ALL THAT I REMEMBER about entering heaven is that it was raining like hell. They let me ride up in the truck with the moving men. It was like those great cowboy movies I used to see all the time at the Jackson theater, which we lived next to, three stories up on top of the drugstore where we shared an apartment with a family of rats.
Now we were the pioneers. The moving truck was our stagecoach, sloshing through the streets that weren’t paved yet into the wilderness of the new frontier of Northeast Philadelphia, a place where the homesteads were so big that you didn’t have to go to a park to see grass, you had it all around you, over nine thousand bucks worth of grass and bricks and status. That was a big deal back in 1949. For my parents, it was almost their life’s savings for the down payment after almost 20 years of stuffing dollar bills in the cookie jar. Now they were capitalists, blowing their whole wad. They followed the moving van up to the promised land in a Yellow Cab.
“This will be good for the grass,” my father said, looking out through the thunder and rain like a new farmer surveying his first crop. My mother, who had never seen rain like this in South Philadelphia, was a little more suspicious that this was a warning, the wrath of God telling us to stay off His turf.
The pavements weren’t laid yet, so my father, knee deep in the big muddy, had to carry me on his shoulders all the way up to the door. I never saw him move so fast.
The rains left us in a sea of madness for days. My mother was sure that our whole block was going to float down Robbins Avenue into the Delaware. When the sun finally came out, it took almost a week to dry things up. There was a new development just starting up across the Boulevard, my mother said. Maybe God had taken the rain there.
It was at the end of this week of innocence and light that my mother called to me from downstairs to go look out the front bedroom window to see what the workmen were doing. I just could not understand what I was seeing, these two men with what looked like a big roll of carpet starting at the corner and laying this two-foot-wide strip of green next to the curb all the way down the block.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“They’re putting in the grass,” my mother said. “It’s already planted on the roll. All they have to do is lay it in place. It’s something new. I think they call it prefabricated.”
It was the first time it hit me, fool that I was, thinking grass was something that grew in the ground. There, in the yellow haze of a land I did not understand, I saw two men in work clothes putting Mother Nature on the run, rolling out the green carpet up to the plastic gates of a mass-produced heaven. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I realized this was what Northeast Philadelphia was all about.
BUT THEN THINGS HAVE CHANGED a lot in 21 years. The grass is growing by itself now, and the roses bloom every year, and that twig we planted in the backyard way back when has grown into a monster of a spreading apple tree. A couple weeks ago, a gang of punks from around the corner jumped the fence and nearly bared the tree of its fruit. My father went out to yell at them and they pelted him with apples. The ones that missed him splattered all over the garage.
The next night, they came back to finish the job. My mother was sitting in the living room watching television when she heard the noise in the kitchen and ran in to see the window that separated the backyard from the kitchen table shattered all over the floor, and the refrigerator at the far end of the room dripping the juice of the pulpy impact from a well-thrown apple. My mother was shaking.
“If I’d have been in there,” she said, “I could have been killed.”
She tried to impress this fact on the two cops who arrived a half-hour later from the police station two blocks away. They said they’d gotten a lot of complaints about roving gangs lately and that they would look into it if they could, but that there was probably nothing they could do. One of them suggested that my mother just go out and cut down the apple tree. It wasn’t until then that I realized that this was what Northeast Philadelphia was all about.
“ONE OF THE REASONS people move to the Northeast is to escape the blacks,” says one local politician. “They also think they’re escaping crime and low life. What they don’t realize is that these are not color problems, they are social and economic ones.”
He’s right. A recently released study shows that, so far this year, property crimes in the Northeast are becoming out of sight. And this study is talking about white criminals in white neighborhoods.
And just about the biggest problem the Northeast police are facing now is drugs. “It used to be mostly a ghetto problem,” one cop says, “but it’s come up to the Northeast and it’s clobbering us. It used to be the kids would get together in Pennypack Park or someplace on a Friday night and down a few bottles of wine and get a little high. But now it’s dope, and now it’s dangerous.”
When one of those kids in the park took some LSD one night a couple months back and then jumped out of a window at Nazareth Hospital and killed himself, the cops started a real crackdown on the pushers who’ve been bringing the stuff in.
“What’s happened now,” the politician added, “is that a lower class of whites has moved into the lower Northeast and they’ve chased a lot of people out to the far Northeast. Pretty soon there’ll be no place left to go, except to leave the city altogether.”
That’s what my parents had thought they’d done when they moved here, to the Northeast, to Mayfair. In the early years, we would take walks to see the corn grow where someone later planted row houses. We would go play in the wilds of empty lots where shopping centers now stand. On Sundays, we would take rides up Bustleton Avenue to see the cows and ride the ponies. And I was raised on matinees on Saturday afternoons, looking up at Hoppy, Gene and Roy, oh boy. This was at the Devon theater on Frankford Avenue. It was the only real religion we knew then, me and Danny Sammin and Arnold Snyder and Billy Flanagan, strutting down Robbins Avenue with 35¢ in our pockets—a quarter to get in and a dime for the candy counter. When the Devon ran out of movies to run, they used to give away bicycles. The manager would always have the lucky drawing between features. He would fish his hand in a bowlful of tickets.
