Kert Davies

Kert Davies (b. 1963) was born barely two years after his parents bought two derelict houses on S. American Street and began rehabilitating them. Kert has two younger brothers. He has many positive memories of growing up in Society Hill. He attended public schools, took public transportation, and rode his bicycle everywhere. He recalls the public-school teachers’ strikes when he was in elementary school and believes they were responsible for a brain drain, when half the students in his school transferred to private schools and never returned. He describes learning how to be street smart, from his parents, from other kids and from experience. He and his friends played on the banks of the Delaware River, around the train tracks that ran along the riverfront, on and under I-95 when it was under construction and in the many vacant lots in the neighborhood. He talks about the winter that the neighbors created an ice-skating rink on the site of a recently demolished building and his own delight in discovering the joys of ice skating outdoors. He describes how he became a naturalist, an environmentalist, despite growing up in a big city–or perhaps because of it. He discovered ecosystems in his own neighborhood and learned about the creatures who inhabited them. He talks about the Bug Club, which he founded and ran dictatorially. As the father of daughters, he ponders the differences between boys and girls and how they play. He discusses how Society Hill has changed since he was a boy and how it has stayed the same. He says that his parents and their generation were “pretty brave,” “pretty unique” and “wacky” to come to Society Hill and make their homes there. He wonders about their motivation to do so.


DS: This is an interview with Kert Davies. The date is March 17 [2012]. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens. This is a phone interview.

[Tape is turned off, then on again]

Kert, can you start by telling me when you were born?

KD: February 7, 1963.

DS: And where were you born?

KD: At Pennsylvania Hospital.

DS: Your parents already lived in this neighborhood?

KD: Yes, they bought the house in ‘61, I believe, when Dad was still in or just out of Penn architecture school and started renovating. And I was born up the block at Pennsylvania Hospital.

DS: Yes, and what was the address of your parents’ house?

KD: 303 S. American Street.

DS: You were the first of three children. Can you tell me about your brothers? (1:00)

KD: Eric was second, and he was born in ’65, and Geoff was the third child, born in ’68.

DS: And where did you attend school?

KD: McCall School. First, all of us went to Green Towne Montessori School up on Cherry Street, 20 th and Cherry, I think it was, for preschool, and then started in first grade at McCall. And I went one through eight at McCall, and then to Central High School.

DS: And how did you get there – to Central High School? To McCall’s you walked, and I guess you –

KD: McCall we walked, and to Central we took the 90 bus up to the Broad Street subway, or if I missed the 90 I had to catch the 42. (2:00)

DS: Do you remember the teachers’ strikes?

KD: Absolutely, the strikes were, I think – something I talk about as a profound part of my education, especially now that I have kids, and a really unsettling part of being in that school system. I remember the strikes, I remember my mother being very active in protesting the strikes and actually going up to City Hall and testifying in front of City Council to fix the damn thing and to settle it. And being involved in protests, actually. I think – one of my early memories of being politically active with my mom was being involved in the parents’ movement to end the school strikes. In addition, my mother became a home schooler for a bunch of us in the neighborhood. We had school every day at my house for the kids that wanted to do that. (3:00)

DS: How many people would that have been?

KD: I remember five, six people around the kitchen table, five, six kids. The three Davies boys and then three or four others from the neighborhood.

DS: Was there ever any discussion of going to private schools?

KD: Yes, we couldn’t really afford it, is my memory. It wasn’t really an option – an immediate option to go to the suburban schools. Everybody else – my memory is that everybody that could did. Left at that point. So there was a real brain drain on McCall.

The first grade picture of my McCall class a lot of those kids ended up back at Central, but a lot of them, meanwhile, went off to the suburban schools or to the Friends schools, Friends Select, for example, in the interim. We had a great class; half of them (4:00) ended up doctors and lawyers and stuff. It was really a damaging thing to the school system, the strikes. Kids who were able, meaning the kids who were from wealthier families, who were more likely to be supported at home educationally left and went to the suburban schools. And I think it also put a taint on the public school system. So I think younger parents probably didn’t bring their kids into the system.

DS: Did you remain friends with these kids who went to private schools?

