Judith Beck

As a public health nurse working in 1965-67 for the Philadelphia Department of Health, headquartered at Broad and Lombard Streets, Judith Beck was assigned to see patients in Health District One, which encompassed a large part of Center City including Society Hill. She walked throughout the area to visit patients at home, giving her a very close look at living conditions, the racial make-up, economic status, and health issues that prevailed in sections of her district. The population included African Americans and Puerto Ricans to the south (especially around Lombard and South Streets), and a small, stable, elderly white population, including Jews, on the east. Living conditions included severe over-crowding: single-family dwellings that often housed multiple families, rooming houses, and skid room (to the north). The sole source of heat was often a gas stove, and unsupervised children had access to gas stove-tops. Poor sanitation prevailed. Some buildings had indoor toilets, but they were communal, in poor condition and filthy. Some had only outhouses. Health conditions most often were wound care, tuberculosis, diabetes and neonatal and perinatal care for new mothers and their babies who were discharged from hospitals only 24 hours after delivery. Judith saw a few patients living in houses that were undergoing rehabilitation and enjoyed observing the work being done on them. She saw houses that had been beautifully transformed and remembered their previous appearance. She recalls the public housing high-rise apartment buildings on Washington Avenue and in East Falls that were supposed to be no different than Society Hill Towers. They were supposed to be the answer for the poor people who were displaced from the redevelopment of Society Hill. They did not work out that way.


DS: September 4, 2005. The interview is with the Rev. Judith Beck, B-E-C-K, the Associate Rector [for Pastoral and Family Ministry] of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at Third and Pine Streets, Philadelphia. So Judith, tell me: get me started on where you were at the time you were involved in this 19106 area.

JB: I had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in the June – in May – of 1964 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and was married in December of ’64, and in January first of ’65 I began work with the Philadelphia Department of Health and was assigned to health District One, Broad and Lombard Street, and was given as my district for care the area in Philadelphia (1:00) from Broad Street to the Delaware River and South – the north part – the north side of South Street through to Vine Street. So that encompassed a larger area than 19106, but it encompassed a broad spectrum of human beings. You know, concentrating on –-

DS: Now this would have been what year?

JB: Now that would have been 196—I started work in 1965, and I worked for two years for the Health Department, through ’67, when I went to the HUP School of Nursing to teach. And I was responsible – I had a – all the cases, as they called them in those days – I imagine they call them clients today – but everybody, for health for that region. And I received my cases from hospitals and from physician referrals. At that point, an interesting factor, I’m sure it affected 19106 (2:00) as the tuberculosis oral medication had just come out on the market. Tuberculosis was a major part of my nursing healthcare through this whole region. So I did a lot of supervision of tuberculosis medication. I really saw in those two years. And also I was at that hospitals – I’d forgotten – [indecipherable] up in north Philadelphia. Girard –

DS: TB hospitals?

JB: There were two big ones, Landis State Hospital, and I’ve forgotten the other one. But I also went back and forth to those hospitals. As well as for medications. I actually was responsible for giving out medication. That was the only medication I carried with me. But it was remarkable to see the reduction, overnight, in tuberculosis. [Coughs] Sounds like I have it. But the (3:00) heaviest concentration of tuberculosis care was in Chinatown and skid row. But it was throughout, so I’m sure there were cases in 19106. South Street and Lombard, the population was African-American. There was a lot of perinatal care around – and pediatric care for mothers and young children. It was the maternal infant care program. Jefferson administered that. We made postnatal visits. They were discharging those mothers 24 hours, I think, after they went back; so we made visits in the home to check on formula, the care of the baby to look for jaundice and to do postpartum evaluation of the mothers. And there were lots of mothers and babies on South Street and Lombard Street. What I recall as being my primary caseload in that area along with, once again, some tuberculosis and diabetes – diabetes care throughout. And going all the way over (4:00) to Second, between Second and Front was a very – was a stable, old white population –

DS: We’re talking Delancey, Spruce, Pine? Lombard?