“We’re gonna have a winner this week, boys and girls. Hold on to your stubs, here we go. And the winner iszzzz nummmber seh-vennn thirrrteeee tha-reeee!”
There was no 733. There never was. So they’d just hold the bike over until the next week to rob us of our 35¢ again. It wasn’t until about the third or fourth grade that I ran into a kid who said his father was the manager at the Devon. And every time I saw the kid out of school, he was riding a brand new bike, with a license plate that had no name on it, just the number 733.
When the bikes ran out, they turned the Devon into an “art theater.” I have gone to the Devon only once since then. It was back in high school when a buddy and I had to lie about our ages to get in one Friday night to see an arty film about a girl with very big boobs who kept getting raped and sodomized. No one was giving out two-wheelers that night, but I had never seen the Devon so packed. It was then that I realized that this was what Northeast Philadelphia was all about.
WE SHOULD MAKE IT KNOWN HERE just what we are talking about when we say Northeast Philadelphia. There are really no official geographical boundaries, except back over 100 years ago when Northeast Philadelphia was a separate county, anything north of Tacony Creek was considered part of it. Tacony Creek is that little trickle of water that meets the west at Cheltenham, and wanders down just above Olney and Logan and, with a little help from Frankford Creek, splashes the Delaware around Bridesburg, which—depending on whom you talk to—is either part of lower Torresdale or upper Kensington. Otherwise, the Northeast is bounded by Montgomery County to the west, the Delaware River to the east, and the Lincoln Drive-In to the north. That’s close enough, anyway. Really, most people consider Sears on the Boulevard to be the start of the real Northeast. Others would place it at Oxford Circle, a couple miles up.
This geographic gerrymandering takes in the nine wards of the Tenth Councilmanic District, partially owned and largely operated by Republican David Silver. It also takes up all but one ward of the Sixth District, headed by Democrat Joseph Zazyczny.
Politics is a big part of the Northeast. Geography, except when applied to politics, is not. The Northeast is not really a geographical area, it is a way of life. It is the way of life that brought the life’s savings out of South Philly and West Philly and Kensington and Strawberry Mansion and set them down on a little corner of heaven in Oxford Circle or Mayfair or Frankford.
Back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the people came unto this land, barren that it was, and settled down all in a row. There is something basically obscene about row homes. Maybe it is just sharing your walls with the people next door. Brick and stone and cement, the same things all these people were escaping when they moved. So now they’ve got half a lawn and a garage and a backyard with a cyclone fence around it. Back 20-some years ago, the row homes of what is now the lower Northeast sprang up as fast as the dandelions in the gardens that fronted them. There was no particular planning for these homes or for the streets they grew up on.
The words “planning” and “Northeast” are rarely used in the same sentence. The builders just came in and ate up the land and belched back row houses. They grabbed onto parcels of nice green earth and blasted them into submission and inseminated them with their big red bricks.
By 1950, there were more humans in the Northeast than cows. It is hard to tell just how many, though, because census figures are so vague. The 1970 census, for instance, will probably show that there are close to 600,000 people in the Northeast. This is an unofficial figure because Mayor Tate and Company have been sitting on the numbers, demanding a recount. Some people around City Hall say if they sit on the census long enough, they’ll be able to put off next year’s mandatory councilmanic redistricting until 1976, which would give the Northeast the same representation it’s had on council for many years, which is next to nothing.
Even when the census figures are released they will be unofficial as far as the Northeast is concerned because nobody ever bothered to figure out just where the Northeast starts. The census people are counting anything that moves in the area east of Broad Street and north of Erie Avenue. That takes in about all of Logan, parts of Olney, a big chunk of Kensington and most of the dead fish in the Delaware.
It’s too bad nobody at the Census Bureau had the foresight to buy a detailed map of the city. A fairly easy way to figure out how many people there are in the Northeast is to take the most widely accepted boundary (Tacony Creek) , take the number of people living there as of the 1960 census, and tack on a 20% increase. In 1960, by this count, there were some 353,432 souls in the Northeast, give or take a fish. If you round that off to the nearest and add that 20%, you’ve got a 1970 figure of around 425,000—almost a quarter of the city’s population.
The number has more than doubled since 1950, when the big Northeast land boom got off the ground. And 1950 is when the Northeast really began, even though the area’s colonization dates well back into the 1600s when it was first farmed by Germans and Swedes. Maybe it is of some significance in noting their contribution to the area that the Bulletin Almanac, in cataloging historical sites, lists four in the Northeast—a church and three cemeteries. This does not include Benjamin Rush’s house, which the city tore down by mistake last year. So we won’t mention that.
There were other contributions, though, made by these settlers of yore. There were great estates and great farms and something called pride in the land. This was before the so-called developers came in and made Indians of the sons of the settlers, buying up their land to put up little brick rows. The old rolling farms of the Cheltenham border and the river’s edge and old Bustleton and Somerton are all but gone now. About the only place left to take your kids if they want to see cows in Philadelphia is Cross Brothers.
