liked it.”

“All races and classes have apparently been willing to form lines sometimes two blocks long just to gain entrance and see the ‘Duke,’ the ‘Cab,’ (and) the ‘Bojangles.” Ethel Waters, Bennie Moten and his band, Nina Mae McKinney (the star of “Hallelujah”) and Earl (Snakehips) Tucker who had recently headlined at the Lincoln downtown at Broad and Lombard. Audiences applauded George Dewey Washington, Eddie Green, Tim Moore, Chick Webb, Miller and Lyles and Butterbeans and Susie.

The 1,400-seat Pearl and the other Ridge Avenue Jazz emporiums are all gone. But there’s no stopping memory. On Saturday May 6th, Jazz history advocate Faye Anderson will lead a “Ridge Avenue Stroll Through Philly’s Jazz History” starting at the site of the Blue Note at 15th and Ridge. You’ll spot her holding a sign proclaiming “This Place Matters.”

The 13-stop stroll, organized by PlanPhilly as part of their Jane’s Walk series, will visit and recall the entire set of star-struck sites, from the Nite Cap, the Bird Cage Lounge, Butler’s Paradise Café, Ridge Cotton Club, Checker Café, Mr. Chips Bar, Irene’s Café, and, of course, the Pearl on Ridge.

[Sources: Irvin R. Glazer, Philadelphia Theatres, A-Z (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); The Philadelphia Tribune: “Joe Wood to Manage New Pearl Theatre.” Nov 17, 1927; “Want Ad, November 18, 1927; “Lottie Gee, Edith Spencer and Sheldon Brooks Open The Pearl,” November 24, 1927; “New Million Dollar Colored Theatre,” (Advertisement) December 5, 1927;  “The Pearl Theatre,” December 8, 1927;  “Snappy Show At Pearl,” December 20, 1927; “Where to Go and What to See,” May 14, 1931; “Theatres: Did You Know That?,” by Joe Rainey, July 2, 1931; and “Jules Bledsoe at Pearl,” May 10, 1932.]

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
  • Categories

  • Archives