KD: Yes, some. Through neighborhood sports. Jack Lloyd and I are exactly a year apart, and we’re still close friends. We talked yesterday. I guess he went to St. Peter’s. (5:00) He never went to the public school system. We were always in different schools, and we stayed in touch through playing touch football at Society Hill Towers or other activities in the neighborhood, or the swim club, or just summer time being around.

It was definitely a different tribe or different culture, also driven by the fact that they weren’t home after school at the same time we were. We were out running around the streets right after school, and they weren’t always back in the neighborhood at one time – in time for that. They came home later, they had after-school activities and stuff at their schools.

I think it split the neighborhood. It sort of stratified the neighborhood, and it was a bit of a (6:00) class stratification in a way, or a socio-economic stratification, but it also ended up being – you know, you’re then in a different culture, in a way. The kids who went to the suburban schools, especially the Main Line schools, then had a different aspiration frontier. They were hanging out with kids who were much wealthier than on average.

On the other hand, I had the same experience going into high school. Suddenly I was in with a lot of kids from the Rittenhouse Square area. A new slice of Center City opened up to me; kids that I barely knew in elementary school became very close friends, who were straight up Spruce Street, not three miles from where we lived and were the same types of (7:00) pioneers and families that had moved into Center City Philadelphia in the ‘60s, but they were on the other side of Broad Street. They became my closest friends in high school.

DS: Did you have any difficulty going back and forth on public transportation – crime-wise?

KD: A little bit. You know, not a ton. The one inhibition – the worst thing that happened is that I was inhibited from doing after-school stuff like clubs at Central, because it was really intimidating not being with the crowd [on the subway]. When you were commuting to Central and Girls’ High, there were hundreds of kids on the subway. So we were all together. And it was very safe, you know, safety in numbers. There were incidents, but I think I was mugged maybe once.

I was mugged more times in Society Hill. I (8:00) probably had more bikes taken or wallets taken or stuff taken from me on a monthly or yearly basis growing up, from ages six to thirteen than while I was in high school. It’s just a given. I think one of my earliest memories is being trained to just give your stuff away if you’re accosted and take off, run.

DS: And this was told to you by your parents?

KD: Yes, sure. It was just conveyed. It was like the wisdom among the kids. Don’t try to – unless they’re smaller than you – don’t try to resist. And luckily there weren’t weapons – there weren’t guns around then. I’m really thankful we didn’t grow (9:00) up in the age of 20, 30 years later when there’s a lot more violence and drugs and weapons. Most we ever faced was somebody drawing a knife on you.

DS: So you got to be comfortable with this?

KD: I wouldn’t say comfortable. It was a kind of an intimidating part of living in any city. Our neighborhood was a bit preyed upon, in a way. It was this known avenue of wealth. Certainly, we had a lot more than people to the north of us, the black and Puerto Rican communities, north of Spring Garden Street, and south – the poorer Polish and Irish and South Philly projects and neighborhoods. Kids I went to school with, actually, (10:00) McCall, but who had a lot less. So we were a bit of a target. It was a place where there were shiny new bicycles that people could steal, or money or things people could take. It was how it was. I don’t think you ever get comfortable with it. You learned how to avoid being a target, and instinctively knew when – you could look two blocks ahead and see if people were walking down the street that you didn’t want to encounter. It was a street smart way that has served me well in my life.

DS: It has served you well?

KD: Oh, yes, definitely. You know, traveling around the world and keeping your wits about you and knowing how people behave, body language, perceiving threats (11:00) and understanding when you’re in a situation you shouldn’t be in.

DS: So living in the city, your transportation basically was walking and busses and subway?

KD: Actually, bicycles. My family was on bikes. One of my biggest memories was riding on the back of my mom’s bike up to the supermarket or up to Wanamaker’s or Strawbridge’s and beyond. We were on bikes and riding around the neighborhood from age five or six. Even later, into high school, I didn’t own a car. I never owned a car when I was a kid in Philadelphia. Another difference between us and the suburban kids who were all driving by 16. Some of my friends had cars, but it was very, very rare in high school. So we biked everywhere. I biked across town to see friends in Center City – all (12:00) around the city, basically.

DS: Your family owned a car, though?

KD: Yes, we did. We owned a VW bus, always.

DS: Where did you – let’s go into playing, where you played and what you did in the summers.