There are still German-American clubs spotted through the Northeast, but they are rather empty reminders of a full and fancy heritage. Now, everything from the beer to the polka music is canned.
These people weren’t chased away completely, mind you. Many of them are still found in stately little enclaves of older and bigger homes in places like Lawndale and Crescentville and Tacony and on up. In Bustleton and Somerton, some of them have even kept large hunks of land—like front lawns.
THE FIRST GROUPS to be boxed in brick when the big boom started were the Catholics and the Jews. They still make up most of the population of the Northeast. Many of them grew up side by side in the cozy streets of South Philadelphia, only to step up to the segregation of the promised land—the Jews to Oxford Circle and environs, the Catholics to Frankford and beyond. To some, it’s hard to figure out why this happened. After all, the houses were the same and the streets were the same. What it was, some said, was a difference in culture. It became most evident when businesses started to spring up. In Frankford, it seemed like there was a bar on almost every corner. In Oxford Circle, it was a beauty parlor.
The realtors helped build up the separation to prospective buyers. It was the “live with your own kind” pitch—a fear tactic of sorts similar to the one they now use to keep the blacks out. Roosevelt Boulevard provided the natural border line. Jews to the west, Catholics to the east. The welcome wagon never crossed the border. Most of the streets were laid out north and south, and few of the east
and west streets bothered to cross the Boulevard. The opening of the new frontier probably helped set ecumenism back a few decades. In many cases, it wasn’t until high school that many of the kids in the Northeast got to see anybody who wasn’t “their own kind.” Look at a map. It’s no coincidence that all of the Catholic high schools are east of the Boulevard.
SOME KIDS WERE LUCKY, though, because they were able to break ‘through the rigid barriers. Danny Sammin and I were two of them. We grew up in the DMZ. It was a thin strip of rows that ran up the Catholic side of the Boulevard where the religious registry was almost half and half. Danny Sammin and I lived in each other’s houses and bled each other’s blood. There was nothing that could ever separate us, we said, when we used an old penknife to cut our fingers to be blood brothers for life. Nothing could separate us—nothing but “progress.” When we were 13 years old and just ready for high school, Danny Sammin’s old man announced that he had saved up enough money to buy a brand new split-level duplex over in upper Frankford. Both our families pledged that we would visit each other all the time so me and Danny Sammin could still be blood brothers. In September of that year, I started Lincoln High and Danny Sammin started Father Judge. It was the last we ever saw of each other.
THEY WERE THE FIRST to move out, the Sammins. They were the first people I knew who lived above Cottman Avenue, in what was later to be called the Great Northeast. This was a description of size, not a value judgment. The only things that far up in the Northeast when the boom started were the first sparks of a new industrial revolution. It started during World War II with the giant Budd Company plant at Red Lion and Verree Roads in Bustleton, which accounts for a big 557 acres.
The federal government bought the land early in the war for $300,000 and built a $13 million factory complex on it. The plant was then leased to Budd for use in turning out Conestoga planes and manufacturing heavy ammunition. In 1949, Budd bought the plant from the government for just over $5 million, and has since been putting a few thousand people to work making things like railroad cars and auto chassis.
And 1949 was the year the Yale & Towne plant (now Eaton, Yale & Towne) at Roosevelt Boulevard and Haldeman Avenue opened. The plant cost $6.5 million and is still forklifting the economy of the Northeast by manufacturing material handling equipment.
Both Yale & Towne and Budd were indirectly instrumental in the residential buildup of the far Northeast in those early years. After a while, the workers simply got tired of having to travel so far to get to the job. And so the early developers started bringing the housing to them. Small developments started near the plants and then sprawled out like factory towns. The land was still ripe, the prices were still reasonable, and the far Northeast was starting to shape up to be something more than a giant cow pasture that ended at Byberry State Hospital, commonly referred to in those days as the nuthouse—a place where you sadistically took the kids for a ride when the zoo was too crowded.
The industrial machine really got into second gear in the far Northeast in the mid ’50s. Between 1955 and 1957, Penn Fruit built its general offices, warehouse, distribution and food processing facilities on a 58-acre tract at a cost of over $3 million.
And then, in 1956, the most expensive plant of all took the cake. National Biscuit came to the Northeast with a fantastic $15 million bakery at the Boulevard and Byberry Road. Nabisco was more than just another plant. It was a big national company coming in with all that bread saying, “Okay, Northeast Philly, here’s a big bet on your future.” Nabisco was lucky. The cookie never crumbled. The plant became more than just a business, it became a tourist attraction. People would drive up from all over the city to roll down their car windows and smell the cookies baking. You could smell it for blocks away, the best pollution this city ever had. Veteran cookie experts could give one good whiff from anywhere in the neighborhood and tell you what they were baking. There is talk that the real reason they widened the Boulevard up there was to handle the crush of traffic on the days they baked the Oreos.
