I received a number of comments as a result of my July 14, 2013 column. In the event you missed this column or do not recall its subject, it focused on buildings in our city that are still standing but are no longer occupied; buildings that are now known by other names or are used for other purposes; and new buildings that have been erected on some of the sites.
Some of these unique buildings are today’s landmarks. Mainly, the comments received expressed appreciation for bringing back memories of buildings that had been forgotten. Others mentioned buildings that I had omitted. One reader mildly chastised me for referring to the Philadelphia General Hospital as PGW and not PGH.
But, there was another reader, who generated the idea for this column, by identifying something in his comments that caught my attention. This reader referenced an area in North Philadelphia that was called “The Square.” According to this reader, it ran four square blocks — it ran from 13th Street to Watts Street, to Jefferson Street, and to Flora Streets.
He recalled that “The Square” contained four baseball fields and space for other recreational activities. His comments, my reflections of buildings of the past, and last week’s column about our grand neighborhoods of by-gone years, caused me to conjure up thoughts, about those neighborhood playgrounds and recreational facilities, where many of us had much fun as participants and observers, back in the day.
No matter where you grew up in our city of Philadelphia, there were several places where you could go to participate in or observe your favorite sporting event. You could not have grown up in this town, back in the day, without visiting the gymnasium at Bright Hope Baptist Church to watch some of the most outstanding basketball players in the area play in the Baker League.
While I lived in the East Mount Airy section of the city, back then, I would regularly travel to 12th Street and Columbia Avenue to watch some of the ball players from this area who were semi-professional and professional basketball players put on a “real show.”
People even showed up from New Jersey, New York, Maryland and nearby cities to participate in and to view these games. While some of you may have read about it in Earl Monroe’s autobiography, “Earl The Pearl: My Story,” I was present when he and Bill Bradley, formerly of the New York Knicks, engaged in a shot-out like I have never seen. In some respects, games like this and other Backer League games were more exciting than going to the Spectrum to see NBA games, back in the day.
I grew up in West Philadelphia and I had many trips to Haddington Recreation Center, located at 57th Street and Haverford Avenue. This recreation center has a rich history of sports and athletics — the center included not only basketball but other sports and recreational activities.
Many of the legendary basketball players, including Wilt Chamberlain, played at this center on its outdoor concrete court. I can still see Hal Lear, the Temple University standout guard, regularly shooting his left handed jump shot from far in the corner of the court and seldom missing the basket.
While I never made a trip to the Moylan Recreation Center, located at 25th and Diamond streets, a story told to me by a close friend almost drove me to walk from my West Philadelphia neighborhood to this North Philadelphia facility.
My friend told me that I had to see the basketball team that was coming to Philadelphia, from New York, to play some of our Philadelphia ball players. “Jumping” Jackie Johnson., he mentioned, would be one of the players on the New York team. My friend told me that Jackson could leap so high until he could remove a quarter placed on the top of the backboard.
Another friend, hearing this discussion, claimed that he had seen Jackson perform this feat. Jackson not only took the quarter off of the top of the backboard, but he made change and left the change on the top of the backboard. An exaggeration of his jumping ability, I know, but it sounded good and Jackie Jackson became a legend in my mind, long before I saw him play during his college days when I was at Delaware State University and he was at Virginia Union University.
I know that some of the readers of this column played basketball at 33rd and Diamond streets or the Charmong Recreation Center. While you may not have played basketball at the nearby Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse, some of you had much fun there as children. How many of you engaged in sporting and recreational activities in “Fun Field” located across from the old Connie Mack Stadium at 21st Street and Lehigh Avenue?
Outstanding basketball players such as John Chaney, Ray “Chink” Scott, Claude Gross, Dave Reddick and others honed their skills in some of our South Philadelphia playgrounds and schoolyards such as Barrett, OV Catto, Smith, the Christian Street YMCA and the Marion Anderson Playground.
Now, Gross recently told me, and I guess I was to believe him, that he never played on a team that lost a basketball game from when he first stepped on a basketball court in elementary school.
Are locations such as 63rd Street and Cobbs Creek Parkway, 58th Street and Lansdowne Avenue, 59th Street and Lancaster Avenue and 39th and Aspen streets, places where you played in West Philadelphia?
