12th and Pine: Where “The Cisco Kid” Became “The Big Man”

By transferring Captain Frank Rizzo, a/k/a “The Cisco Kid,” from the station house at 39th and Lancaster to 12th and Pine in May 1952, Police Commissioner Thomas J. Gibbons hoped to solve two problems. He increased law enforcement in Center City and saved Rizzo from himself in racially charged West Philadelphia.

Police Station, 12th and Pine Streets, before demolition, June 8, 1960. (PhillyHistory.org)

On Pine Street, the gung-ho Rizzo immediately got to work with a campaign of raids on Locust Street strip joints. And more. He ordered “a 24-hour raiding spree . . . of vagrants and panhandlers,” throughout Center City, sweeping more than 50 men off the streets. (Rizzo knew this “anti-mugger operation” would appeal to many law-abiding citizens.) His raiders turned eastward to Society Hill. “Police Seize 10 In Reefer Raid, last night at 2nd and Pine,” read a headline. Then he doubled down on his favorite targets: after-hours clubs, this time venturing beyond the Locust strip.

Police Station, 12th and Pine Streets, before demolition, June 8, 1960. Detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

According to biographer S. A. Paolantonio, Rizzo not only became “the frontline commander for the Center City officials who wanted Center City cleaned up,” he also became “an intriguing and hotly debated political figure in his own right.”

Rizzo’s raids sent a law and order message to the public, to law enforcement, to City Hall and to the media. Occasionally, his shenanigans backfired. In 1955, Rizzo and another officer chased down and arrested five carousing sailors. Then, back at the 12th and Pine Street station, they beat them with nightsticks. “Navy asks full probe of brutality,” read a headline.” Warrants were served on both Rizzo and the other officer, Robert O’Brien, charging aggravated assault and battery. Meanwhile, the sailors were fined $10 each and released.

The charges were soon dropped, but Commissioner Gibson knew full well Rizzo had beaten those sailors “for no reason.”

Rizzo’s ire then turned to the coffee houses of Center City, popular gathering spots for gays, interracial couples, artists, intellectuals and “followers of jazz music.” “’Beatnik’ Center Raided by Police” read a headline the day after police descended on the Humoresque Coffee Shop at 2036 Sansom Street. Patrons “in traditional garb of chinos and sweaters” were were charged with breach of peace and “released after brief interrogation.”

Other targets included the Proscenium Coffee Shop and Experimental Theater at 2204 Chestnut Street, the Gilded Cage at 21st and Rittenhouse Streets, the Artists’s Hut at 2006 Walnut Street, but Rizzo seemed to have a special interest in the Humoresque, which, according to the Inquirer, was considered to be a “‘gathering place’ for drug addicts” and a destination for “sex deviates” openly “flaunting . . . their sexual immorality.”

In the midst of one raid in February 1959, Rizzo stood before the gathering crowd, many of whom supported his actions, pointed to the Humoresque’s young owner, Mel Heifetz, and shouted: “Are you going to allow that creep to operate that den of iniquity?”

Rizzo threatened Heifetz: “If you defy me, I’ll hang you from the chandelier.”

Heifetz, who much later would make a $16 million gift to The Philadelphia Foundation to support LGBTQ-serving organizations, sued Rizzo and lost, but not before the captain was transferred again, this time to a new station in the Northeast, far from Sansom Street.

Stewart Klein of the Daily News (and later a prominent film, theater and television critic) felt sufficiently inspired to write a poem celebrating the occasion of Rizzo’s departure from Center City.  “Better than anything at the time” Paolantonio observed, An Espresso of Sad Parting, captured “how much Frank Rizzo had become a folk figure—hero to some, feared by others.” Here’s an excerpt:

In the Locust Street coffee parlors
Through the doors he often tore
Say it softly no one hollers:
“He don’t live here anymore.”
Down Mole, Ranstead, Quince
The streets the days of yore;
Sly smiles instead of winces:
“He don’t live here anymore.”
Somewhere the hoods are crying,
Somewhere the dips are sore
But expressoed lips are sighing
“He don’t live here anymore.”

Ten years after he took the helm at the 12th and Pine, “Rizzo was at the forefront of the national debate over law enforcement. He recognized the political power of fear.”

According to Paolantonio, Rizzo had become “the biggest of the big men in the Philadelphia Police Department – a big cop for all America.”

“It was only a matter of time before he had the title to go with it.”

[Sources: Joseph Daughen, “Center-City Booze Bistros Have Lost Their A-peal,” Bulletin June 14 1962; “Drive on ‘Muggers’ Ordered by Captain,” The Philadelphia Tribune, September 2, 1952; “Police Seize 10 In Reefer Raid, last night at 2nd and Pine.” Inquirer, October 4, 1952; “5 Sailors Accuse Rizzo of ‘Vicious’ Beating With Stick in Station,” Inquirer, August 24, 1955; “‘Beatnik Place Raided by Police,” Inquirer, February 14, 1959; “2 City Departments, State Agency Probe 4 Midtown Coffee Shops,” Inquirer, February 19, 1959; “Neighbors’ Suit To Ask Closing of Coffee Shop,” Inquirer, February 25, 1959; “Coffee Figure Charges Rizzo Threatened Him,” Inquirer, February 27, 1959; S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (Camino Books, 1993, 2003).]

More PhillyHistory posts on Frank Rizzo here, here and here.

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2 Comments

  1. Martin Kelley
    Posted September 4, 2018 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    It seems completely incomprehensible with Starbucks on every other corner nowadays but Rizzo really did kill coffeeshops as an entire business category with these raids. I remember hopping the train with a bunch of friends in the early 1990s to go to the opening of the Last Drop at 12th and Pine. Finally, Philly had one of these exotic places.

  2. Dennis Bedard
    Posted September 5, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Years ago, there was a rumor of him having an affair with Blaze Starr, a “dancer” at one of the clubs in his jurisdiction. His harassment of strip clubs gave rise to the strip bars and porn palaces on Admiral Wilson Boulevard across the Ben Franklin Bridge in NJ.

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