The sweet smell of success soon gave city fathers the idea for a 1000-acre Industrial Park just across the Boulevard from Nabisco. The four-tract area, surrounding North Philadelphia Airport, has already attracted such outfits as Whitman Candy, Goodway Printing, McGraw-Hill Publishing and the regional headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service. The list goes up to about 50 by now, as industry keeps coming.
BUT FOR MOST OF THE PEOPLE in the Northeast, there are only two main industries: gardening and housekeeping.
After all, these are people who have worked all their lives to get where they are today. They are good, middle-class working people who sometimes have to take on two jobs to help pay off the mortgage on their mini-swath of green and their portals of plasterboard. It is easy to make light of these people. It is easy to make fun of the puffed-up hairstyles and flashy jewelry of Oxford Circle. It is easy to make fun of the Robert Hall suits and beer-can bellies of Frankford. But mostly they are people who have worked their duffs off for a good 20 years to make sure the payment was there the first of every month so their kids had a good place over their heads to grow up in, even if the roof did leak every once in a while.
And that is the third main industry of the Northeast: child raising. It plays a big part in the migration patterns that make up the area. Many of the families who moved into the Lower Northeast in the late ’40s and early ’50s brought with them the young products of the post-war baby boom. The kids grew up in the commune of the row homes.
The kids grew up faster than the hedges, those thorny bushes people planted to rise like great green walls of protection. And the kids grew up and got married and moved away, but not too far. There is something about living in the Northeast that makes a kid a prisoner of the comfortable lifestyle. The kids moved, but usually only a couple miles up, to the new apartment houses with the fancy swimming pools, or maybe to a nice rented duplex on a street where only the numbers told the buildings apart. And then, finally, they came full circle to a house of their own—a neat little semi-detached brick number maybe, with a little plot of land in the front and another in the back and, one up on their parents, a little open air plot on the side. And all this for only three times more than their parents paid for almost the same thing some 20 years ago. There are differences, but they even out. Technically, just technically, the kids don’t live in a row house—because of that little plot of land on the side. But their parents’ houses were built better and might even last longer. They were put together in an era when the word “plaster” stood by itself, without the letters b-o-a-r-d tacked on the end.
If you look hard enough, you can find some fairly new and fairly nice single homes tucked away in the farther reaches of the Northeast. But they have already been found by the lucky people who live there. Every once in a while one of them will leave and put a single up for sale. If you’re ready to put up your wife and kids as collateral, you might be able to meet the down payment. The way things are going, the way any empty land is being chewed up by the project builders, it is quite possible that there will never be another single house built in the Northeast, ever.
“We try to build the most functional things to suit the widest majority of people and pocketbooks,” said someone at A. P. Orleans, one of the two biggy builders.
“All our homes go along with our `living ideas’ concept,” said a voice from Korman, the other half of the building empire. The Korman people are right. The homes are livable.
But it is not really fair to credit all the houses in the Northeast to Orleans and Korman. In the beginning, they had help. Mostly, there were the little developers who came in and threw up spotty little rows of houses and took the money and ran.
They weren’t totally ignorant of what they left behind, though. Before they split, they planted all the little trees they could get their hands on. Now they are full grown, and on many blocks you can’t see the houses for the trees, and maybe it is better that way. There are almost as many trees per square foot in the Northeast as there are Chevrolet Impalas.
THERE ARE CARS and there are buses. Every morning the buses lumber out of the Northeast, bringing the switchboard operators and salesmen to work in town. And every morning a few of the buses return with the black cleaning women who ride the sunrise limited. They spend the day and journey out in the twilight of the afternoon with less than the minimum wage and carfare in their pocketbooks.
We don’t want to give the impression here that the Northeast is all lily-white. There are a few black people living in certain areas. Some people say they got there thanks to a few federally sponsored housing projects. Others say they have always been there. “But they don’t bother anybody,” a neighbor said, “and some of them are nicer than some whites I know.”
We also don’t want to give the impression that there isn’t a conscious effort to keep blacks out of the Northeast. Partly it is the politicians. “That’s how they stay in office,” one councilman says, “by playing on the fears of the people. They keep pushing zoning for housing that blacks just can’t afford.” The realtors, though, share the blame.
JERRY AND SHARON were going to be married soon, so they were looking around for somewhere to live, maybe a nice, inexpensive apartment in Rhawnhurst or Fox Chase. A friend of Jerry’s told him he knew somebody who was moving out of an apartment that would be just perfect for them. The friend gave Jerry the name of the realtor and told him to call to see if the place would be available. Jerry called.
“Hello,” he told the nice lady on the phone, “I’m interested in a particular apartment in your building on Hoffnagle Street.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the lady said. “We don’t have any building on Hoffnagle Street.”
“Of course you do,” Jerry told her. “I know someone who lives there and pays rent to you every month. What are you trying to pull? Let me talk to the manager.”
There was some muffled conversation as the lady finally handed the phone to the manager, who spoke with his cigar still in his mouth.
“Listen, my friend,” the manager said, “there’s no need to get upset about this. Why don’t you just stop down at our office. I’m sure we can find a nice apartment for you.”