How many of you played ball in Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park? I did and I do not claim to have any real basketball ability. But, my biggest memory in playing basketball was at Memorial Hall when I was driving down the court and Wally Jones of Overbrook and the Philadelphia 76ers fame came right up to me and took the ball out of my hands.
We were just kids at the time but whenever I saw him play, in college or in the pros, this incident came to mind. Did any of you run up and down the court at Father Divine’s Church gymnasium at 42nd Street and Westminster Avenue? Maybe the small yard of the old Parkside YMCA, in the 700 Block of 43rd Street, with its tiny basketball court was the place where you played, back in the day.
How many of you played baseball at Belmont Plateau? Was Millcreek Playground the place where you played baseball, football and basketball? Did you spend hours on the track running laps at Drexel Field? You may recall that all of these facilities were in the vicinity of 43rd Street and Haverford Avenue?
I know that I am not the only person that played or attended football games at 49th Street and Haverford Avenue. Back in the day, as an elementary school age student, my sisters took me to this field where I saw the high school phenom Irvin “Bo” Roberson play for Bartram High School against West Philadelphia High School. While I was much too little to see over the crowds and was too young to know much about the game of football, I knew that each time “Bo” touched the football, the crowd roared.
Back in the day, some of you had your fun at the playground located at Sedgwick and Germantown avenues, or Boyer Street and Mt. Pleasant Avenue. Is it possible that the Johnson Street playground or, perhaps your church’s activity hall or gymnasium was where you played? Did any of you ice skate or roller skate at The Arena at 45th and Market streets? Was your swimming limited to 55th and Summer streets, Kelly Pool, League Island or Gustine Lake? If you were an aspiring boxer, where did you go to train? For the most part, it was the Police PAL facilities.
A number of these recreational and sports facilities that many of us frequented in the past are still with us today. These recreational facilities are certainly not inclusive of all places we frequented in the past as there are far more than space would allow to be highlighted.
Today, unfortunately, no longer are these places as safe; they are not as family oriented; sometimes not well-maintained; and they are no longer packed with athletes with the skill, attitudes and competitive spirit that athletes had in the past.
If you were not around back then, you have no idea of that which you have missed. Speak with any old school athlete and you will immediately see them smile and break out with a boastful rant, as there is nothing going on today, on a baseball field, football field, basketball court or in any other sporting venue that can compare with what many of them did and observed, at our recreational facilities, back in the day.
It has been extremely depressing to listen to and read about the horrific state of affairs in the city of Detroit. Just last week, The Philadelphia Tribune carried a story about Detroit and its headline said it all, “Detroit’s long march to bankruptcy.” This headline immediately brought to mind my days working in the Kenneth Gibson administration in Newark, N.J. Gibson would often say, “Wherever our big cities are going, Newark would get their first.” Obviously, Gibson was wrong with his prediction. It appears that in many respects, Detroit has beaten Newark to the punch. To look at Detroit today is absolutely mind boggling when we think about what Detroit used to be back in the day.
I recall spending many fun filled days in Detroit. Trips to Detroit were made for a number of reasons. As executive superintendent of the Newark School District I traveled to Detroit to attend the national conference of the National Alliance of Black School Educators and to bond with Arthur Jefferson, Detroit’s superintendent of schools in the late ’70s. Then there were trips to provide consulting services to ARA, today known as ARAMARK, in their school food services division. Stays at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center for a family reunion with relatives on my father’s side of the family, an invitation to Detroit’s museum where I met Diana Ross and visits to Cappy’s Record Store to pick up hard-to-find doo-wop records for my collection provided memories much different from those bandied by media. I know that there was a time when Detroit had a great deal going for itself. It was a city I loved to visit.
As I reflected on the Detroit of today in comparison to the Detroit of the past, I could not help but to think about our city of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection and be thankful that, through the efforts of many, Philadelphia continues to be a viable city; a place where people love and continue to visit, a place that people move and call home. Yet, I could not help but to focus on the blight that exists in some of our neighborhoods which were once fine neighborhoods — the type of neighborhoods that were found all over our city when I was a child and young adult. For those that did not grow up back then, it may surprise you to know that we had some outstanding neighborhoods where Black folk lived back in the day. These outstanding neighborhoods existed in spite of segregation, menial jobs, young heads of households, few luxuries, crowded living conditions, speakeasies and the street numbers game.