KD: Yes, in the city, I discovered the river very early, and the frontier. And I discovered I could get down to pretty interesting, somewhat unpredictable and fun territory down by the river and all those vacant lots that were down by the train tracks below your house [in the 100 block of Delancey St.]. That was my playground, and I drew elaborate maps (13:00) of all that area. It was mainly for the Bug Club. We had the Bug Club, and I was “president” of the Bug Club, and it was a pretty important club. We had all the kids in the neighborhood who wanted to be in the Bug Club. We had to initiate them. They had to catch certain butterflies or certain bugs, but we knew exactly where everything lived on that land down there. It was a pretty interesting ecological place, because it was a bit disturbed, which is kind of cool, in terms of ecology. You get plants growing in, and it’s also a migration corridor, the Delaware River, so you had really interesting birds moving through, and butterfly migrations. We followed the seasons and nature. That was my connection to nature, that rough, disturbed urban – not park, but wild landscape, in a way. That’s where we mostly played. (14:00)

The other venue was the vacant lots. There was the vacant lot at Third and Spruce, when they tore down the hospital there. The ball field was there – at one point we had a whole baseball dugout built at the corner of Third and – what’s that, Cypress?

DS: Yes.

KD: That’s where the ice rink was. It was a little bit tough for tackle football. We played tackle football at either the St. Peter’s lot over at Fourth and Lombard or up on Society Hill Towers fields until they made us – they said it was not OK any more. Then (15:00) skateboarding: we did a lot of skateboarding. That was all around town, various venues. We built ramps in different places where, later on, we became more adventurous. But that was another important mode of transportation. Oh, and skateboards were made illegal for a while. I bought a skateboard at Mitchell and Ness sporting goods, and then the next year they were actually illegal in Philadelphia to own.

DS: When was that? Can you put a date on it?

KD: It was probably early ‘70s. I was probably eight or nine. But it was weird. I suddenly had this contraband vehicle. I didn’t know what to do. So then they came back.

But back to the Bug Club. We knew every vacant lot and what lived (16:00) there. We knew that there was a colony of black widow spiders at the corner of Second and Lombard, where that parking lot is?

DS: Yes.

KD: There’s a little vacant lot there, and there were black widows living there, under stuff. And the whole exercise was turning over these pieces of wood or rocks or pieces of construction debris that was on these lots. And we knew what we were likely to find there, but it was always interesting.

DS: So this is why you made the maps?

KD: Yes.

DS: I mean, the map was to document where these –

KD: I still have notebooks that I drew up of what we found where. It was just an adventure. There was an amazing – In the lot next to the Robertses’ house, (17:00) that skinny lot that wasn’t built [on] for a long time. There were amazing praying mantises that lived there, and they always did well there. So we’d go there to check them out. And then the monarch butterflies would come through along the Delaware. The milkweed at the base of the Towers was where they landed. Every year we propagated and brought home eggs and grew up dozens of monarch butterflies in the bathroom. That was kind of fun. Then there were these enormous spiders called yellow and black argiopes that were like two inches across. We knew where they lived. I can’t actually remember where they were hanging out. We used to catch them and bring them home and raise them as pets also.

DS: [Laughs] Your parents were OK with this? (18:00)

KD: I think Mom – she was numb to it after a while, all the wildlife living in my room. But we had quite a menagerie at points. Snakes. There was also a cool pet shop at Second and Market, really grimy, awful place in retrospect. We were able to buy snakes and different lizards and stuff there. Actually, you mentioned my friend Gar Bezotsky. He actually had a pet monkey for a while.

DS: Tell me his last name?

KD: Bezotsky.

DS: Can you spell it?

KD: Probably B-E-Z-O-T-S-K-Y, OR I maybe. I think it’s a Y. They lived right behind us by the backyards. We could get to each other’s backyards by a dangerous crossing on the tops of walls. But he lived on Spruce Street between Philip and American, and (19:00) they were much older residents of Society Hill, from the older Polish, Irish dock-worker heritage. There were a lot of people from that – actually, that’s a distinct memory of mine – there were a lot of people living there that had very little and had been there for a very long time, and some of them were somewhat scary to me. They didn’t really socialize with – we were just odd to them, I think. Some of them were delightful, wonderful neighbors. But others were scary. Like there was a scary old woman in my neighborhood who had a scary dog that just sat on her front step, and if you knew that dog was there, you couldn’t walk up American Street from Delancey. It was too dangerous.

