Tomorrow, I’ll board a flight from Costa Rica to Philly. I booked it months ago, originally with now bankrupt Mexicana, and then with Taca, a Panamanian airline. Taca is like airlines in the States used to be: it provides pillows, blankets, snacks, meals, drinks- even alcoholic ones- and headphones, all free of charge. I’m looking forward to the flight.
My brothers, aunts, some cousins and long-time friends live in the area, as do Jack’s son and his family. I’m hoping to see teachers I worked with at Masterman, and neighbors I met during the twenty-five years I lived and worked on the edge of South Philly and South Street.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the South Street Renaissance, and I’m thrilled that my visit coincides with the festivities. I’m sure South Street will have changed in the year and a half I’ve been gone, but not as much as it did between the seventies and eighties.
In 1973 I took a job at ATD, a business at 526 South St; I commuted from Delaware County by train every day. The streets west of Sixth were a menacing mess of vacant shops, strewn here and there with haberdasheries and storefronts displaying outrageous, pointy-toed men’s shoes of ostrich, alligator and lizard. East of Fifth, lots of exotic shops prospered, including a bookstore where customers were encouraged to linger in a hammock and read.
At one time, South Street was a prosperous shopping district on both sides of Broad Street, but, starting in the late thirties, talk of a crosstown expressway put the street on the path of decline. Eventually, the threat drove out businesses and shoved real estate prices into the gutter. People snatched up shells for five thousand bucks. And even at those low prices, under the threat of eventual demolition, only artists, musicians and hippies wanted to buy the shells. Not until December of ‘73 were the plans for the crosstown expressway officially jettisoned, after thirty-six years; then smart money started acquiring property.
When ATD moved to Wyncote, in 1980, I stayed in the neighborhood. I worked at two now defunct but nonetheless legendary bars on South Street: Grendel’s Lair, cabaret theater and home of the infamous musical, Let My People Come; and an early venue for The Police, and countless other rock and roll bands; and Dobbs, where Rock and Roll greats including Bo Diddly, George Thorogood and Robert Hazzard played. Between 1973 and 1987, I worked; shopped; ran; walked my dog; and bicycled on South Street. I found a two-bedroom apartment at Front and Bainbridge for 250 dollars a month. My daughter attended the well-regarded Mc Call School, in Society Hill.
Until the mid-eighties, South Street had it all: The TLA, a movie theater that showed foreign films, and The Rocky Horror Show at midnight on weekends; Jewish delis; funky clothing stores; upscale produce and sandwich shops. The restaurant renaissance fostered The Knave of Hearts, Lickety Split, Judy’s, The Latest Dish, and Wildflowers, to name my favorites. And South Street had a lively, friendly community. In 1984, I invested in the neighborhood. I bought a three-story redbrick on Federal Street, between 6th and 7th. I could walk to South Street from there in ten minutes.
During the eighties, the rents started going up, and the artists moved out. Grendel’s Lair became a Gap; Dobbs became The Pontiac Grill, McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried set up shop as more and more tourists appeared.
South Street today is a potpourri of cheesy stores selling tee shirts, ladies underwear and gaudy jewelry with lots of fast food joints interspersed. The last of the renaissance restaurants, The Knave of Hearts, closed a few years ago, but there are some excellent restaurants there still. High real estate prices will preclude an arts revival, but South Street lives on in my memory, and the memories of countless others, some of whom will come together this week, to look back fondly.