What do you see today when you drive or walk through any of the neighborhoods of North, West or South Philadelphia and Germantown? Perhaps the more appropriate question is, what don’t you see when you drive through these neighborhoods?
The answers to both of these questions can be found in a discussion I had with a friend some years ago with regard to the pride we had in the character of our neighborhoods in the past; that pride that is greatly lacking today. While my friend’s comments do not bode well for Blacks, the conditions in our neighborhoods can only make you wonder about the validity of her observations. She pointed out that today’s conditions in our once glorious communities suggests that we are now eating the grass, the trees, the cobblestone streets and the brick sidewalks. Bushes, plants and shrubbery have disappeared. The greenery, of many of our neighborhoods, of the past, has turned to barren land covered with asphalt.
If you did not grow up back in the day then perhaps it may be easy to assume that this is the way it has always been. But, you might get a slight glimpse of the past, to which I refer, if you have noticed those urban gardens that have cropped up in many neighborhoods today; gardens that neighbors have come together to plant in the spring. In some respect, these gardens appear to be out of place but they were a part of how our neighborhoods looked in the past. You also get a real good look at what once was by looking at the gentrification that is occurring in parts of our city; South Philadelphia is most evident. What we are witnessing are islands of great renaissance amidst mountains of little hope. Most of us growing up in the ’50s and ’60s have a different perspective and can tell a different story of the greenery that was so apparent in our neighborhoods.
I have fond memories of flower boxes that hung from the front windows of many neighborhood homes. These flower boxes were typical of the row houses in neighborhoods and were exceptionally clean and always freshly painted.
Elderly women tenderly cared for the flowers in these flower boxes. Were you one of the neighborhood kids that were paid a few pennies to paint the flower box in the early spring? Do you recall the neighborhood men who voluntarily made these flower boxes and drove nails into the boxes to make them sturdier after a tough winter? You must recall how neighbors attempted to standardize the appearance of the flower boxes from one home to another on a block.
We often watched mothers and grandmothers climb small stepladders to reach the flower boxes in order to plant and care for their plants. In those days, no one bothered the flower boxes, they belonged everyone who lived on the block. Neighbors proudly worked together to tend to and care for their properties. This effort is what made our neighborhoods the grand neighborhoods that we recall and greatly miss.
Where are the hanging baskets from back in the day? Occasionally you see hanging plants and other plants on porches today. But, the big question is whether or not they will be there in the morning. I fondly remember my mother and older sister moving plants onto the porch each summer. The plants sat on the porch floor and hung on the porch railings. There was no fear of the plants being destroyed or disappearing.
All neighbors were expected to place plants out on their porches. This obviously could not be made mandatory but everyone appeared to have complied. If you are not from back in the day, you have no idea what you missed. Seeing the number and variety of plants on the porch, of our well maintained homes, was a true site to behold and something that instilled a great deal of pride in all of us.
I have fond memories of family members and neighbors working in their front yards to keep them clean and beautiful. Whenever I pass through one of my old neighborhoods, I look closely as I imagine my mother and sister there. Some of these homes had large front yards and others were small. I recall helping my mother or my sister work on the rose bush in our front yard.
Sometimes I helped them trim the rose bush or tie the branches together to keep them from spreading. Saturday morning was the day and time on the block for residents to come together to wash down the porches, scrub the marble steps, wash the pavements and even wash down the streets.
Perhaps you remember the water trucks that came through the streets spraying water to keep the streets clean. You may wonder, as I do, what happened to these water trucks? There was no graffiti back then and businesses were in abundance along what we called “the avenue;” an avenue could be found in most neighborhoods. You may recall that many of these neighborhood businesses were Black owned and operated.
But, that was then and this is not now. This was before drugs, family deterioration and, interestingly, integration which opened the door for us to abandon our closely knit neighborhoods of the past. In too many instances our lovely neighborhoods of the past are but a figment of our imaginations.