Jerry told him he didn’t want just any apartment, he wanted the one on Hoffnagle Street. The manager told him he was mistaken about that apartment, but if he came down to the office, maybe they could straighten the mistake out. Jerry went to the office and he took Sharon along as a character witness just to prove he wasn’t crazy. He introduced himself to the manager, who beamed at their clean, white faces.
“Look,” the manager said, “I’m really sorry about all this. It’s just that we don’t like to do business over the phone. You never know who you’re talking to, if you know what I mean. We like to see the people we deal with. Sometimes a voice on the phone will throw you. Now, let’s talk about that place on Hoffnagle Street. I’m sure you’ll love it.”
“Wait a minute,” Jerry said. “You mean you owned that place all the time and you gave me all that crap on the phone to make me come down here just so you could make sure I was the right color?”
“Now just you hold on,” the manager barked, “don’t you go pinning me for no bigot. I got nothing against the colored. It’s just that, well, the real estate people up here sort of have this unwritten pact, see. And I’m not gonna be the one to break it. They’d push me out of business in a minute. Anyway, you know what’d happen to property values once you get a certain element in, if you know what I mean.”
Jerry knew what he meant, all right. So does just about everyone else in the Northeast. That’s why everybody gets so uptight when a neighbor puts up a private “For Sale” sign. At least if the sign’s got the name of a realty company on it, they know they’re protected.
THE REALTORS HAVE HAD a good deal of covert help from the people of the Northeast in scaring blacks away. Some of it has been more overt and organized, though. The Northeast boasts—if that’s the word—the largest chapter of the Jewish Defense League in the city. They’re alleged to have some 200 members operating out of a small synagogue called Congregation Young Israel, at Hellerman and Large Streets in the heart of Oxford Circle. Although they claim to be “protecting Jewish heritage,” their underlying aim seems to be pretty clear. They even have some non-Jewish members in the Northeast chapter. They’ve also got some youth chapters going, recruited from the local high schools.
“You know how they get kids?” one Jewish mother said. “They call them over on the side and they say, `Hey kid. wanna learn some karate?’ ”
Samuel Bortnick, who by day is a downtown businessman, is financial secretary of JDL’s Northeast chapter. He says that scores of young kids have attended the karate classes, not to mention the one in firearms.
“I think the Northeast chapter has awakened Jewish youth more than any organization in this section of the city,” Bortnick says. “I’m sick of always looking at the bad side of things when we have positive things to offer people. We offer love of heritage, love of America, love of Israel, and a lot of fine things.”
The head of the Northeast JDL is a guy named Ed Ramov, who is a Philadelphia public school teacher. “We’re letting the world know that what happened in the 1930s is never going to happen again,” Ramov says. “We’re not going to stand by like the Jewish Establishment did then. We’re trying to put forth the image that the Jew is no longer a patsy. If we get hit, we’re going to hit back. The surest way to avoid a confrontation is to be ready for one.”
The JDL is trying to spread the gospel according to Harold Novoseller into as many parts of the Northeast as it can. They are going into as many synagogues as will invite them. Being at one of their meetings is sort of like watching an old Nazi movie backwards.
“You don’t have to understand what they say to agree with them,” logicked my man Big Benny, the semipro gambler who went to a meeting figuring there might be a card game afterward if it broke up early enough. “You know, we’ve been kicked around long enough. It’s about time we started doing something about it.”
Somebody noted that there didn’t happen to be any black people in the neighborhood. “Just give them time,” Big Benny said, “if we don’t get together real fast and protect ourselves, they’ll be up here ruining the Northeast like they’ve ruined every other part of the city.”
The anxiety doesn’t seem to be necessary. just about the only place you see blacks in the Northeast is in the big shopping centers, those giant cash registers that have helped make the area what is it.
IN THE BEGINNING, the big stores were afraid to make the leap from center city. Shopping in the Northeast in the late ’40s was limited to corner stores and a few early supermarkets. But there are still a lot of people around who remember really having to walk a mile for a Camel. And the way the land was chopped up in those early days, you could have used a real camel.
Smaller stores opened and formed their own artificial, unofficial little clusters on Frankford Avenue and Castor Avenue and a few other main arteries. But it wasn’t until the mid-50s that the big stores took the big jump. Lit’s was first. It became an institution at Castor and Cottman. Lit’s did good business and it helped spring up other stores around it, smaller stores. The big ones were still apprehensive. Could the Northeast handle more than one department store? Gimbels took the plunge in the early ’60s at Cottman and Bustleton, just a few blocks down. But just to make sure that people didn’t think the store was trying to cater only to the immediate neighborhood, they put up a sign that read “Gimbels, Great Northeast.” It was the coining of a new phrase and the beginning of a new era. Gimbels thrived for a few moneyful years until the idea started to catch on. Klein’s was next, just another couple blocks down at Cottman and the Boulevard. And Klein’s, with its discounting, bargain-hunting prices, proved to be the biggest success. When Klein’s first opened, it looked like the only cars on the parking lots of Gimbels and Lit’s belonged to the employees.
