“West Philly hasn’t lost its soul. It’s still a melting pot. It’s had its share of ups and downs. New people from all over are bringing a new vitality to it.”
Joe Washington and I met for lunch at the Hamilton Restaurant on the last day of winter. It’s a narrow, old-fashioned diner at 40th and Market with formica counters, brown-stained paneling, and cracked vinyl stools. A neighborhood fixture for decades, it is run by Asian immigrants. The Market Street subway rumbles underneath.
Joe Washington has worked as the bartender of the Orpheus Club since the late 1970s. He has also tended bar at a University of Pennsylvania fraternity, and as a young man worked in construction. He and his wife now life at 61st and Arch, a few blocks north of the Market Street El.
I asked if he could tell me the story of his life in West Philly.
Like many African-Americans in the city, his grandparents moved to the city from the rural South during the early twentieth century. Joe’s maternal grandmother Myrtle Tucker came from from Lynchburg in Southside Virginia. She purchased a few Victorian homes on the 4100 block of Parkside Avenue, which she ran as rooming houses for single men. Her daughter Marion helped with the cooking and the cleaning. Myrtle also made some extra cash running a basement speakeasy. In the 1950s, she sold her rooming houses and returned to the “Possum Hollow” farm she had purchased back in Virginia.
Marion stayed in Philadelphia, where she worked as a seamstress and cook. She married ironworker George Washington — yes, Joe said kids teased his dad a lot about his name — whose family had come from Macon, Georgia. George Washington made good money with Delaney Construction, but suffered from vertigo as he grew older. So did many other ironworkers. Joe thinks his dad may have gotten sick from the construction site fumes. George then took a job at ground-level as a steamroller driver. On one school trip to the Philadelphia Airport, young Joe — born in 1956 at the Presbyterian Hospital — recalled proudly pointing out his old man to his classmates, driving his steamroller along the freshly-paved tarmac.
The Washingtons moved to a house at 736 Brooklyn Street, just south of Lancaster Avenue. In the 1950s and 60s, there were scores of factories nearby that employed entire neighborhoods: Bond Bakery (bread), Fels-Naptha (soap), and the garment center at 57th and Chestnut. Eateries such as the Hamilton Restaurant served hot meals to workers at the beginning and end of their shifts. Yet as the 1960s continued, the factories either closed down or moved to where the labor was cheaper and taxes lower.
After we finished our cheeseburgers at Hamilton, Joe and I then walked north up 40th Street into Powelton, towards his childhood home on Brooklyn Street. The neighborhood is a maze of small streets and trapezoidal lots. Some houses are worn and grungy, missing porches, stoops, and mansard roofs. A few are still abandoned, their windows and doors boarded up with moldy plywood. Most of the homes however have been renovated recently, with crisply painted doors and repointed brickwork. New residences are popping up in the once-weedy gaps. The naked steel frame of a new addition to Penn Presbyterian Hospital looms above the rooftops.
Joe remembers how he played on these stoops with other children. “It was fun and vibrant,” he recalled. “People cared and watched each others kids.” I ask him about the high rise housing projects, bordered by Lee Park several blocks to the west. “I prefer living in a house,” he said. “Sometimes the elevator in one of those towers wouldn’t work. As a kid, I carried bags up 18 floors to help out this one lady.”
In the 1960s, this part of West Philadelphia was changing from an ethnic white area (German, Irish, and Jewish) to predominately African-American. The city’s banks, working hand-in-glove with federal Homeowners Loan Corporation, had declared most of the housing stock north of Market Street to be “hazardous.” This policy, known as “redlining,” meant that getting a mortgage or homeowners’ insurance was either impossible or exorbitant. The result was “white flight” to tract-home suburbs such as Levittown. In addition, the city was seizing large tracts of land for urban renewal by eminent domain. One of the biggest redevelopment projects in Philadelphia was centered at 36th and Market, the heart of the so-called “Black Bottom” neighborhood. And the city’s population was declining, falling from a peak of over 2 million in 1950 to 1.8 million by 1970. According to Joe, it was not just white people leaving town. Many African-American residents moved back down south or died off, leaving behind vacant houses that no one seemed to want.
Joe’s parents separated in the late 1960s. Marion Washington opened a grocery store at 42nd and Aspen. She rented the space for “Miss Marion’s Store” from the Johnson family, who owned a supermarket just up Lancaster Avenue. She made enough money to put her son Joe through St. Ignatius Catholic Elementary School. On Fridays and Saturdays, teenage Joe served up platters of BBQ ribs, chicken, cabbage, and string beans, which were a hit with the Powelton residents. “We made $1,000 one day selling platters!” Joe said proudly.
Yet he also remembered that the Johnsons were jealous of his mother’s success. A fire ripped through the store in the early 70s, soon after the landlords had installed newfangled aluminum wiring in the building. Joe’s mother opted not to rebuild.
We then walked north towards Lancaster Avenue and the hulking, curved brick facade of Hawthorne Hall. Zara’s Bar and “Mighty Writers” occupy the first floor. The upper stories, which include apartments and an auditorium, are partially abandoned.
“This building is in the Gray Area,” a sign hanging above the main entrance declares. “Gray Area is an experiment and public dialogue to encourage new ways of thinking about old buildings in Philadelphia and beyond. ”
“Oh, there were some great parties there back in the day!” Joe said.