Like many of you, I become extremely sad when I look at what our parents built with limited financial resources and what the generations that followed, with significantly more financial resources, have destroyed or have permitted to fall into disrepair.
While there are many reasons why things are the way they are today, we can only blame ourselves. Would it not be a great day if we as Black folk made a pledge that initiated efforts to return neighborhoods of our past that contain so many of our memories of good homes, fine schools, viable Black businesses, safe streets, places to play and other places that were the source of our growth and development, to those days that most of us recall and many of us will always cherish from back in the day.
Several weeks ago, I heard someone on the radio comment about the fun he and friends had during their younger days at house parties.
You cannot be from back in the day if you did not have fun dancing under the lights in basements.
If you were following my columns back in 2002, you may recall that in May of that year, I wrote about my fond memories of house parties. I recognize that my May of 2002 column is more than a decade old, so it would be a bit much for me to expect you to recall any of its exact words or specific phrases. But, perhaps, if nothing else, you remember this from that column — Parrrrrr—ty! Parrrrrr—ty! Besides this refrain, I will once again, share with you what I also wrote; everybody loved a house party, back in the day.
The recent hot and sticky nights have caused some of us to think more and more about those house parties that my generation could count on occurring almost every Saturday night. It was rare for house parties to take place during the week.
Whether the party was held on the weekend or a weekday, being notified of a party was mainly by word of mouth. In cases of special parties, such as birthday parties, partygoers received printed invitations. But, if it was not a special occasion, you had to be in a clique or part of the “in-crowd” to be notified of a party.
You were not invited to parties if you were from the wrong part of town. Quite often, you would learn that a party was being held on a certain block. The problem, however, you had no address. Some of you can go back some 50 plus years and recall what we did.
Recall how we would walk up and down the block, listening at the front door or basement window until we heard music. Then, we would ring the bell and attempt to present ourselves as having been invited to the party. Some of you were refused entry to a party because you did not have an invitation.
Usually, it was the man of the home that came to the door and informed you that the party was for invited guests only. But, “crashing a party” was a big thing, back in the day.
So, you are unfamiliar with crashing a party. In crashing a party, you would simply attempt to force yourself into the party. Many fights resulted from party crashers. Because some parents or hosts did not want any trouble, party crashers were admitted just as often as they were turned away.
But, party crashers made everyone uncomfortable and were watched carefully by those invited. Much to the relief of the hosts and invitees, party crashers, not feeling welcomed would move on after a short period of time.
If you did not have a finished basement, the party was held in the living room. Because of a lack of space, there were smaller crowds. Also, parents were more vigilant in watching the party goers in living rooms to make certain that furniture was not damaged and knick-knacks did not disappear.
Whether it was the living room or the basement, there was one common characteristic — the lights. Red lights were on when fast records were played and blue lights were on when slow records were played.
There were few fast records since dancing close, and I mean real close, was the thing, back in the day. I know that you cannot forget the name for this type of dancing. A slow dance was referred to as “grinding” which was very popular.
Some young ladies had reputations for being outstanding “grinders.” I am certain that those of you growing up back then will recall young men lining up to dance with certain young ladies. Even though I am in the forth quarter of my life, some of my friends, when seeing one of our female contemporaries, will describe them as having been outstanding grinders, back in the day.
While completely finished basements, as opposed to partially finished basements, are quite common today, they were rare during the house party era of the ’50s and ’60s. It was not until families started moving to “up the way” or “up the top” to West Philadelphia, Wynnefield, Germantown, West Oak Lane and Mount Airy that we started partying in paneled and tiled or carpeted basements.
Basements in my West Philadelphia neighborhood were usually painted concrete floors, decorated with paper streamers across the ceilings in an attempt to hide the beams and pipes. In many cases, these partially finished basements had white washed walls.
These walls exposed the serious female grinders, as when the young ladies went up the stairs to use the bathroom, you would see the white on the back of their skirts. In asking a well-rounded, mature lady about her memories of house parties back in the day, she immediately responded, “My fondest memory involves grinding until I got a hole in my skirt.” This is an exaggeration I know, but it makes the point about the fierce nature of body to body contact while slow dancing, back in the day.