DS: You had a dog.

KD: We had a dog, Skorsten, who was a present for my first birthday. We were (20:00) the same size for a while, and then he got much bigger, and then eventually I overtook him. But he was a dominant force in the house and in the neighborhood, I would say. The funniest story is that whenever he escaped, which was often, he would head straight to the Society Hill fountain in the middle of the Towers. At one point a woman looked down from her penthouse apartment and called the doorman and said there was a seal swimming in the fountain and they should do something about it. He would just go up there and lounge around in the water to stay cool.

DS: What did you do in the summers?

KD: Because I’m in environmental work and I’ve studied what makes people tick on environmental problems, this is one of the most important things about my childhood. We left the city in the summers and we went to Maryland, to the Chesapeake Bay. So I had this duality of being in incredible natural landscape and basically not wearing shoes (21:00) for a month at a time in the summer. We usually went there for a month or six weeks, just fishing and catching bugs and stuff all day long. Then I’d come back to the city. I remember at some point realizing that everybody there hadn’t left, hadn’t had that experience, and just being different and having a different perspective on the world, because we got out. We also did a lot of camping. As a family we went on a lot of camping trips. Luckily my parents were inclined to get out of the city and do stuff and travel around and go to Maine. We drove to Montreal to the Expo when I was, like, four. (22:00) That’s my earliest memory. We camped all the way. Then we drove to Florida when I was about ten or something. Did a lot of road-tripping in the VW bus.

DS: Back to – I just want to go back to the Bug Club a bit. How many kids would have been in your Bug Club?

KD: I think pretty much everyone was in the Bug Club at one point or another. The core was probably six or seven kids. There was David Fayer and I, this kid from the Towers, Bobby Aaronson – I don’t know where he lived, actually; it might not have been the Towers – and then Andy Roberts, Andy Putney, your kids probably in it at one (23:00) point. It came and went. I have a list somewhere of everybody who was in the Bug Club. We were pretty strict about, you know, you had to actually be into it. I think kids probably didn’t appreciate my dictatorial leadership of the Bug Club.

DS: So when I-95 came along and all that construction for all those years ….

KD: That was another distinct memory. The Stop I-95 Ramps campaign, another one of my earliest political or social activism memories, was why we needed to do that and the effort that actually put the thing under ground through our neighborhood. Ironically, it comes above ground in the poorer neighborhoods north and south. Not (24:00) ironically but obviously.

I was actually a bit distraught that they were going to tear up my playground along the river, but then it turned into a gold mine, because there was all this archaeology uncovered and cool, new terrain that was good for adventures. And I remember especially when they cut the tunnels under – starting at whatever is at South Street – there was this phase at which they had built this membrane, this sort of plateaued concrete membrane-covered ramp going down. It had little lumps, jumps, every once in a while, like little plateaus, and you could skateboard down these things, and just hop off each level for probably a mile. You could just ride down this hill, and we did this for hours and hours. (25:00)

Another distinct memory: at one point there was a bunch of abandoned machinery down there and these huge rock-crunching machines and all sorts of stuff that wasn’t being used. We used to have a great time messing around. That was probably at the base of South Street or Lombard Street when they were digging the hole. We built forts down there, and things caught on fire sometimes, and that was exciting. Somebody would find a cigar. Early experiences with illicit activities, smoking cigars.

Then there were times when you’d suddenly encounter kids who you didn’t necessarily know from south of there who were also migrating through these (26:00) wild lands, and running for our lives back to Society Hill.

I also remember – I was talking to Martha Richards about this at Joanna’s memorial – people brought construction waste and dumped it down there, probably illegally on those fields, and we found that somebody had dug up a basement, and there was this pile of rubble that was filled with pottery shards, colonial era pottery shards. We collected all of it and brought it home in buckets and in wagons, to the back of my basement, and we had a whole archaeology lab set up, and we were reassembling these pots and dating them and figuring out what type of pottery was in it. Penny Batcheler was an archaeologist for the Park Service somehow, and she was able to give us (27:00) books and tell us what the stuff was. That was a fantastic time.