JB: From probably north of Lombard through Spruce. I’m not sure how much – I think up in this area there were a lot of – I want to say – trade organizations and things. I don’t think (5:00) there was much of a residential area above Spruce. But between Spruce and the north side of Delancey was a very stable white population that I visited elderly. And there was a great deal of the diabetes care. I visited mostly women – and wound care. I did unaboots and [indecipherable] well, elderly and often precipitated by diabetes. And leg wounds. They were, in those days they were very difficult to eradicate. It was really more maintenance (6:00) and trying to get people ambulatory and able to live their life as they would like to. I remember it was in this area, though, the same area, the renovations were beginning. And there would be – I saw some houses that were absolutely remarkable, because I knew them when they were rooming houses and there were 15 families living in them. And then some come along and buy one of those houses and renovated – again I can’t remember specifically why I would have been called in – for some help, a reason that I would visit those homes and have a chance to see them. So it was fun to see this beginning of the transformation of Society Hill. But there was very little of that when I was – that was just starting.

DS: Just starting.

JB: When I was in that district.

DS: So it was between Front and Third, north side of Lombard to Spruce. (7:00)

JB: Yes, yes. I think about Pennsylvania Hospital on Spruce Street, where the rooming homes, big rooming homes, and there were the elderly, elderly Jewish women I think almost exclusively. There may have been some men there, whom I looked after for their – not so much for their daily care, but health maintenance. I didn’t actually do things such as bed baths and providing meals or anything like that. I was in to monitor or help disorder of some sort.

DS: And was there tuberculosis in this Front Street area?

JB: I don’t recall the tuberculosis, but I think there may have been. I think because it was – in those days there was tuberculosis all over. And lots of it – well, fairly well managed. But the medications is what really brought an end to tuberculosis. But there was enough of it that when I hear about the mutations of AIDS and possibility of massive tuberculosis again new strains of (8:00) tuberculosis – tuberculi – that do not respond to these medications, knowing how deep it was into the culture and how difficult it was to cure, to care for tuberculosis patients. I mean, how miserable their lives were. It gives one pause to worry about the possibility of there being a scourge once again. Thinking about that, one client I’ll never forget, and I remember his name absolutely, but I think they were out of the district, was the Stapler brothers, the fabric store up on (9:00) Walnut Street. And for some reason they felt they had to have vitamin B shots. And their doctor would write the prescription and were full paying – you might be interested in that too, as to how my work was funded. But they paid full fee. And I think I went over every Tuesday afternoon, up to the loft where all the bolts of material were [Laughs] and gave David and – what was – I can’t remember his brother’s – vitamin B shots. [Laughs] There were funny things that happened. Our fees were collected on a sliding scale, and it was determined by income. Those who could, (10:00) paid full. Most paid nothing. Because this area was very poor. It was not as it is today, at all. There were lots and lots of people here who were –

DS: Would you say it was a slum?

JB: Well, I’m trying to think– areas.

DS: Blocks, you mean?

JB: Blocks. Certain blocks. South Street, Lombard, desperately poor. Desperately poor areas. And I recall it must be neighbors between Lombard and Pine. It seems to me it was farther north. It was a small area – it was around St. Peter’s Church, that’s what I do remember. There was a Puerto Rican – some blocks. They had Puerto Rican, and it really did look like a tenement, because there were these houses with lots of families, and they opened out onto the courtyards. And they’re now beautiful gardens. But the men – there would be Friday afternoon cock fights. [Laughs] There would be a few chickens running around and maybe an occasional goat, because they brought their cultural lifestyles with them, I think. And there were, of course, lots of babies. (11:00) That was mostly, again, neonatal health care. I would have the occasional wounds. I worked with L & I [Philadelphia’s Office of Licenses & Inspection] until my supervisor found out what they were doing. But I went with them when they had to go arrest someone and they had tuberculosis. I didn’t know that that was illegal, that L & I should not have been taking me with them. I went up and rang the doorbell [Laughs] and moved aside.

DS: Oh, they were using you as a front. (12:00)

JB: Yes. In those days, those were halcyon days for –

DS: They were what?

JB: Halcyon – you know, wonderful times for public-health care and just social services in general, because it was Johnson’s Great Society. And there was money coming in to fund health care. It was wonderful to work under those circumstances. And I have often wondered what would have happened if Johnson’s Great Society hadn’t been dismantled, leaving lots of (13:00) programs in the lurch. But there were ample nurses working in the city. The whole city was covered. The Health District – that was the time when they regionalized all the Health Districts. So all these centers were brand new. They all had up-to-date equipment and wonderful labs, wonderful staff to work with. It was one of my finest experiences, this work in this area. I saw some tragedies, some horrible things. I saw some awful child abuse. I saw a case of – I was called out late on Friday afternoon down on South Street for a baby was about 18 months old, sobbing. Oh, it was horrible.