While you may live in spacious surroundings today, you will recall that if you had a finished basement when you were in your partying days, the stairs turned at the bottom. You always had to duck in order to avoid hitting your head on the ceiling at the bottom of the stairs.
Do you recall young men watching intently as young ladies came down the stairs? Of course, the first thing you saw was the young ladies legs and if this part of the anatomy appealed to you, then you could not wait until she reached that turn at the bottom of the stairs so that she was in full view.
Young ladies watched young men just as young men watched young ladies. If it was not to check out one’s looks, it was to observe what one was wearing. You see, back in the day, everyone went to house parties dressed up; as the old saying goes, “you dressed to impress.”
Now, go back in time and think about one’s “clean as the board of health” appearance when arriving at the party and their appearance upon leaving the party. Unfortunately, the person was usually totally disheveled, and they could wring out the sweat from their clothing from having danced so much.
Flirting was always an option, since you never went to a house party with a date. Remember that old saying, “You never take sand to the beach?” You may also recall that the lights were always turned down low; blue or red. But, when your parents came into the living room or down in the basement, they immediately turned on brighter lights. When your parents left the room, the lights were again turned down low.
While most house parties were free, some required an admission fee. Do you recall attending a “waist party?” This was a house party where you paid admission based on the size of your waist. Obviously, the larger you were, the more you paid. A waist size of 30 inches resulted in an admission charge of 30 cents. A waist size of 40 inches would cost 40 cents. This was one of many characteristics of house parties, back in the day.
You cannot ignore the music when you reflect on house parties of the past. Remember, someone was designated to play the records. Quite often, this responsibility fell upon the younger brother or sister of the host.
The younger sibling relished this opportunity to play the records because it gave them an excuse to stay up, watch what was going on, and tell it all the next day. You would stack the records up so that your sibling would know which records to play.
If you have any of your 45 records today, you know why they have names written on the labels or names taped onto the labels. When you took your records to a house party, your records had to be identified so that they were returned to you.
One of the interesting things about having large numbers of young people in your home for a house party back in the day was the relatively small incidents of stealing or destroying property. Coats were the one thing that did disappear at house parties.
Remember how your coat would be taken by the host and placed across a bed upstairs? There were so many coats on the bed that many times you had to be taken to the bedroom to identify your coat. A few people left the party wearing a coat different from the one they were wearing when they arrived.
I do not recall alcoholic beverages and drugs, as they were simply not of interest to us. Stealing coats, however, well this was a different story, back in the day.
Finally, as the party ended, an appropriate record would be played. The bright lights would come on and the record by Jessie Belvin would be played. Do you remember the beginning of this record?
Well the words went like this, “The party’s over, its time to go.” It is then time for you to make your way home, unfortunately for you, long pass the hour you were told to be home. You would unsuccessfully try to sneak into the house. I say unsuccessfully, because you will recall that mom never went to sleep until you arrived home safely, back in the day.
If you have nothing to do next weekend, invite some of your close friends over to your home. Tell them to leave their CDs home, but do bring some 45 records consisting of very little fast music!
Tell your friends that there will be no jeans and no sneakers! Tell them that they have to be “clean.” If it is hot like this week, plan to turn off the air conditioning and put away all fans. Plan to have a big pot of hot dogs. Find some red lights and blue lights and have an old-fashioned, house party.
But, please do not try to duplicate the pace from your teenage or young adult days unless you have a doctor friend present. Just try to remember that the year is 2013, and while your mind may say one thing, your body will be unable to do what it once could do, back in day.
May 30, 2013 is a day that I am certain that Ms. Kimberly Roberts, the Entertainment Reporter at The Philadelphia Tribune,will never forget. For it was on this day that Ms. Roberts held a book signing at the Clef Club located on the corner of Broad and Fitzwater streets.
Her book, “Joyride,” is about the history and some of the outstanding events and performances at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia. I purchased a copy of her book and she autographed it with a special and meaningful message.
Given my love for taking trips back in the day, her reflections of the Uptown Theater were of keen interest to me, they represented classic memories from back in the day.
