The neighborhood called Camingerly doesn’t exist. What’s more, according to the list of nearly 400 Philadelphia neighborhood names, current and defunct, it never did. But thanks to the fieldwork of the late folklorist Roger Abrahams, Camingerly survives in scholarly literature, if not in the hearts and minds of would be Camingerlites.
Abrahams explained his work of more than a half-century ago: “Camingerly was really just us white folks name for what the [African-American] men called the 12th Street neighborhood, the place the old Twelfth Street gang used to rule until they got old enough to have jobs, ‘old ladies’ and to get thrown down by circumstances. ‘Camingerly’ was our abbreviation of Camac, Iseminger, and Waverly between Twelfth and Thirteenth, Pine and Lombard.” If not for his living at 421 South Iseminger Street in the late 1950s, Abrahams wouldn’t have done the work that led him to initiate University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Folklore & Ethnography.
So what’s the deal with the neighborhood a few called Camingerly?
“These old row houses built as servants’ quarters as satellites to the square and townhouses on the larger thoroughfares,” wrote Abrahams. We called them ‘Father-Son-Holy-Ghost Houses,’ as did some of our neighbors, because they each had three rooms, one on top of the other. Some of them, in fact most of them, had a lean to kitchen appended to the first floor; and some of them had indoor plumbing. All the houses on our street were electrified, but not those two blocks to the south of us. The local hardware stores carry the stock of the country store, because in many ways the city life hadn’t reached these parts completely.”
Abrahams continued: “This was not the heart of black Philadelphia, though it was only a block from one of its main centers of activity, South Street. It was a little too far north, too close to the high-priced townhouses and stores. It was pimp country. Alice’s Playhouse [an African-American bar at 522 South 13th Street] barbecued-chicken-on-the-corner country, but just one block north was Pine Street with all its antique stores and its police station (run by Frank Rizzo…”
By 1970, Abrahams noted, the neighborhood had “become all white.” And even as he lived there in the late 1950s, gentrification was beginning to take hold. “Camingerly already had a number of invaders from Center City,” he wrote. “Miss Haines, had lived there for years, a Quaker nurse of great sensibility who was home wherever she found herself. And there were four or five others, more recently come, attracted by the closeness to downtown Philly.”
“But,” Abrahams observed, “in 1958 the place was unmistakably black.” And, for an emerging folklorist, full of possibilities.
Abrahams’ story as to how he arrived: “I was a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and I needed quarters close to transportation to Penn. …I had a friend, a roommate from college, living just a block away, and he was willing to take me to his landlord and to help me strike the same kind of bargain he had been able to make—reduced rent if improvements were made by the tenant. … So I moved to 421 S. Iseminger and began the never ending job of fixing the place up.”
“One of the reasons why moving into the area was exciting was that a couple of years before, my wife-to-be and I had been driving through the area and had seen an old man sitting on a doorstep playing his five-strong banjo. I was a folksinger then, just beginning to collect songs and singers, and so we leapt out of the car and had a delightful hour with “Old Banjo,” as he called himself. So in moving to Camingerly I had hopes of collecting oldtime songs, survivals of the trip north by immigrant singers. However, after I moved I soon found that “Old Banjo” had been dead a year and that not only were there no old bluesmen in the area, but that kind of ‘down-home’ music was scorned by my neighbors. So I quickly gave up hope of finding a store of folkloric material.
“Ultimately, it was not vestiges of the past traditions that exploded in my folkloric imagination, but the oral traditions that were largely the product of the urban experience—the performances of ‘sounds,’ the openly heroic, wildly imaginative, coercive, often violent stories and epic poems manufactured and performed by the young men.”
According to anthropologist and collaborator John F. Szwed, Abrahams rejected the “argument that black Americans suffered not only from poverty but from a deficient culture.” What Abrahams found in Camingerly was “a portrait of a highly verbal, articulate people whose daily lives are charged with the importance of wit, metaphor, and subtlety in a thousand ways.” Abrahams took what he observed from his base at Iseminger Street and “redefined what folklore was, in every sense. He moved it from the written text toward performance, and put the material into a political and cultural framework.”
Abrahams described meeting Bobby Lewis who performed his material and introduced others. “Fortunately for me,” wrote Abrahams, “a number of good performers from the neighborhood liked the idea of getting their entire repertoire down on tape (and listening to it played back). … John H. ‘Kid’ Mike was the first of the great talkers to come by, and he soon agreed to tell me his stories and toasts. He recorded a few of them—‘Shine,’ ‘Stackolee’ and one of the ‘Signifying Monkey’ toasts—and I immediately made transcriptions. Being a graduate student in folklore, I brought the texts to my professors, MacEdward Leach and Tristam Coffin. They both became excited about the stories and their performance and encouraged me to write about them in a term paper.”
Abrahams did more than a paper. He completed his dissertation “Negro Folklore From South Philadelphia” in 1962 and published a book one year later. “Abrahams described a new and vibrant verbal world, exuberant, profane and endlessly inventive” wrote William Grimes in The New York Times’ obituary. “He explained the fine points of the dozens — a street-corner battle of wits in which participants traded insults — and analyzed traditional poems like “The Signifying Monkey,” whose opening line provided Professor Abrahams with the title of his book.”
Szwed and others described that book, Deep Down in the Jungle, as an “underground classic.” Twenty more books and scores of chapters and scholarly articles by Abrahams would follow. And much of it transformed the field of American urban folklore.
Even if the neighborhood name of Camingerly never caught on.
[Sources: Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1970,) 2nd edition; John F. Szwed, “Review of Deep Down in the Jungle: Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia.” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Sep., 1971), pp. 392-394; William Grimes, “Roger D. Abrahams, Folklorist Who Studied African-American Language, Dies at 84,: The New York Times, June 29, 2017; Bonnie L. Cook, “Roger D. Abrahams, 84, Penn folklorist, writer, and performer,” Philly.com, July 7, 2017.]
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