The novelty wore off after a while and the other stores got a lot of their old customers back. But the people didn’t stop coming to Klein’s. On a good day, it’s almost impossible to get on the lot. Smaller chains soon linked up to the shopping explosion. The Cottman-Bustleton center soon opened between Gimbels and Lit’s. And Roosevelt Mall sprung between Klein’s and Gimbels. Shopping had suddenly become the Northeast’s major industry. Shopping centers were popping up like trees. The Northeast Center up at Welsh and the Boulevard built up around Korvettes, its main tenant. The pattern became quite simple. Every time a new housing development goes up, so goes a shopping center.
The shopping centers have helped build the Northeast up, but they have also helped isolate it. If you had a job there, you could live just about self-sufficiently in the Northeast for your whole life, only reading about center city Philadelphia in history books and only seeing it when you couldn’t get your traffic ticket fixed.
“I DON’T EVEN NEED the car,” says Fat Pat, who lives in the Robindale section off Knights Road in the far Northeast, and who takes up more than his share of his seat in the car pool to the Yale & Towne plant, where he works. “I only use the damn thing about once a week when my turn comes up. Otherwise, we’ve got everything here within walking distance. I can’t remember the last time I was in town.”
Pat and his wife Carmella have lived in a row home on Fairdale Road for close to 15 years now, most of their married life. They moved up from “the better part of Kensington.” They’ve got two kids. The boy, Mike, is a sophomore at Archbishop Ryan High, three blocks away down Academy Road. The girl, Angie, is in the seventh grade at Our Lady of Calvary, about two blocks away. That’s where the whole family walks to church every Sunday.
Just about the only time Pat uses the car, besides his turn in the pool, is to drive over to the Knights of Columbus hall at State Road and Torresdale Avenue twice a month. It’s about a five-minute ride. The K of C picnics are usually the highlights of the family’s social life. Carmella also goes to the fashion shows and sometimes drags Pat along to the monthly social. But Pat, who is not exactly light on his feet, would rather sit home.
“Why should I go anywhere?” he asks, “We’ve got everything we need right here.” He points across the street and just down the block to the Knights Road Shopping Center. “Hell,” he says, “there’s a Pantry Pride and a Woolworth’s and a drug store and two banks and a State Store and a bakery and a barber shop and a beauty shop and a delicatessen and a paint store and clothes shops and shoe stores and a gift shop and two bars and a pizza parlor and a Chinese take-out.” Pat is out of breath, but he will never be out of places to shop.
THANKS TO THE SHOPPING CENTERS, the Northeast has become one giant glob of neon honky-tonk, of women with $3.99 cotton dresses and pink plastic curlers in their hair, of men with baggy shorts and sweaty undershirts. The Northeast has become a junk heap of little kids with taffies stuck in their ears. It has become a big mess, bordering on disaster. And it will never change. You can take the pedal pushers off the woman, but she’ll still have the holes in her panties.
“The centers have ruined everybody,” says Meaty Mel, who used to own a deli. “There’s no sense of community any more. They’ve put the little guy out of business—not just squeezed him out, but picked him up by the back of the neck and kicked his ass out the door. First the bastards come in and take all the land, and then they take all the business. The small businessman is dead—cold, stone dead.”
The domination of the big discount houses has been painfully obvious right around the Boulevard Center, one of the first to open in the Northeast, and one of the first to die. Resting in peace between Harbison and Levick on the Boulevard, its tenants have changed so many times that it has become a neighborhood game to try to remember all the old stores. The center was owned by Joseph Luria, of the Broad Street Luria’s, who recently all but gave up on it. Only two of the original tenants are still kicking. One is Grant’s, currently being clobbered in most departments by a Renels discount store two blocks away. The other is a Horn & Hardart retail store, where little old ladies with their hair in buns still sell day-old bread to age-old customers.
Luria’s final attempt to save the center from buckling under to the big boys was to try to go hip. He brought in Pier One Imports, with funky little doodads for people who dig out-of-the-way things. He brought in a Slax ‘N’ Tax, for people who dig jive clothes. He brought in the Northeast edition of Sansom Village, for people who dig hip schlock. And he brought in d’Scene, a flashing, pounding nightspot for people who dig people.
Well, Sansom Village was doomed from the start. It became little more than a hangout for teenyboppers and assorted would-be weirdos, few of whom had any money to spend. A few months ago, the Village freaked out altogether and, after a short and unsuccessful engagement, finally locked up—which is exactly what the Liquor Control Board tried to do with d’Scene.
D’SCENE OPENED a little over two years ago. It never suffered from lack of business. On weekends, you couldn’t get near the place. That was its main problem. The local neighborhood folk, used to the quiet life, just couldn’t take all the overflow parking and late-hour traffic. They signed petitions and protested and picketed and tried to get the place on any loophole they could. They harassed the local police into watching the place like it was a home for the depraved, which, indeed, many of them thought it was. Finally, on September 22nd of this year, the battle came to a head. The Liquor Control Board had the place padlocked. The violation: allowing dancing on Sundays—not drinks, just dancing.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” says Phil Goldman, 31, the owner. “They can’t get us on anything else, so they drag out some archaic blue law that nobody ever heard of. All I was doing was trying to keep the kids off the streets on Sundays. I opened up the place and let them come in to dance and gave them all the Cokes they could drink. What kind of crime is that? This neighborhood is just unbelievable. I open up the most thriving nightspot this city’s ever seen. On the weekends I get over 1500 people in here. It’s the biggest shot of life the Northeast has ever had. And what do the people do about it? They close me up!”
