Lois Beck

Lois Beck (b. 1941) tells a life story that reflects the porous nature of the borders of the neighborhoods where she lived as a child (Queen Village), where her mother's butcher shop was located (initially in the Second Street Market, and later on South Street), and where she traveled long distances for the education she wanted. She witnessed the desolation of Society Hill and South Street in the early years of Redevelopment and views with a jaundiced eye its renaissance and the people who came with it. She laments the loss of the old neighborhood where everyone watched their neighbors from behind drawn curtains and knew everyone else's business, but also made the neighborhood safe. She recounts the loneliness and isolation her father, a retired fire fighter, felt when he moved from his Monroe Street house to an apartment in the new Society Hill Towers, where he had no stoop on which to sit and pass the time with his friends.


DS: This is an interview with Lois Beck. The date is January 31, 2009. The interviewer is Dorothy Stevens, and the location is 116 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia. Lois, I’d like you to tell me where you live now.

LB: I live at 220 Locust, Society Hill Towers.

DS: And when were you born?

LB: January 3, 1941.

DS: And where were you born? In a hospital or at home?

LB: Oh, I’m a true Philadelphian. I was born in the shadow of City Hall, at Pennsylvania Hospital, which is in the shadow of City Hall.

DS: And where did your family live at the time when you were born?

LB: Second and Monroe.

DS: And tell me about your mother and your father. Did they – were they born in the United States? (1:00)

LB: They were both born in the United States. My father, Frank Beck, was born on American Street, which has since been gentrified, I believe it’s the 200 or 300 block, which has a courtyard in which there was a Mazda factory. He told me – he was born July 23, 1908, and his older sister told me that it was so hot in July that they brought in blocks of ice to put under my grandmother’s bed while she was delivering. My mother, Rose Jenziorski, was born at Second and Christian and spent most of her life at Second and Monroe.

DS: And your ancestors – do you know where they came from?

LB: Yes, my father’s family came from Hungary, Budapest; they were Jewish. (2:00) My mother’s family came from Poland, right across the Russian border.

DS: So tell me about your parents. What did they do for a living?

LB: Well, my father was a fireman. My mother took on her mother’s business. Even though her mother was married, my grandfather wasn’t a great help. My grandmother was a very dynamic woman, and being Polish, coming to this country, many Polish women I’ve been told would work in cigar factories or as cleaning women in office buildings. She told her daughters, “ Never work for anybody.” So she started her own business. It was a butcher stall in the Second Street market.

DS: Headhouse?

LB: Headhouse, yes. And she started that business herself. My grandmother did.

DS: Your grandmother.

LB: Her children helped her, because she had 13 of them. And what I can (3:00) remember, it must have been a little tricky with kids working for you, because I remember an uncle and an aunt who had parts of their fingers cut off in that business. I think probably the one who was best at that business was my mother. Her mother kept her very close to her. After my grandmother died, my uncle took it over. He was not very good. My mother took it over and was a big success. And it was very interesting, because most of those butchers were very, very kind of big, bulky men who would drink to keep warm, because it was freezing cold in the market and there was no heat. There were refrigeration pipes under the ground.

DS: It was enclosed, though, wasn’t it?

LB: Yes, yes. And you had floor-to-ceiling refrigerators that you had to keep (4:00 ) walking in and out of. It was a very romantic place for me as a child. I thought my mother was very romantic because she was a very attractive woman with jet-black hair, always in a bun, very chic, in a white butcher’s coat. But she had a way of wearing it that made it very chic. She was romantic for me. I always wanted to go and work with her. She would leave at 4 o’clock in the morning, very often alone, and walk from Second and Monroe into that cold market to make her kielbasa and get her business ready. And I forced and pushed myself, finally, that she would take me when I was about five years old, so I could help her and hold the casing on the kielbasa machine. And of course, she didn’t want me there. Now I see it after she’s passed on, that she was afraid that I would cut my fingers off. So the only job I had was cutting off the chicken legs chicken heads.

DS: Live chickens? (5:00)

LB: No, they were dead. They were dead. And taking the insides out. And I remember my aunt. My mother was so hard-working, that my aunt, her older sister said, “You must go to the hospital to have this baby, because you’re nine months pregnant and you’re still rolling barrels of chickens around.” The place was wonderful. It was not just chickens. It was meats, pigs’ feet, kielbasa. A Jewish couple had a wonderful butter and egg stand, a stand just for dairy things. Anyway, back to my mother. My aunt bought a little suitcase, and took my mother to her own home so she’d stop working, and they took her to the hospital the next day, and she had me. But she worked up till then, chopping, sawing pork chops, and rolling barrels of chickens around.

