Note: this is the second part of “Walking West Philly with Joe Washington.” To read part one, click here.
When Joe Washington was a young man in the 1970s, Hawthorne Hall was a gathering place for Powelton and Mantua. Its second floor auditorium hosted dance parties and boxing matches. Now, the orange brickwork is battered. Chunks of the terracotta cornice have fallen to the pavement. A few of its pressed tin oriel windows are painted hot pink. Two nude figures — one male (Orpheus with his lyre) and one female (presumably Venus)– still adorn the facade.
Shabby, yes, but also potentially bohemian Victorian chic today. Unlike other large corner buildings in the area, like the old banks and movie palaces, it will not be replaced by a pharmacy or gas station. Owned by the People’s Emergency Center, it still is partially occupied by shops and apartments. Curtains hang at crazy angles in some of the windows. One has a bathroom scene painted in black and white. Others are boarded up. The street level doors are plastered with stickers. Inside, the plaster is falling from the ceiling, exposing wood lathe. Last year, it was the site of a Hidden City art installation. Visitors walked through a set of rooms that were a surreal interpretation of a secret society, one of many which met in the building during the early twentieth century.
Across the street from Hawthorne Hall was the “Fake House,” an old industrial building that housed makeshift apartments for artists and counterculture activists. In the 1980s, it was the site of many punk parties. The Fake House was demolished last Christmas, and it is being replaced by 22 luxury apartments. The residents had no lease. As the building came down, someone scrawled “F*k gentrification” on one of the exposed party walls.
As a young man in the 1960s, Joe saw an entire West Philadelphia neighborhood get destroyed. The Black Bottom was centered around 36th and Market. The spidery frame of the Market Street Elevated cast a dark shadow over the shops and tenements. Trains rattled by at all hours. When Joe was growing up in Mantua, there was a notorious gang that took the name of the heart of the Black Bottom: 36th and Market.
“If you didn’t know those cats, there would be trouble,” he declared.
We walked down Lancaster Avenue in the rain, from Hawthorne Hall to the former crossroads of the Black Bottom. Joe waves his hand at the sleek office buildings at the intersection. “All of these were once houses,” he said. “All the people were displaced.” By the time replacement housing was built, most of the 15,000 or so former residents of the area had scattered to other neighborhoods. Southwest Philadelphia. Yeadon. Or New Jersey. Or they moved “up the way,” north of Market and further west to Haddington.
A wall mural on nearby Warren Street memorializes the Black Bottom. “Gone but not forgotten,” reads the lettering on a painted red heart. Each year, the Black Bottom Association hosts a reunion picnic in Fairmount Park, across from the Please Touch Museum. According to the Association, between 5,000 and 10,000 former residents and their descendants attend every August. “Although poor in an economic sense,” states the event pamphlet, “the community was rich in mind, body, and spirit.”
Joe’s old neighborhood of Powelton-Mantua – a few blocks to the north of the Black Bottom — was largely spared from the mass-demolition. As he grew up, Joe realized that he had to look beyond employment in his old neighborhood to get ahead. The factories were closing one by one. Restaurants and other businesses, including his mother’s grocery store, followed suit. He got married in 1984 to his girlfriend Laura, who he had met as a 10th grader at West Philadelphia High School. They moved to a new house at 142 North Wanamaker Street. He worked at a warehouse in Trenton and as a bartender at the L&M Pub in Montgomery County. By the early 1980s, as Joe remembered, West Philadelphia went from being rough to dangerous. The culprit was crack-cocaine, which swept inner city neighborhoods with devastating force. Not only would people do anything to get high — assault, prostitution, larceny — but the old street gangs such as the “36th and Market” went from wielding fists and knives to firing guns.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 finally outlawed redlining and blockbusting, but the damage was done. Between 1970 and 1990, the city’s population plummeted from 2 million to 1.5 million, the greatest decline in its history. Housing stock — much of it dating to the late-19th century — was deteriorating. Industrial jobs were disappearing. Many of the children and grandchildren of the Great Migration pioneers who arrived from Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia got swept up in the addiction and the violence. More houses went vacant, left behind by residents who had passed away, moved back South (where federal laws aimed at dismantling Jim Crow were finally taking effect), or were serving time in jail. Abandoned houses became dens for criminal activity. It wasn’t just people in the community who bought dope, Joe remembered. Middle class and wealthy whites drove in from the suburbs to get their fix, too. Gun shots rang out at night. Drug dealers loafed on Joe’s stoop, and refused to move.
“Arm yourself if you need to,” Joe said of the situation.
In the late 1970s, Joe got a break for a job in Center City. He got a call from his wife’s aunt Gloria Shannon, who was working on the staff of the Orpheus Club near Rittenhouse Square. Before long, Joe was tending bar at Monday night rehearsals of the oldest mens’ singing group in America. Club president Geoffrey Dougherty brought Joe to his house in Valley Forge to tend bar, and he quickly became close with his wife Nancy and children Win, Lydia, Bromley, and Ted. He also helped get Joe bartending jobs at his old Penn fraternity, Saint Anthony Hall, and at the Fourth Street Club at 15th and Latimer.
Joe Washington has worked at Orpheus for thirty years and tends bar at private parties all over town. He now lives with his wife at 61st and Vine, a few blocks north of the Market Street Elevated. “Up the way” from the old neighborhood, as the former residents would say. Joe believes the worst years of drugs and violence have passed. “This new generation seems to have grown up,” he said. “They are more rooted in the community and are applying themselves, and there is less underage pregnancy.” Starting in the 1990s, the city seized abandoned houses for back taxes, either selling them or tearing them down. After years of decline, new people are now moving into his neighborhood: immigrants from the Caribbean, Africa and South America, as well as more caucasian college students and young professionals.
Joe welcomes the influx of new arrivals. “West Philly hasn’t lost its soul,” he said with a smile as we parted at the intersection of 36th and Market. “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.”