Another one was – we were a little older at that point so we had a little more latitude north and south. We were a little braver, and north, up near Chestnut, Walnut, Market (which wasn’t really that far away) when they dug out the I-95 tunnel, they dug into these old – I don’t know what you call them – cellars, like arched cellars that came out from the buildings on Front Street towards the river. And they were these deep cellars with all this stuff in them. One of them had all this World War II surplus, and suddenly it was exposed by the bulldozers. We were kids, and we just climbed right in there. (28:00)

DS: These were somebody’s contents of their basement that had just remained there?

KD: But it was sealed up in the building. It was entombed. There was no connection to any building. It was suddenly just there, and seemingly hadn’t been known for fifty years or forty years, at that point. That was a gold mine, helmet, Army helmets, and bags and stuff. I vaguely remember it. There was a discovery. You know, that used to be the bank of the Delaware at one point. The Delaware River had moved around, and there were actually people living early on in colonial history. There were people living in the banks of the river in caves. Not cavemen but people, settlers, and there was some discovery of one of those dwellings when they started digging the tunnel. There was some (29:00) archaeologist roaming around, and I remember encountering people and being really curious about – realizing there was a lot deeper history going on, which was – I already knew the cobblestones of Dock Street used to be a river, and figured that that river course that goes up behind – ends up behind Independence Hall – was a river at one point, was actually a passable river that was eventually filled in. That sort of had an evolving view of the landscape as it had changed in the 200 years before us.

DS: Hmm, very interesting. Tell me about the snow.

KD: Yes, occasional giant snow. My most vivid memory, a huge drift developed (30:00) up on Society Hill Towers, near where those sculptures are – like six feet deep, and we were able to dig tunnels and igloos through there. Then there were the sledding hills. Society Hill Towers provided the only hills in the area, except when they cleared the field across from your house, before they built there, there was some nice sledding there.

The Society Hill Towers was the best sledding, and we would build jumps and ramps. That was where my brother Eric flew down one day and went head-on into the bumper of a VW bug and broke his nose. We had to drag him home on his back on the Flexible Flyer. (31:00) His eyes turned black and then purple and green and yellow. We took pictures every day of the changing landscape of his face. But that was a memorable trauma.

Sledding and snow and throwing snowballs off the Society Hill Towers hill at buses down below and getting chased by the bus drivers, who got angry at that. All sorts of mischief.

DS: So it was Eric who got his nose broken.

KD: Yes.

DS: I’m glad for that correction.

KD: Blame the snorkel jacket. He had one of those big fuzzy snorkel – whatever it was called – snorkel coats, with fuzzy fur around it, and it blew down over his eyes; so he literally didn’t even move. He just went into this car face first on a Flexible Flyer.

DS: Couldn’t see.

KD: Couldn’t see. Never saw it coming. Survived. (32:00)

DS: Beautifully.

KD: It didn’t impede his development.

DS: So there’s another story with the ice skating rink at Third and Spruce.

KD: Yes, that turns out to be an indelible memory. The lucky year when it was cold enough, and the collective built a whole –

DS: Who did?

KD: The whole neighborhood, as I remember, built a rim around and then filled it with water from the Ducketts’ house. I think it was the Ducketts at that point, hoses after hoses. Honestly, I don’t think it lasted more than a couple of weeks, but the ability to be able to skate outside which was so magic. Only later on when we had the Society Hill (33:00) Club and they had tennis courts that became an ice rink in the winter did we have that outdoor skating, which is, you know, just so special. The only other time I did that as a child was at the Putneys’ in the Poconos.

DS: Your parents told me they went over each night to flood it.

KD: Yes, my memory is that we were too young. I don’t remember what year that was, but parents did all the work. It took a lot of work to maintain it. We had some level of responsibility in shoveling. You know, you had to run shovels around to scrape the snow when you skated. But the bulk of the work was done by my folks, running out (34:00) there and flooding it at night and maintaining it. In the labor, I don’t think we were really big enough to do the work that was necessary to get that going.

DS: Do you remember the babysitting co-op?

KD: Yes, distinctly. I remember being babysat, and I distinctly remember coming to your house, going to the Zeldins, going to the Putneys. I don’t remember being babysat by anybody else.

DS: Did you enjoy it?