DS: And they would call you in, or –?

JB: Yes, I –

DS: The police would call you in?

JB: Yes, the police would call, the fire departments would call. Our calls came from a variety – Pennsylvania Hospital. I was always at Pennsylvania Hospital. I was getting wound packs or I used to go out – because I had skid row. I was the health officer for skid row. So I would be called there by all sorts of people, fire, police, the managers of the flop houses and all. And there I gave (14:00) a great deal of direct care. It was so hard to get the clients into a hospital. Of course, lots of tuberculosis in that area. So going back and forth to Pennsylvania Hospital was another major source and Lying In [Hospital] as well. But Jefferson had a major federal program for women and infant care, WIC. So they had a direct link with the Health Department through that program that was funded through the federal government.

DS: So you would work out of both hospitals, right? (15:00)

JB: I actually would never – I would go to them. I worked out of Health District 1, exclusively, up at Broad and Lombard. But I would go over to the hospitals. It was mostly Pennsylvania Hospital where I would go. They seemed to have skid row. I don’t know if that was by arrangement with the City. But that was the hospital where the residents of skid row would be taken to.

DS: What was skid row in that day? What was considered skid row?

JB: It was Vine from maybe the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to about Tenth Street and Vine to Race. And then the Chinatown area. And I also had to go into all the restaurants and test all the workers – the food handlers in the restaurants – for tuberculosis. (16:00)

DS: In Chinatown.

JB: In Chinatown.

DS: Did you have to do that down in this neighborhood?

JB: No, interestingly.

DS: Because there were a lot of little mom-and-pop restaurants.

JB: No. I don’t remember the mom-and-. No. There were – surprisingly I didn’t have to go in there – because – well, I shouldn’t say no. I don’t remember mom-and-pop restaurants. But there were – I do remember the markets, the poultry markets, where the people – the residents of the black community – would shop.

DS: That would be on Second Street?

JB: On South Street. They were open markets and the conditions were, I’m sure – well, I shouldn’t say that.

DS: Open stands?

JB: Stands, some of them were open.

DS: Up and down South Street.

JB: Yes, and a lot of the clothing, men’s – there was one here. I think it closed just recently. I couldn’t believe it’s still there. Bridal shops. I used to like to walk along and look at the bridal shops. [Laughs] And it was clothing – clothing stores on South Street.

DS: Was it upper –? What kind of a shopping area was it?

JB: All Jewish merchants. But I was not aware of anybody middle class or above coming in. But I was rarely here – there – on Saturdays, and I certainly wasn’t walking my post on (17:00) Saturdays. Because when we covered on weekends we covered larger districts, and I drove. I had a car. But on the weekdays it was pretty much – people in this whole area – it was mixed. There were whites and blacks shopping on South Street, but poor, not the way it is now. Well, Fourth Street had the garment, the textile stores. And South Street – I mean Second Street I remember Head House – well, it wasn’t even developed. It wasn’t the way it is now, by any means. As I recall (18:00) there wasn’t much – I mean, much that was commercial. I don’t think it was.

DS: So the food produce center was clearly gone?

JB: Yes, it had just moved, I think, just moved south. Where would that have been?

DS: Where?

JB: Yes.

DS: The food produce? It was all around Dock Street and along Spruce and Dock.

JB: Yes, I was not aware of – I think they had already cleared this area.

DS: Chicken houses?

JB: OK, OK, chicken houses. Yes, yes.

DS: Front Street, Delancey, the 100 block, there were grain buildings. This had all been torn down.

JB: This is where the first houses that I saw, the first renovated houses, were located, that I visited. And a couple of them around Pennsylvania Hospital. So I think they had cleared this. (19:00) They might even have started to build the high-rises at that time.

DS: ’65 would probably have been right when the Towers were started.

JB: Yes, yes, because I vaguely remember construction in this area and not being called into it. Not having calls –

DS: From that area.

JB: From that area.