Goldman is appealing the case, trying to test the law “up to the Supreme Court, if I have to.” He expects the battle will take close to five years. Until then, he hopes, he will stay open.
The case of d’Scene is perhaps the best comment on nightlife in the Northeast, which otherwise consists of a few lively neighborhood bars, bundles of bingo games and a lot of war veteran meetings.
OF COURSE THERE IS ALWAYS Liberty Bell Park, otherwise known as the racetrack. The crowds there have been disappointing since the day it opened.
Transportation has been one of the Bell’s biggest problems in attracting more people. The Delaware Expressway—Route 95—which stops almost right at the door, is sitting unfinished at both ends. The proposed Northeast Expressway, if it’s ever built, couldn’t be farther from the track. Neither could the proposed subway extension mapped right under the proposed highway, if that’s ever built. And even if it is, it’ll be outdated before the first track is put down because it’s only slated to go to Rhawn Street, which isn’t even halfway toward winning a transportation battle.
Most of the little bit of planning for the upper Northeast, the part that was often called the city’s last frontier, was done in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The plans were executed with all the grace of a coat hanger abortion.
GOVERNMENT IS A WORD that is rarely used in the Northeast, mainly because the meaning has been so distorted that it can hardly be recognized. When the history of the Northeast is finally written, probably in the obituary column, only two names need appear under the word “government.” Meehan and Silver.
Both are Republican, as is most of the Northeast, especially the far Northeast, thanks to the powerful and well-oiled machine built up by the famed Austin Meehan, the area’s first big political boss. “Maybe it’s because the people here are mostly conservative,” a high ranking committeeman says, “maybe they just feel a little like real capitalists, owning their own property and wanting to watch out for its interest. And they know the party will do that for them.”
Only recently has there been any sort of challenge to Republican dominance in Meehan territory, and that’s come from some poorer whites who’ve been moving in. But their political presence has really not been felt yet.
Republican leader William Meehan, keeping up a noble family tradition, has his finger in or his thumb on just about everything that goes on in the Northeast. And David Silver, Billy Meehan’s gift to City Council, has been keeping a very consistent record of flying in the face of the wishes of his constituents, tampering with zoning to help the interests of developers who would rape the land and whatever or whoever is on it to make a buck. Silver has even put his own interest into a few interesting projects —like the illegally zoned rehabilitation center directly across the street from his Verree Road home, built on a lot that went vacant all these years while Silver fought one zoning proposal after another until the right one came along. But most of the Dave Silver story has already been told. We just thought we’d repeat it only because he couldn’t find the time to talk to us and tell you himself. Neither could Billy Meehan. But then that’s nothing new for either of them. They don’t even talk to their constituents, so why should they talk to us?
THERE ARE OTHER VOICES who would speak for the Northeast. There is the well-liked U.S. Congressman Joshua Eilberg, a Democrat. Eilberg has a warm personality, but only a tepid stand on many issues.
“Josh is really a great guy, and he’s done a lot for the Northeast on the federal level,” says a former campaign worker. “But when it’s come to the everyday local issues, he’s shied away. He knows about all the dirty dealing that’s going on in the Northeast—everybody does—but too often he’s just content to sit there in Washington and let it happen. It doesn’t make sense. You can fight Congress, but you can’t fight City Hall.”
Recently, though, Eilberg has been getting more active. Prime example is his involvement in the on-going North Philadelphia Airport expansion squabble. Eilberg was there when it counted to promise a crowd of almost 1500 parents and kids that he would do his best to do his duty.
Also at that rally was about every politician and political hopeful in the Northeast. One of them was 26-yearold boy wonder Robert Rovner, a Republican who is running against the grain for the state senate seat from the far Northeast. Rovner says he is getting no financial support from the Republican machine. He says he doesn’t need it and he doesn’t want it.
“The people of the Northeast,” Bob Rovner says, “need new leadership. They’ve got to stop sitting still and letting the bosses run things. They’ve got to start speaking out or they’re going to be buried.”
The rally at the airport, giantly nestled behind the Industrial Park, was to protest supposed planned expansion of the 15-year-old field to let in big jets, mostly cargo planes. The neighbors don’t like the sound of that. The whole issue, though, is still in the fog. There has been money slated for expansion, but some say it’s to bring the big jets in and some say it’s not. What is needed most right now is a representative from city government to come in and explain to these people what is going on. That would be Dave Silver, except Dave Silver didn’t show up at the airport rally and doesn’t want to have anything to do with the people who did. Silver did have some comment in the way of leadership to his constituents on this issue, though. It was a thoughtful little statement he made to them in the press. He told them all to pipe down.