KD: On, yes, yes, yes. It was a riot, staying overnight at other people’s houses. It was like my kids – like sleepovers. A really good idea. In fact, I got a hold of – my parents have a copy of the rules, and my mother was insistent that we start the same thing here (35:00) in our neighborhood in Alexandria and that it was the best thing ever and we should really do it.

And we sort of thought about it, and it didn’t happen. It took inspiration to do that. It was really a great thing to organize and much better than trying to figure out and hire babysitters. Now, by the time I was 12, I was really happy that the babysitting co-op was gone, because I made my living as a babysitter and babysat almost every weekend through – for a few years there, from 12 to 14 or 15 – through high school really. I did a lot of babysitting in the neighborhood. So I was glad we didn’t have a co-op any more because it allowed me to make money.

DS: It sounds to me like you had a happy childhood.

KD: Oh, yes. I mean, I don’t have – I have nothing but really positive memories (36:00) of growing up in Society Hill. It is a special place, pretty unique.

DS: Did the fact that you didn’t have large fields to play sports –

KD: You know, I was oblivious to that. Now that I realize how important that is – my kids are growing up in entirely different ways. You know, we have – we’re going to a soccer game in half an hour. There’s lots of fields, and there’s organized recreational sports in the neighborhood.

The thing that substituted for it on sports was we had good parent-driven stuff, you know, a pick-up soccer game every weekend at St. Peter’s for a while. That was a great memory of dads and sons, mostly, playing soccer in the morning (37:00) on the weekends. We did just fine with the vacant lots.

And then after the Flyers won the [Stanley] Cup, and I was 10, that’s all we did was play street hockey all year round. That’s my memory after that. Nothing else really mattered. There wasn’t good space to play baseball, even that Third Street lot – you broke windows. There were rocks. It wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t great. So we didn’t have baseball. We did a lot of sports at the McCall School schoolyard. Once I was probably in seventh or eighth grade, we spent our afternoons there biking and skateboarding and playing basketball and playing other kickball and baseball on the blacktop. But I guess I didn’t really understand.

Oh, and then the other thing! A lot of Society Hill kids will remember the Society Hill Bicentennials, Bob Smith’s organization of this football team that was actually heroic and unusually selfless work to organize this club football team, many of which (38:00) existed around the city but in much poorer neighborhoods. He brought all the kids from the projects and it was a full-on team, with uniforms. They traveled to games and they had very serious practices, and it was multiple years. They had probably two or three teams in different age groups. It was an amazing – way, way ahead of its time – organization of kids’ sports. We didn’t have Little League, we didn’t have organized soccer like is prevalent now. There were no other organized sports, except for the school sports system that I knew of in the city. Bob Smith was way ahead on that, as he was with the Society Hill Club, one of the first inner-city sports clubs. (39:00)

DS: Bob Smith’s football would have been at Starr Garden?

KD: Yes, exactly. That’s where they practiced, at Starr Garden. Most of the neighborhood kids played that at one time or another, or at least they played for a minute; so you could use your birth certificate to bring another kid from the projects in.

DS: And tell me again about the sports club?

KD: Well, the Society Hill Club was, which Mr. Smith was also a part of, was really a first ever inner city sport clubs, which are now everywhere. There was no such thing at that point. Have a pool and paddle tennis courts, and exercise – you know, a community center that was membership, of course. It was free the first year, I think, but then it was membership. It was way ahead of its time. There was really nothing like that. (40:00) I don’t know what year that would have been, but it was early ‘70s when that started. It started and then it kind of fell apart. It did not really succeed very well. But then I think it’s still there probably. That became a gathering point, a real hub of social activity. I remember dances there. I remember youth group kind of stuff going on there, that kind of stuff. That was a strong memory.

DS: And South Street?

ED: Yes, South Street – I had my first date. It was at TLA when I was in first grade. We had the Charlie Chaplin double feature for $1, which was fantastic. There’s also theater going on down there.

It was a bizarre culture at that point, sort of hipster (41:00) artists, very creative and these old, funky stores. Completely different than it is today. It was a little more Greenwich Village, unique and interesting people, and also early settlers. A lot of the people were new to the city who lived down in that corridor, different than the Society Hill crowd but also settling in. We were friends with a lot of families that were involved over there.

