Monday, November 19, 2007

Cottman and The Boulevard

A month or so back the cover of the Sunday New York Times magazine had music producer, Rick Ruben, sitting on some grass wrapped in a white blanket. Seeing it reminded me of a photograph I have in a drawer somewhere of my best friend at the time, Bob Colella, taken in the Summer of 1967 on the front lawn of the house at 7339 Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia.

We’d been to the Spectrum to see The Beach Boys open for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who was on tour across the US in the wake of the notoriety he gained when The Beatles became momentary devotees of transcendental meditation. The Beach Boys were resplendent in their pure white suits and had a big horn section with them and played songs from their two recent albums, Wild Honey and Friends, two of my favorite Beach Boys records to this day. The Maharishi spoke seated on a platform on a stage inundated with flowers, thousands of flowers, to a crowd of about 12,000 people including me and Bob.

It was my idea to take photos of us in Maharishi-like poses, wrapped in my parent’s white bedspread, sitting on the grass, careful not to get anything but grass and bushes in the photo so it would look like we were sitting somewhere in Rikikesh; John Lennon and Donovan were just outside the frame.

It was the mise en scène of the Summer of Love.

My first memories of Philadelphia are of our first house on Levick Street, another neighborhood off the Boulevard in the Northeast, a few miles closer to downtown. What I remember is confirmed in the photos of the period – wallpaper and upholstery of deep dark greens and covered with huge yellow, red and pink flowers.

The era was summed up in one of Eisenhower’s State of the Union speeches when he said, “Things are more like they are today, then they have ever been before.”

Cowboy shows on TV and cap pistols in the back yard. One of the neighborhood kids was an albino and the proud owner of a complete Hop-along Cassidy outfit, all black with black cowboy hat, black leather gun belt and pearl-handled six shooters. Think of "Albino Bad Bob," Stacy Keach’s character from John Houston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; now imagine him six years old.

I don’t really remember the period before Levick Street when we lived at my Grandmother’s at 22nd and Girard Avenue. I do remember staying for a week here and there with her and her second husband, Albert, a kind old man who – both in my memory and in family photos – looked remarkably like Albert Einstein. I remember meeting the black kids whose families had begun to take over the neighborhood as the white people fled toward the suburbs and playing in back alleys few Philadelphia police officers would venture into today on a dare.

In 1958 I was five years old and I can just remember the new house, brand new, all white, hardwood floors, in that section of Philadelphia known as “the Northeast.” According to the 2000 Census, the Northeast has a sizable percentage of the city's 1.5 million people — a population of between 300,000 and 450,000, depending on how the area is defined. The neighborhoods that make up Northeast Philadelphia include Lawncrest, Rhawnhurst, Tacony, Frankford, Holme Circle, Holmesburg, Mayfair, Morrell Park, Oxford Circle, Bustleton, Torresdale, Parkwood, Somerton, Fox Chase and Pine Valley.

Our neighborhood was Mayfair.

There is no rhyme or reason to the things that memory discards or retains. For some reason I can still remember the phone number I had as a kid living on the boulevard, back when phone numbers started with letters; Devonshire 3-2349 (dialed as 333-2349). Most people my age who have had to decide among 9,308 long distance plans have felt the nostalgic pull of “The Phone Company.” I don’t think it is as much affection for corporate monopolies as it is an expression of feeling unsettled by the near-fetish status of “choice” in the contemporary world. Menus the size of encyclopedia will always make me lose my appetite. I still find rotary dial phones strangely attractive, and I still seek out diners where you can choose the meatloaf, the chicken, or the fish.

The Mayfair, the movie theatre at the corner of Cottman and Frankford Avenues, was the center of the neighborhood, and the shops that lined Frankford Avenue in both directions were the center of local commerce. First established in 1929, Mayfair featured several groundbreaking concepts for city dwellers: bigger row-homes with yards in the front and parking garages in the back. The automobile became the primary mode of transportation and shopping retail centers became available close to home, as shopping districts developed along Roosevelt Boulevard and Cottman Avenue. Development also served to connect the surrounding neighborhoods of the Northeast that had previously been isolated. In these regards, Mayfair was a forerunner to American suburbanization, an early part of the population shift from the inner city to its outer regions.