The cover of this book really held my attention. Coincidentally, this cover was designed by the Tribune’s Senior Graphic Artist, Calvin Rankin. This cover displayed a photograph of the Uptown Theater which caused me to smile. As I drove home, my eyes kept returning to the book’s cover as I had placed the book on the passenger seat of my automobile.
The book cover reminded me of those buildings that one sees and easily recognize in our City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. Some of these buildings are still standing but are no longer occupied, some of these buildings are now known by other names or are used for other purposes, and at some locations, there are now new buildings. Some of these buildings were so unique, back in the day, that they are regarded as landmarks today.
A stroll through my West Philadelphia neighborhood during the ’50s would cause you to focus on several buildings and locations that contained businesses that were quickly identified, known by most and patronized by practically everyone.
On the northeast corner of 52nd and Market streets was a favorite eating place for neighborhood folk as well as a hangout for West Philadelphia High School students. Yes, a building that still stands, but is not currently in use; a building that housed many of my treasured memories. I suspect that a number of you are already ahead of me and know that I am referring to Horn and Hardart Restaurant.
If you do not recall going into a Horn and Hardart Restaurant, then you are not from back in the day. While you probably recall its concept of automatic food service with its foods behind small glass windows and coin-operated slots, I doubt seriously if you recall its advertising slogan, “Less Work for Mother.”
Do you recall the building located on the corner of 56th and Market streets? If not, just think about something that many of us have as part of our breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was the location for the Bond Bread Company. What about some of the buildings on 52nd Street where you spent much of your time on a Saturday afternoon.
Some readers of this column recall that Saturday afternoons found you and your friends watching a movie in the State, Nixon or the Locust, movies that were all in walking distance from one another. Trips to 62nd Street as a teenager or young adult meant having fun at the Imperial Ballroom. I know that the Imperial Ballroom brings a broad smile to your face as this was a major venue for dances and cabarets. This was the place where many romances began, back in the day.
If your vision of life back in the ’50s encompasses my West Philadelphia neighborhood, you would recall such places as The Mercy Douglas Hospital, Drexel Field, Gold Medal Bakery and the Arena at 45th and Market streets. I cannot take an imaginary trip today through West Philadelphia without visiting the section off of City Line Avenue near Ford Road.
Some of you will recall many fine moments spent at Woodside Park. My birthplace at Preston and Parrish streets, near 41st Street cannot be ignored; it was the Women’s Hospital I know that the mention of hospital brings to mind the Philadelphia General Hospital (PGW).
Can you still see the Convention Hall and the Civic Center? Just to refresh your memory, many of our large, formal dances were held at these locations, in particular, the Civic Center. In the heart of West Philadelphia, you will also recall that there were small Black owned and operated businesses such as Trott Inn, a family oriented restaurant and small banquet facility.
While I never knew the correct name for the grocery store on the corner of 44th Street and Fairmount Avenue, it was a source of pride for those in the neighborhood. We simply referred to it as, “The Colored Store.”
A visual trip to other parts of the city immediately bring to mind other locations that we all knew about even if they were places we did not patronize. For those of you that traveled to Center City, tell me that Gimbels, Lit Brothers, Snellenburgs, Sterns and John Wanamaker Department Stores do not immediately come to mind. These stores were in walking distance or accessible from a quick trolley or subway ride.
I am sure many of you recall the general location of some of the smaller retail stores. So, where were The Arrow Store and Morville’s Men Store located? Did you young ladies shop at Bonwit Teller, Learners, The Blum Store and The Lady Bug? After all the years that these stores have been closed, do you still remember their locations? I know that the grand movie houses of the past are still prominent in your mind. It is hard to believe that the readers of this column did not see a movie in the Fox, Mastbaum, Boyd, Goldman, Midtown and Earl Theatres.
As for Center City hotels, the Essex Hotel must be one you remember as it was the home for out of town folk that attended the Penn Relays. Certainly, the PSFS Bank Building remains as one of the most prominent images touching our downtown skyline, just as it did, back in the day.
A quick trip south on 16th Street will take you to places that used to house the Showboat, on Lombard off of 16th Street, and Pep’s Jazz Club that was located on the corner of Broad and South Streets. We had fun at these places that have not and probably will not be duplicated in other venues anywhere in our city.