DS: Are you an only child?

LB: Yes, yes. No time for any more. (6:00)

DS: And how did she relate to the other butchers? There weren’t any other women butchers.

LB: No, she was the only one. That was unusual. As time went on, she had her sisters come and help her part-time on the weekends. So it’s really a female butcher shop.

DS: This must have been all right.

LB: Yes. I mean, she was very, very popular. She had an incredible smile and just worked very, very hard with people. And I still have people coming to me today, in fact, “I remember your mother. She always gave me a sample – when I was a child, I came with my mother – of something to eat, of lunch meat or whatever.” Because she did sell luncheon meat also.

DS: So, who would take care of you while she got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and went to work.

LB: My grandfather.

DS: He lived with you. (7:00)

LB: Yes, because in those days families lived – actually, we had about three families, an aunt and an uncle, living in one house.

DS: Each had a different floor?

LB: Yes. I went to school very early, to Rittenhouse Playmate School. It was a non-profit. I had to be the youngest child in daycare, which didn’t exist in those days. They got rid of me quite early. My grandfather, he would wander off a bit, though, while he was taking care of me.

DS: You mean, he would wander off –

LB: Just to the corner. There was a taproom. He was fun. He was lots of fun. Anyway, in those days men did not change diapers. So there was a woman, I believe she is still alive, who tells me every time she sees me, she was a neighbor, “I changed your diapers, because your father would call me.” Again, my mother was away working. And he worked very strange hours. He worked at night, come in in the morning. So it was a very different life. (8:00)

DS: Being a fireman, I guess he worked shifts.

LB: Exactly.

DS: Lots of people have talked about your mother and the store at Second and South, mainly in the early ‘60s. Can you tell me about that store?

LB: She rented part of a store from Samuel Rosenberg, who was a grocer. He owned that property. I don’t know where he is now. It was smaller, and actually, they had closed the market. That’s why she moved.

DS: They had closed the Headhouse market?

LB: I think the second market here. There were two markets, you know.

DS: OK, tell me about it,

LB: You see where the parking is, in front of Headhouse, that whole strip, that whole block across from Wawa, and they closed that. (9:00)

DS: Between Lombard and South, extending south from the Headhouse.

LB: Yes.

DS: That was a market, too.

LB: Yes.

DS: They closed that first?

LB: I don’t remember. Also I had a very interesting aunt and uncle. In that block that we just mentioned, they had a wonderful restaurant; it was incredible. He was a German cook, and you could get very inexpensive meals there. Many of his customers were longshoremen, as were a lot of my mother’s customers. They had this restaurant, with wonderful, wonderful meals.

DS: Where was it? What address? (10:00)

LB: The English Tavern, the English Pub. It keeps changing, this restaurant.

DS: At Second and Pine?

LB: No, it’s on Second Street, between South and Lombard.

DS: Between South and Lombard.

LB: On the east side. Yes, it was called Bill and Helen’s.

DS: Bill and Helen’s. OK. And it was German food. Were they German?

LB: No, my aunt was Polish, my mother’s sister, and he was German. Fabulous cook.

DS: So your parents, or your mother, once the Headhouse markets closed, she then moved into the store at Second and South on the southwest corner.

LB: Yes. Also, her clientele was changing, but it was replaced by other people. (11:00) I remember her telling me that for some reason, Grace Kelly’s family came down. One of the aunts with a man. Mr. Lehman.

DS: Mr. Lehman.

LB: Oh, yes, the Lehmans were her customers. He was involved with the Navy, maybe an officer in the Navy. I believe he was Secretary of the Navy.

DS: Lehman.

LB: Lehman. And new people coming into the area. I believe Mr. Dilworth had a daughter who was one of her customers. And then there was the question of Mr. Rosenberg selling the business. We talked about it and moving into another store, and I prevailed upon her. I was older then. I said, “It’s too dangerous. You cannot be alone. Somebody could walk in with a gun and shoot you.” And this was coming from someone who grew up in a house where we never locked out front door.

DS: How old would she have been at that point?

LB: If I was 20, she would have been in her 50s. But she liked to keep working. (12:00)

DS: So at that store at Second and South, you walked through a grocery store, a mini-grocery store, and kept on going back and there was the meat market that your mother ran.

LB: [inaudible]

DS: [inaudible]

LB: Right.

DS: And then you said there was a fish market?

LB: A fish market.

DS: Behind that.

LB: Yes. They were all in a row.

DS: Did she manage the fish market?

LB: No, she had nothing to do with that. She had nothing to do with that.

DS: Just to back up a bit, the longshoremen, did they come up for lunch?