Our house sat right on Roosevelt Boulevard in the middle of a block of doubles. In the late 1950s the boulevard was a six lane highway with three lanes on either side separated by a large field of grass in the middle, wide enough to play football on. By the late 60s that center section was turned into another six lanes of traffic. That expansion must have taken place sometime around 1965-67 as I can clearly remember when the road was almost finished but still closed to all traffic and we would take our bikes and ride as fast as we could on the virgin asphalt of a 12 lane highway that was all our own.

That was fun.

From the front window that looked out onto the Boulevard it was a straight shot into a new kind of retail shopping nirvana. Northeast Philly was never the suburbs, anymore than South Philly or West Philly or North Philly was. So this was an alternative to the congestion of Center City shopping. In the summer of 1967 if you walked across the Boulevard you would walk across a large parking lot into an S. Klein Department store. Behind that was the Roosevelt Mall, maybe 15-20 shops (with ample parking) that would end at Bustleton Avenue.

At Cottman and Bustleton was a large Gimble’s department store. Behind it was another mall of 20 or so shops that ran until Castor Avenue, where there was a Lit Brothers department store and another mall of shops. All of this ran along the north side of Cottman Avenue, the south side was also full of shops, tailors, realtors, auto parts, tuxedo rental, record stores, etc., all the way from the boulevard to Castor Avenue and beyond.

Before the growth of the Greater Northeast everyone who lived there would take regular shopping trips into downtown Philadelphia. By car you just hop on the Boulevard and head west; or walk a half block to Cottman Avenue and grab the B-Bus to the elevated train station at Bridge and Pratt Streets and ride the El into center city at 15th and Market Streets. From there, like Boston or Manhattan, most of the city is an easy walk.

Downtown was, like the centers of most large US cities in the 1930s through the 1950s, a brightly lit and exciting place to be.

In 1861 Justus C. Strawbridge first opened a store in Philadelphia and then partnered with Isaac H. Clothier in 1868. For the next 128 years Strawbridge and Clothier remained a family owned and run company known for its great relationship with its employees and customers. In 1876 Wanamaker's opened the first true “department store” in Philadelphia and one of the first, if not the first department store in the United States. In 1894 Gimbel’s opened their doors in downtown Philadelphia.

To understand Philadelphia you have to understand it in relation to New York City and the shadow it casts across it. Philadelphia exists in contradistinction to New York. Where New York grew vertically in a forest of skyscrapers, Philadelphia’s skyline was bound by a gentlemen's agreement that no building in the city could rise above the top of the hat on the statute of William Penn that stood atop City Hall.

And nothing would until March 1987, when a modern steel-and-glass skyscraper called One Liberty Place opened three blocks away. One Liberty Place dwarfed City Hall by 397 feet, soaring 945 feet in height compared to City Hall's actual height of 547' 11-3/4" to the top of Penn's hat, usually rounded off to 548', which coincidentally matches the career number of home runs hit by Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt.

The decline of every professional sports franchise in Philadelphia shortly thereafter created the “Curse of Billy Penn’s Hat." Philadelphia sports teams had just before then enjoyed an enviable run of success: the Philadelphia Phillies had won the 1980 World Series and the 1983 National League pennant; the Philadelphia Flyers had won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, and were a regular presence in the finals; the Philadelphia Eagles had appeared in Super Bowl XV; and the Philadelphia 76ers had won the NBA championship in 1983. In a more ominous coincidence, the ground was broken for One Liberty Place on the same day as the MOVE tragedy that left numerous members of a radical "Back to Africa" group dead and burned down several blocks of West Philadelphia neighborhood.

But I digress.