It’s this kind of leadership that has forced the people who want action in the Northeast to turn their backs on politicians and look to civilian leaders. Long the most vocal in this area is Ruth Bennett, perhaps the most formidable spokesman the area has. When Mayor Tate thought it was about time to let somebody from the Northeast on the school board, he looked around for the most qualified, knowledgeable person he could find, and picked Ruth Bennett. It turned out she knew too much. After seven months, Tate dumped her.
But Ruth Bennett, mother of two and wife of a CPA, wasn’t about to give up the fight—not after 22 years of living in the Northeast’s Lawndale section.
“I think that the rest of the city of Philadelphia just sort of ignores the Northeast,” she says. “It’s there, but it just seems to be an area they’d just as soon overlook. Nobody ever says anything nice about this area. They really don’t believe we need anything, because we’re the newest part of the city. And because of that, even though the zoning and planning and everything else is haphazard and horrible, you do see newer schools and larger playfields.
“But you just can’t take the physical aspect of it and say that’s it. Our transportation is horrible. We feel we have very little representation on city government and on the school board. Because this area has been growing so fast, the schools this year are more crowded than ever. When new schools are finally built, they’re overcrowded the day they open.
“There’s a proposed new high school to be built east of the Boulevard between Northeast High and Washington High. When it goes up, it’ll help relieve the overcrowding, but it’s going to take at least four years to build. What are the kids going to do until then?
“The only reason they ever had anyone from the Northeast on the Board of Education was because the election for district attorney was coming up between Specter and Berger and perhaps it was thought that this would produce Democratic votes. I think the reason that I wasn’t reappointed by Mayor Tate was that Berger didn’t carry the Northeast.
“You would think an area this large—an area even larger than the city of Pittsburgh—might have a government of its own, or at least fair representation. We have more representation in Harrisburg than we have in City Hall.”
One of Ruth Bennett’s closest allies in the fight has been Joan Ferreira, mother of 11 and leader of the East Torresdale Civic Association.
“It’s the old game of zoning roulette,” Joan Ferreira says.
“It’s a combination of ignorance and apathy that’s allowed Silver and his buddies to wreck the Northeast with bastardized zoning. The woman next door and the guy around the corner are too busy reading the Daily News to care about what’s being done to them. We’ve got to wake them up.”
Joan Ferreira tried the political route this year to wake them up. She ran in the May primary and lost. She’ll never do it again. “Politics in the Northeast is disgusting. You can’t win unless you make deals. They brought basket cases out and paid them to vote against me. I kept seeing four feet behind the curtain instead of two. One woman came up to me near the end of the day and said, ‘Gee, Joan, I would have loved to have voted for you, but the lever just wouldn’t go down.’
“Silver thinks we’re all scum,” Joan Ferreira says.
“Some guy came up to me before the election and said if I go talk to so-and-so and do a little dealing he could guarantee me two wards. I told him if I want to be a prostitute I’ll go for a 100 bucks a throw, not two wards.”
THE LATEST FERREIRA-SILVER battle is over a zoning change that would pave the way for a 180-unit high-rise apartment building at Grant Avenue and State Road in East Torresdale. Only two councilmen voted against it. One was Germantown’s David Cohen.
“This area of the city is being constantly rezoned in spite of neighborhood opposition,” Cohen said. “The continuous rezoning makes the people of Philadelphia think that City Council gives more weight to the needs of the developers than to those of their constituents. The neighbors object to increased traffic, poor access and strained community facilities. Their objections are aggravated by the nearby Pennsylvania Home for the Aged and Infirm Deaf. The increased traffic will endanger the safety of the old people.”
The other objection was from the Silver noted that the high-rise development “answers a critical need for housing” in the Northeast and will bring “desperately needed tax ratables.” The apartments are to rent for between $120 and $190 a month.
“That will bring substantial people to the neighborhood who can’t quite afford new houses,” he said.
“Substantial people” is a political code phrase for whites. Silver’s latest project for substantial people is a zoning ordinance that would allow a 426-unit garden apartment complex on a 15.5-acre site near Bustleton Avenue and Byberry Road in Somerton. You might ask what all those people are going to do to the already insufficient and overused highways and transportation. You might ask where all their children are going to go to school when all the schools in the Northeast are already overjammed. You might ask how the neighborhoods got so cluttered with ugly shopping centers and shoddy fast-buck developments. You might ask a lot of things.
REALLY, THOUGH, there are no answers to what has been made out of the Northeast. There are no answers because there just aren’t enough people asking questions, and maybe it’s too late to ask anything anyway. Besides, most of the Northeast settlers are grazing contentedly in their pasture. They can’t really complain—not when they look around and see what life is like in other parts of the city—the parts they came from.
There is still a bit of heaven left in the Northeast. It’s over 20 years since most of the pioneers moved in. And that means the end of the mortgage struggle. It means that, finally, after all these years of running, they can sit back and enjoy what’s left. Their kids are starting mortgages of their own a few blocks away. They can putter in the garden now and anoint the sod with new seed. The promised land is finally theirs. And they shall dwell in the house of the row forever.