While we are in this vicinity, remember Town Hall which was another venue for great partying. Interestingly, the Royal Theatre building, while vacant, continues to stand. You cannot ignore the men’s stores further down on South Street. Krass Brothers and Persian Tailors must come to mind. Go further down Broad Street and what do you recall from back in the day? My memories of this area focus on Gustine Lake and JFK Stadium as we had none of the stadiums that hosted many of our sporting events today.
I cannot close out this column without a trip up Broad Street into North Philadelphia. Such a trip will take you past the old Met that continues to stand. Just like the Met, Father Divine’s, Divine Lorraine Hotel, is abandoned, but remains standing at Broad Street and Ridge Avenue.
So, what was located at Broad and Oxford Streets? How can you forget the Black owned and operated Chesterfield Hotel that interestingly was the place for many of the Uptown performers to stay when they were in town?
Downstairs, in this same building, was the Ebony Lounge, a fun place and a place to put food in your stomach. You will also pass by the location of some of the fine clothing factories as you pass Lehigh Avenue. Some of you recall Shieb Park, later Connie Mack Stadium, at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue.
I recognize that the list of well-known and historic sites, in Philadelphia is endless. What I have included in this column just scratches the service. Some of you are thinking about Schmidt’s Beer, Stetson Hats, Supplee, Abbotts and Sealtest Milk Companies. Others may think of banks other than PSFS, such as Girard, Continental, Western Savings and Cayuga.
As Horn and Hardart was mentioned, I suspect that still others are looking for the mention of Linton’s Restaurants with several locations around the city. Then there are the five and dime stores, also scattered throughout the city such as Woolworths and Kreseges. Are there any buildings you know of today that were formerly A&P or Penn Fruit supermarkets? Where was Robert Hall clothing?
I suspect that for a number of you, a trip through Philadelphia to reflect on places I have visited in this column may not be viewed as exciting. For me, however, there is something quite special about reflecting on buildings and locations from the past. Many of these buildings and locations hold memories that will last a lifetime and special moments that I will never forget. For me, nothing can overshadow my fondness for the way things used to be in my life, nor the people, places and things that helped to shape my life, back in the day.
According to the calendar, June 21 represents the first day of summer. However, I must admit that I pay little or no attention to this date. July 4, the day we celebrate Independence Day, is when summer arrives for me. Unlike June 21, schools have closed; the wearing of summer clothing is more prevalent; air conditioning use increases significantly; and, July 4, unlike any other day, marks the first time many of us make trips to Fairmount Park for our first outing of the year. The Fourth of July and the beginning of cookouts or outings in the park were inseparable, back in the day.
You may not appreciate the significance of Fairmount Park in the lives of Black folk in Philadelphia neighborhoods like my mine, if you are not from my era. As a young child we called outings to Fairmount Park or other venues picnics; the term that some argue is politically incorrect. Why do I note that this term is politically incorrect? While some claim that it is urban legend, in many Black history professional circles and literature, picnic is associated with the act of lynching Black Americans. If you saw the movie, “Rosewood,” you may recall whites going out to randomly “Pick A Nig…” or pick a Black person to lynch as part of a family get together. So, Urban Legend or not, I have made it a point to avoid using the term picnic and have still cherished, over the years, the coming together of family members and friends in Fairmount Park for outings that generally marked the start of the summer season on the Fourth of July.
The excitement for our July 4 outings began the night before. I shall always recall my mother and siblings busily preparing the food to take to the park. Some foods were basic in my household; this was also the case in many other households. Could there be a trip to Fairmount Park for a family outing without fried chicken and potato salad? Deviled eggs were also prepared for such outings as well as a lot of fruit, pretzels and potato chips. A watermelon or two was always expected. While there were always a variety of sodas on hand, lemonade and Kool-Aid were in greater supply. My mother, prepared cakes and pies; specialties that were necessary to make an outing complete. You must recall the wicker baskets in which the foods were placed. There was something special about those wicker baskets and whenever I see one at an antique show or flea market, my mind immediately goes to our Fairmount Park outings, back in the day.