JB: For this – related to the church, I think it was outside of 19106, but I also had the Seaman’s Church – I was the nurse for the Seaman’s Church Institute when it was located on Walnut.

DS: Oh, on Walnut!

JB: Yes, but I think it was around Tenth and Walnut, or Chestnut. Walnut or Chestnut, one of those streets, but I think it was that area. Somewhere in that area. (20:00)

DS: Fascinating. Good for you.

JB: It was. It was wonderful!

DS: Were you ever afraid?

JB: I was never afraid, and – no, I wasn’t. [Laughs] One Friday afternoon, it was a hot Friday afternoon, and I was walking up South Street, going back to the District, and a big guy came out of a bar, a big, black guy. And he came up to me, and I was getting [indecipherable]. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But I don’t remember being afraid, but being wary, being alert, not knowing exactly what was going to happen. And out of nowhere came – I don’t know, (21:00) it seemed to me there was – it must have been probably about six – even bigger black fellows, who surrounded this guy and said – moved him, literally off the sidewalk and said, “You don’t hurt a nurse.” And from that point on I knew people watched from behind windows. People knew – they must – they knew who I was. I didn’t know who they were. I had the uniform, of course.

DS: You were in a uniform?

JB: The blue-green public health uniform.

DS: It was clear you were a nurse.

JB: I was very grateful I had the uniform. That helped a great deal.

DS: Identified who you were.

JB: Absolutely. It gave me authority.

DS: So, your status was one of, “We are grateful that she is here.”

JB: Absolutely. Everybody. Always treated with respect. I visited lots of places where no one would answer the door probably during my calls. On any given day people were there, but that’s just the lifestyle. You know, transients moving around. I had a few people – you know, they were real rooming houses. More of it’s coming back. Between Third – let me think, Pine and Spruce there were lots and lots of rooming houses. And now there was an area up – I think that must have been Spruce maybe up to Walnut maybe that was a Jewish area, rooming houses. But then (22:00) there was another area of rooming houses, Pine maybe, from Pine to Lombard? I want to say Lombard, because I remember that Lombard was definitely – was African American. And I think Puerto Rican, now that I’m thinking about it, because that’s where the mix was. But north of that they had men. There were hotels, not flop houses by any means, but hotels –

DS: Rooming houses.

JB: Rooming houses where men lived. And sometimes the older men would be belligerent. Not that I ever felt threatened, but not cooperative, not cooperative at all, difficult to work with (23:00) them. They would often refuse care. And there wasn’t anything I could do about it. But I felt very safe. I worked by myself in this district and never worried about it.

DS: You were never here at night?

JB: No. We were never called down at night. I would go out with L & I very early in the morning [Laughs] but they would pick me up in a car. I was never alone.

DS: And what were they going in about?

JB: They were going after felons of some sort, but what they used – because there was so much tuberculosis, oftentimes they knew that these people also had tuberculosis.

DS: So, felons – (24:00)

JB: Their crime. They had committed some crime.

DS: Some sort of crime.

JB: And they were – I don’t know why L & I did this. But I think perhaps that was the link – because they had a communicable disease, the police wouldn’t handle them. I think maybe that was it. And so L & I would pick up these people. It was men, all men. And they didn’t do it a great deal. And I thought it was part of my job description. I never thought anything about it, because they were – it’s coming back – they were – they had a communicable disease. That was it, and I don’t know how – why L & I was doing it, but they were. And they would pick up the person. But I was there to monitor the disease part of it. But I was never involved in the arrest or anything like that.

DS: They wouldn’t come to you and ask for your listing of the clients? (25:00)

JB: No, no. They knew. They had all the material, and they knew the person lived in my district. But what I was doing was not in my job description [Laughs].

I mentioned it as – we had at the Health District I think it was Thursday afternoons we did not go out in the field, because we had a staff debriefing, where we would read all of our cases. And supervision. And I mentioned it as a matter of course, because I assumed that’s what I was supposed to be doing. And the supervisor almost died, [Laughs] was angry with me initially, until she realized that I really had nothing to do with it and did think honestly that was part of what I was expected to do as a public health nurse. That was the end of that – my brief sharing with the law. [Laughs] (26:00)

DS: So, what nationalities are we talking about here? You said that the Lombard – South Street area was very black and Puerto Rican.