And then later on it becomes a little more seedy, and it was attractive for different reasons. You knew that there was something going on; it was a lot more exciting than Spruce Street. We’d go over there and just hang out as early teen agers. We knew the bars that would serve us under age, and that is something I hope my (42:00) kids never discover. It was just a place for activity. Again, it was a lot nicer than it is now. It was a lot less dangerous and less chaotic. It was just this weird backwater with live music. You could, even as a kid, you could listen to the music outside the bars and get a taste of things to come.

DS: So you weren’t discouraged from going anywhere.

KD: I remember my curfew. I’ve discussed this as a parent, how different it is for my kids. But I remember being free to go out. From the age of six, I was free to roam as long as I was home by five or six or whatever dinnertime was. We didn’t really have geographic limits. I don’t remember being told, “Don’t go past Market Street,” or “Don’t go (43:00) past South Street,” or “Don’t go anywhere.” My parents instilled in us a sense of making good choices and don’t be stupid. There were probably certain kids they discouraged us from hanging out with, and they tried to curtail behavior, but they mostly encouraged us to make judgments for ourselves and to learn from mistakes – guided more than strict control. It was more guidance. We weren’t really restricted. We were able to go pretty much where we wanted and roam around.

I remember at one point, very young, following fire engines up Third Street forever. They came through. There was this huge fire in North Philadelphia, and the fire engines were ripping through from fire companies (44:00) that were south of us, were being drawn to this fire. And we just took off on our bikes. And pretty soon we were at – I don’t know where. We were way, way outside of our normal domain at this fire in North Philadelphia. We then looked around and realized we were outside the limits and then headed back down Fourth Street. I think my parents were a little alarmed at that.

Another time we ended up roaming to where the El comes back up out of Market Street. I don’t know what that would be – Girard or Spring Garden Street. That was fascinating, that this train would periodically come bursting out of the ground. Luckily, we weren’t stupid enough to be on the tracks with it.

We knew – there was sort of a lore – children have their own intelligence network–and we knew where the danger (45:00) was. We knew that the Two Streeters were a threat; so you didn’t wander too far south in that corridor. We knew where the projects were, and we knew that if you went to a certain street, you were out of your boundary, and you were most likely to be prey at that point. The same north. We didn’t really discover Center City, but also I very distinctly remember being able to cruise up into the shopping district at a very young age. You know, going to I. Goldberg’s. There was a magic shop on 12 th and Market that we used to go to very early on, and get magic tricks. We used to go up to Strawbridge’s, on our own, to the pet department, to buy pets. So I had free range of Market Street, and Chestnut and Walnut, walking or biking, from a very early age. Didn’t really discover Center City (46:00) until I was 13 and in high school, and that became a new playground, a new frontier, and lots of friends up there, as I said. There were natural limits.

I think Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, and you know when you’re in your place and when you’re not. I knew Ninth Street, I knew the Italian Market from birth, with my mother. So I was comfortable down in that area as a child, and had lots of friends from there, too. I had friends from McCall who lived at Seventh, Eighth, Fitzwater, Christian, Washington, that area. I could go down there and feel safe and know where I was. I knew where the best hoagie shops were and where to buy fire crackers from the guy with his trunk open in the back alley. You had to know these things. (47:00)

DS: Since your parents no longer live in the neighborhood, do you come back to peruse and see what it’s like now?

KD: Yes, it’s honestly really weird. It feels surreal, even the other day, the three of –

[End of first side of the tape. Beginning of second side of the tape]

KD: – neighborhood, because it’s not my place anymore. I don’t have a place there. So my brothers and I walked from Joanna’s memorial service down through Delancey Park and down Delancey Street and up American, and we just stood in front of the house and we just wanted to go in. It’s where we were born. It’s where we lived. So it’s a bit odd going back there now. It’s very neat and quite unusual to grow up and stay in the same place, I realized once I got to college and people had moved all around. Most people don’t stay in the same place. It’s kind of cool. Having that anchor was kind of fun and unique, and a loss when you suddenly didn’t have a home there. But my dad owns a building on Strawberry Street, so we still have sort of a hub there, a landing (1:00) place anyway.

DS: Anything significant to you about how the neighborhood has changed? Anything that stands out.