Fairmount Park, on a holiday was always crowded. Thus, it was my dear sister and a cousin that would get up early on July 4 to head to the park to save our favorite area for the family gathering. They would be out in the park when the sun came up. Reserving space was extremely important and absolutely necessary if you wanted your usual area. The early days of our gatherings were in the vicinity of Belmont Avenue and Parkside Avenue. There was a pavilion that stood close to this location which was highly desirable as our family could gather under this covered pavilion in cases of inclement weather and it also provided restroom facilities.
Later, my family outings and reunions moved to other sections of the park. The area near Belmont Plateau eventually became the location for most of our gatherings. My father, uncles and other men in the family were slow to take to joining other family members in our Fairmount Park outings. Therefore, the early days saw my mother and her sisters traveling to Fairmount Park, pulling wagons loaded with their children and all of their goodies. These Fairmount Park trips eventually expanded to include aunts and cousins, still primarily the women in the family, until they outgrew the wagon trips.
Eventually, these events evolved into larger gatherings. The men, who once avoided these trips, became regular participants. The participation of fathers and other men changed the behavior of those going to the park. Automobiles replaced the wagons and this provided the opportunity to take much more to the park. I will never forget the automobile stops at the “ice house” as a block of ice was a necessity. We started to see more equipment to play games because of the automobiles were available to transport more things. Blankets that were carried in the wagons were supplemented with lawn chairs. Not only did men start to appear but also distant cousins, in-laws and just plain friends. Coming together in Fairmount Park on July 4 was not only a great deal of fun, but such outings contributed in a mighty way to the maintenance and growth of family life and family values, back in the day.
If you participated in Fairmount Park outings, in the past, on July 4 or any other day, for that matter, you undoubtedly have fond memories of activities in which you participated with family members and friends. I do not know about your gatherings, but there were fifty to sixty adults and children when we came together. This made for a wide variety of things to do. Shortly after setting up an area for your immediate family, unpacking all of the goodies, lawn furniture and grills, the call went out for a softball game. Sides were chosen and a fun game of baseball with young people and older people took place. Interestingly, females of all ages participated in our softball games. This only applied to softball; usually football games enjoyed significant participation but only by boys and men. The game was thought to be just a bit too rough for females. Everyone, however, males, females, old and young participated in dodgeball. If you know nothing about the game of dodgeball, then you are clearly not from, back in the day.
In every family that participated in park activities, there were names associated with specific activities. In my family, there was a cousin that always led another group in a card game, usually pinochle. Another family member was known for her potato salad so everyone found an excuse to visit her area to taste this grand dish. My mother’s sister always arrived later in the day with ice cream. Both children and adults would line up for ice cream. My mother was known for her cakes. Everyone had to have a slice of her pound, coconut, chocolate layer or vanilla icing cakes. As for watermelon, my father seemed to have cornered the market for the sweetest watermelon among those that were part of our family gathering. It just appeared that my father had a knack for selecting good watermelons; a task that was much easier back then as watermelons could be selected or rejected based on being “plugged.” I recognize that some on you know nothing about this for plugging a watermelon is a practice left, back in the day.
Not all that took place when we gathered in Fairmount Park was full of fun. Need I go into detail with regard to conditions we faced when “old mother nature” called? Usually, the bathroom facilities were deplorable; so deplorable until some “bummed” a ride back home just to use the bathroom facilities.
Many of us participate in family reunions today. However, they tend to be occasional gatherings that occur once a year or every other year. I believe they pale in comparison to July 4 gatherings and other outdoor gathering that were once held in Fairmount Park where members came together on a regular basis from late morning to early evening. Unfortunately, for many of us, these park gatherings, in which we participated, are gone. Our Fairmount Park gatherings are victims of the inevitable as grandparents, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and other family members that kept these gathering going, pass on. Thus, the park activities, initiated by those now deceased family members have disappeared. There are no easy answers to the dysfunctional behavior of some families today. I suspect, however, that we would witness a significant improvement over the demise of the Black family structure if we could return to those family gatherings in places like Fairmount Park; gatherings that provided for wonderful opportunities for families to enjoy activities, break bread together, renew acquaintances and participate in meaningful bonding experiences, as we used to do, back in the day.