JB: South Street was all black. I don’t remember any Puerto Ricans there. But it must have been Lombard that was more mixed.


JB: And then – I don’t know the nationalities. I couldn’t tell you. Except knowing there was a Jewish community and then a cluster of rooming houses of white but maybe young white men. [Indecipherable]. Maybe they were all out working. I never saw them. These were people with health problems. Older white men. And then in this area were, again, (27:00) small apartments. Rooming houses. For some people. Yes, I can’t say, because of – you think of Stamper Street. Those tiny little houses or a floor of one of the bigger houses.

DS: Houses

JB: None of the big houses were – had a single owner – occupant – or a single ownership. They were divided.

DS: And that was between Front and Second, Spruce and Pine?

JB: Yes, throughout the whole district, but between Second and Front it was a white community, but I don’t know the nationality, necessarily. They were very – it was a very conscientious community. The houses were never – when I was called there I knew the conditions would be spotless. The people would be ready to see me. If it was a child, the child would (28:00) be washed and ready to see the nurse. They were very courteous and would often offer me a cup of tea or coffee or something like that. And sometimes I’d stay and have a cup of tea or coffee. And it was that – when we had to do – on vacation time, we had to cover for other nurses, it was that way when I – I had, of course, south, the south side of South Street, south way down to, oh, I don’t know, Washington, I guess. And that was Italian, I think. And it was the same situ – they were houses, some rather sizeable houses. Single family occupants, but again just immaculately clean. And again, very, very respectful of the nurse coming to visit. It, it, there was incredible (29:00) squalor on South Street. Incredible squalor. Absentee landlords, people in terribly overcrowded conditions, shared bathroom facilities that never worked – toilets overflowing. New babies. All of that. I never sterilized a bottle for any of my children. I breastfed them, but I never sterilized them, because I visited so many young mothers with healthy babies bouncing on their knees, would reach underneath a broken-down old couch with all the cockroaches and things on the bottle and put it in the baby’s mouth. [Laughs] And I decided if that baby is thriving under these conditions (30:00) [Laughs]. My hope – my children might think otherwise, but I think I kept our house a bit cleaner than those. Just horrible, there were never any lights in the hallways, because there were always – the landlords either wouldn’t put them in, but as soon as they put them in they’d be removed so they could use them in their one-room apartments.

DS: Very poor.

JB: Yes.

DS: Overcrowded.

JB: Overcrowded conditions. Overcrowded. Neglect, just neglect. Awful. Speaking of L & I, I can’t imagine the violations in all of these buildings, and how dangerous it probably was to live in them. People would use the gas stoves for heat in the winter.

DS: OK, so tell me about that, the mechanics in these. Most people had gas by this time? Gas stoves or electric? (31:00)

JB: There were a lot of gas stoves. I saw children – I would visit homes where there would – the mother wouldn’t be home. Of course, I’d have to report all of this. And there’d be four children, no higher than the stove, reaching up and cooking in a frying pan, on a gas – over an open gas fire. So, there was still – there was coal. I think they were still using coal for heating, where there was somebody responsible, to know how to stoke the furnaces and order the coal and store it and all that. But on South Street I don’t know how the – maybe it was gas, maybe it was natural gas, was supplied into the building. But they had to pay for it, because there were families that were heating their houses – their rooms – with gas stoves. It was terribly dangerous. (32:00)

DS: Plumbing, all inside?

JB: No.

DS: No?

JB: No, not exclusively so. Again, behind the houses on South Street, facing – going toward Lombard, there were some houses, a couple, I remember one, a corner, maybe out of 19106, I think it was up by Tenth, a little ancient African-American lady who I loved to take care of. She always wore red shoes. We always called her our friend with the red shoes. And she had an outhouse. It’s the only one I remember specifically, but I think – I’m sure there were others. But most of the buildings on South Street had indoor bathrooms. But they were communal. So there would be alcoholics and men – four or five men living in two rooms on one floor and then a (33:00) mother with an infant and three or four – you know, three- and four-year-old living on the next floor, and somebody else on the third floor. And they were all using one – one or two bathrooms. It was not good. There was filth all around. The plumbing never worked. It was indoors, but it was always, always sewage problems.