KD: You know, I think not now but a while ago we started realizing that only people who could afford to live there now were in a very different class then – the people we grew up with. I didn’t have a sense then, growing up, of this, but I think there were different ways. There were people who moved in there who had a little bit of money or sort of came in from the suburbs with money and wanted an urban living. My parents bought their house for $15,000 or something and renovated it. There were some settlers who built from nothing, and then there were later people who bought the next layer, when values (2:00) had gone up a little bit, or bought stuff and renovated it, put a lot of money into it, folks like you or the Robertses with these tear-down lots who built modern houses in that landscape was another type of innovative, inventive people.

And then it just turned into people who could afford to live there. It was a different tribe. There weren’t a lot of people renovating old houses. All the renovation had been done. So they were second owners, they were probably re-renovating. But the turnover was – I think by the mid ‘70s and into 1980 the whole neighborhood had turned over once, and there weren’t many of the original people living there any more, all the black families who lived on Spruce Street who I remembered, or the poor Irish, Polish, different blue collar families moved out – had been moved out by the intentional gentrification that was going on by the city, the (3:00) redevelopment project. So it was a very different place, and I think now it’s retained – that’s what my brothers and I were commenting on, how much it’s still the same. Now it’s reached a steady state of this preserved, almost diorama of colonial neighborhood. It’s a lot like Old Town in Alexandria, here in Virginia, where you’ve got incredible, beautiful little old houses, and people are taking very good care of them now. So it’s kind of in a steady state, but I think the people that live there are probably pretty different than when we were young, when I was young, when you were young.

DS: Yes, this has been wonderful. Thank you so much for your memories. (4:00)

KD: Well, thank you. One last thing, or I think now, what it must have been like for you parents moving in there then. As a parent I reflect a lot on different types of parenting, and the choices, as borne out by your questions, how you were perceiving the risks that existed for your kids, and how dangerous it might have been to go out and what threats there were in the external world and how I would react to that. Or would I have done that? Would I do that with my kids?

And also, very important, how different it was for girls and boys. And having girls, would I let my girls go out and play, like I went out and played? There weren’t a lot of girls out playing sports with us or out running around, except on (5:00) Delancey Street maybe; it was all boys. That’s interesting. There was a very different existence for girls growing up in the neighborhood than for boys at that time.

I’ve talked a lot with Abigail Surasky, who lived over at Fourth and Pine. Her perspective on the neighborhood is probably completely different than mine, and her perspective on McCall; her whole life is different. So it’s probably an interesting thing to try to derive, is what was different about being there. But I think a lot about what it took to be a parent in that neighborhood, and how wacky you guys all were to even want to live there. It was pretty brave. It was pretty unique to make that move.

I’m really curious about the motivation. What made it interesting for people who, in their ‘30s, to move down there; what drove it. I know for my parents it was things like having the Academy of Music and (6:00) the Walnut Street Theater nearby, and being in this somewhat dynamic, cool environment. And the architecture, quite frankly. You know, my dad, being just motivated to renovate a house and his fascination with how cool and old it was. It took a lot of – it took some motivation to be an early pioneer there.

DS: Thank you so much.

KD: Talk soon.

[Tape is turned off, then turned on again.]

KD: – naturalist thing, because the Delaware River was a flyway for birds, you’d get these unbelievable migrant birds would hit the buildings at night. A lot of birds ( 7:00) migrate in the middle of the night, and we would find them dead on the sidewalk, outside the Towers. Scarlet tanagers and owls – we found a snowy owl, this incredible bird, out of nowhere. It was this connection – I remember realizing, “Oh, a lot more is going on around here than we realize. These things don’t land here. They’re just moving through. These beautiful warblers, totally unique species that I never saw in real life would land dead on the sidewalk because they hit those buildings. They were the first big buildings for a hundred miles to the north, probably till Trenton, and the birds would come down the Delaware River and just smack into the buildings at night. It’s kind of sad, but it’s a distinct memory of mine, because I decided I was going to be a taxidermist, and I took them home and put them in the freezer. I was going to stuff them to preserve (8:00) their beauty. But of course that didn’t really work out, and they just ended up in the freezer for a long time, until my mom decided that that wasn’t OK.

[End of interview]

© 2012 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
By Telephone
Interview Date
March 17, 2012
Davies, Kert
Narrator Type
Third Generation
Oral History Sources