Christmas in Center City was a memorable experience. Gimbel’s had a great toy department and their Santa was the "real" Santa, since we all had seen him in the parade. Lit Brothers had the Enchanted Colonial Village with 18 great scenes like the Toymaker, the Bakery, the Blacksmith and many more. Strawbridge and Clothier was the most decorated store and the employees were always friendly. Wanamaker's had their Christmas Light Show that we had to see every year, even though it never changed.

It is a box of memories of snow and lights and music, stuffed with the colorful iconography of the American Christmas.

By the mid 1960s the downtown was faltering. It seems so odd to me that America’s love affair with the automobile, a seemingly endless supply of cheap gasoline, and the desire to park, quickly, effortlessly, and for free, would be the death of downtowns across the country. Multi-screen multiplexes replaced the giant cathedral theatres, temples of brass and velvet, holdovers of the days before television. The Goldman Theatre at 15th and Market in the center of downtown Philadelphia was among the last of these to fall. Opened in 1946, the Goldman sat 1,300 people. This is where my father took me in 1962 to see The Longest Day, the film about D-Day, the battle that my dad had been part of. In 1981 I took my wife there to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. A year or so later the building was demolished and an office building built in its place.

Downtown Philly in the 60s was an amazing place. I started high school in 1967. In hindsight, that may have been the worst moment in history to enter a super-conservative all-male Catholic High School; more on that later. By the time I was a sophomore I was able to go downtown at night and go to concerts and clubs.

What many people forget was how very little alcohol had to do with the youth culture of the late 1960s. Of all the clubs in Philadelphia I wanted to go to I can only remember one, someplace on the Boulevard where Woody’s Truck Stop was the house band back when Todd Rundgren was their guitarist and a local guitar hero, that I wasn’t able to go to because it was 21 and older.

But Heacket’s Circle, a coffeehouse in Germantown where Sweet Stavin Chain was the house band, The Second Fret on Sansome Street where The Mandrake Memorial was the house band, The Electric Factory at 22nd & Arch (Philadelphia’s Fillmore), and The Main Point out on Lancaster Avenue were open to everyone. The Academy of Music at Broad & Locust was the home of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, led by Eugene Ormandy throughout the 1960s and also a venue for shows by Phil Ochs, Donovan, Melanie, The Band and many others. Some of the best concerts I have ever seen were on that stage.

And this was all from that home base at Cottman and the Boulevard.

About a month ago my father finally agreed that it was time to move and sold the house to a young Chinese family and moved into my sister’s home outside of Atlantic City.

For years now I’ve watched the way that, as we age, the world slowly and inexorably erases all traces of us having been here. The drug store in the old neighborhood is gone. The bar we used to go to, gone. The movie theatre… what movie theatre? Little by little, piece by piece. This is why so much of what we do we do with the hope that it will outlast us. We write books, make records, blog, some of us have kids who have kids. And the books and records go out of print, the kids have daughters who marry and sooner than we thought, we’re gone, daddy, gone. Real gone.

As I was describing the miles of retail shops across our house on the Boulevard I started to tell the story about "the kid who sucker punched lead singers," but I cut it because it deserves a post of its own. Next time.


Elliot said...

Thanks for your wonderful thoughts. I grew up and still live in Northeast Philly as did my parents who moved here from Kensington and North Philly. The times are a changing bu then they always do...It's still a decednt place to be. I am a bit younger than you(37) but have deep memories of the area all the way back to the early 70's. My grandpaents live in both Mayfair and Oxford Circle, we have always lived in Rhawnhurst. I'd love to hear more of your memories. Email me at Thanks! Elliot

capewood said...

Thanks Stan. As you know I grew up in the Northeast as well but I was a Holmesbergarian. A few years ago I was back in the old neighborhood and walked from Stanwood Street to Cottman Ave. and back taking photos. I'll post them on my blog in a few days if I get a chance.

capewood said...

Actually, I already did one post. You can see it here.

I'll do another.

Ed Kane said...

Thanks Stan. Your shared memories synchronize with many of my own. I appreciate your writing & sharing them. - Ed Kane