DS: Did they have running water?

JB: Oh, yes, they had running water, hot and cold running water. I always had a place to wash my hands. We carried newspaper with us. I recently heard somebody being very critical about how insensitive we were, to carry newspaper with us, an indication that a house was not clean. It was the kindest thing you could do, because we created a clean field in which to put out sterile (34:00) equipment to examine a baby and to look at a wound. So it never bothered me, carrying – I was grateful for it. I’d just put it down. It was a universal practice. When I visited David up at the textile – at the store. I’d put the newspaper – [Laughs]

DS: Even in his house.

JB: Yes. And it’s because then we did not take – and also it protected our bags. And so we were not carrying communicable diseases, as far as we were able, from one place to another. So there were reasons for it, the things we did the same at Staplers. I thought of going in there, you know. I think I will one day and see if David is still there. (35:00)

DS: Do you think he’s still alive?

JB: I would doubt it. Well, –

DS: He was an older man?

JB: He was an older man, but my father’s still alive. I doubt that he’d be there, but you never know. You never know. I should go in and ask.

DS: What other stories?

JB: I’m trying to think, about up closer to Jefferson. That’s out of your area, isn’t it?

DS: Well, it’s pretty much up to Pennsylvania Hospital’s – what we were interested in.

JB: I can’t think of anything that comes to mind.

DS: Did you ever have to deal with anybody who was new there and renovating or –?

JB: Yes, some of the – houses – a couple of the houses that I called – I can’t think of the reason I was called. Obviously it was for some sort of – of health issue, but it wasn’t (36:00) communicable disease or anything. It must have been – perhaps it was – probably – discharge from Pennsylvania Hospital. Somebody who was probably – I know what it was. When Pennsylvania Hospital would discharge someone I guess wherever, but in my district that had – and this would usually be related to cancer – they came with some sort of ostomy appliance. I would go in to teach the individual or family member how to clean and care for a tracheotomy or a colostomy or an ileostomy appliance. So that was probably why I was called in to those houses. So, yes, I should have remembered names. I could go back and follow up and see if they’re still there. (37:00)

DS: Right.

JB: But it was only one or two, and it was Pine, Spruce, Delancey, in there. Second to the river. [Indecipherable]. Maybe Third. No further west than that. It was in that area. They were wonderful. I loved seeing what they were doing. It did cross through my mind whether I should tell them, did they know that there were 15 people who had tuberculosis [Laughs] living in that house just before they gutted it and moved in. [Laughs]

DS: You didn’t, huh? [Laughs]

JB: No. [Indecipherable] seems to be fine. But that was fun, because I did know (38:00) those houses when – there was a time when you could give me an address and I could describe everybody who lived in that house.

DS: And now?

JB: And now it’s coming back. Same thing. St. Peter’s Church. Give me an address – [Laughs]

DS: [Laughs]

JB: It’s wonderful to come back, both for the memories and also knowing what has happened. But there is also the tragedy – that we know what happened to the people who lived here. And what happened to them with the high-rises at Fitzwater and Washington Avenue and out in East Falls, where I live presently.


JB: We thought it was social engineering. We thought it was the best thing we were doing – we could do – you know. The Society – the [Society Hill] Towers were going up at that point, and we felt (38:00) there was no distinction. The wealthiest in Philadelphia would be living in high-rise and we would provide the same type of an environment for the poorest. That there would be the best of facilities. The ground floor would have health care facility, would have public meeting areas. There would be retail nearby, and you would have wonderful high-rise and a view of the whole city and all, and this was an answer for the poor in this area. Now we know 50 years later that does not work. (39:00)

DS: But at the time –? It seemed right?

JB: It seemed the right thing to do. So would it have been better to have been better (40:00) integrated? The people who lived in this neighborhood moved to Society Hill? I don’t know. But it didn’t happen; so we work with what we have and go on from there to try to make things better. Society Hill is fine, and the cities need neighborhoods where there’s a substantial tax base to provide services. It’s beautiful. [Indecipherable] part of the history of our nation. [Indecipherable]. I have no criticism of it.

DS: Good. Well, I think we should end there.

[End of interview]




©2005 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
313 Pine Street
Interview Date
September 4, 2005
Beck, Judith
Narrator Type
Oral History Sources