LB: No, no. Their families, their wives, mothers, whatever, would buy huge orders, because people ate a lot in those days. They worked very hard. They did a lot of physical activity.

DS: Would these people have lived in the city? Or would they have been coming in from the suburbs?

LB: The longshoremen? Oh, they lived along the river.

DS: [inaudible]

LB: No, no. Well, they lived along Front Street. They lived in Queen Village. (13:00) That’s where we lived. For a good part, they were Polish. Big people, big eaters.

DS: Hungry people. [laughs] All right. So then they decided to close the store at Second and South and –

LB: Because the neighborhood had deteriorated, and I was really very frightened for her. It was deserted. It turned from a very vibrant place into something that resembled London after the war. I can remember it turning into a place – like going from a Technicolor movie into a black-and-white movie. It was depressing.

DS: The food produce center had moved out?

LB: Yes. And that had been such an exciting place. I have such vivid memories. I have one particular memory. I don’t know why but my father was driving back from somewhere. I was young. And I could just remember geese in cages and the (14:00) Christmas trees and a wonderful sight of just truckloads of Christmas trees, coming in at midnight or two in the morning. It was exciting, busy. People were out and about. And you know the Man Full of Trouble Tavern was owned, I can’t give you the dates, it had been owned by a Jewish fellow, I think it’s Freedman. It almost blew up, actually, the whole building, because someone was trying to ripen bananas there. I don’t know if the man ripening the bananas was killed or not. But there was – that’s what that was used for, merchandise coming off the docks.

DS: And the gas was – there was a gas used to ripen bananas. That’s what caused the explosion?

LB: Yes.

DS: So your memories as a child were fun and fearless. You didn’t feel threatened, fearful for yourself [unintelligible]. (15:00)

LB: No, as I said, we always kept our door open. People were wandering in and out.

DS: And you wouldn’t – people didn’t have air conditioning at that point? Probably not.

LB: No, no, no, no.

DS: So you needed to be out and about.

LB: And you know, that’s what’s sad in a way. That you lose that, the more technologically advanced you become. Because my father, he grew up on Gaskill Street. His sister had a fabulous voice, and once she sang on public radio with Nelson Eddy. And you know, narrow Gaskill Street is where the one person with a radio put it in the window – this is the 300 block of Gaskill – and everyone would come out to listen to Lilly singing. And I remember Barry Rosenberg, who was a nephew of Mr. (16:00) Rosenberg, owner of Second and South, they had money. They got the first television set; so we all descended every afternoon to watch whatever it was, Kookla, Fran and Ollie. Those crazy shows.

DS: So the house you grew up in, you shared it with other relatives. You each had a floor. You had plumbing, you had electricity, you had all those comforts of utilities?

LB: Yes, but there was still the remnant of an outhouse. There had been an outhouse there.

DS: But you didn’t use it.

LB: No. That was in my grandparents’ time. They had bought the house with it. I do remember animals in the back, because my grandfather had a duck. They would make a Polish soup called [unintelligible]. You know, you’d play with the duck, get friendly and then they would kill it to make the soup with its blood. [laughs] And a pig. (17:00) I don’t remember the pig, but I heard that my grandfather had a pig. [Inaudible] this agricultural society they grew up in in the United States.

DS: So this was common. Other people in the neighborhood did it too?

LB: I believe so.

DS: Other people had their own animals in the back yard?

LB: Yes. They came from farming areas, so it was like bringing a little piece of Eastern Europe with them.

DS: Interesting. So you grew up and went to daycare center, before it was popular to do that. And then where did you go to grade school?

LB: The University of Pennsylvania had, at the time at 48 th and Walnut, a school for training teachers, and my father had tried to get me into Friends Select School. He was furious they wouldn’t test me. They just wouldn’t test me. And I obviously (18:00) tested very high, because Illman Carter was very impressed. I went there for a few years.

DS: Say it again?

LB: Illman Carter. I guess they were two people. So I remember taking the trolley all the way up. And that started in the third grade.

DS: And then where?

LB: Then where did I go? The neighborhood, I guess, just didn’t have a good school – Oh, I’d gone to go to Hebrew School, and I’d gotten a scholarship for Akiba Academy, but my father wouldn’t let me go. He was Jewish, my mother was Catholic, and they felt that I should go to a secular school. So I headed off to Jay Cooke Junior High, which was in Logan, because my grandfather went there, and I had to be signed in. It was a decent school. Now you certainly wouldn’t send your child there. It’s physically dangerous.

DS: But it was all right at the time? (19:00)

LB: Jay Cooke Junior High was not challenging.

DS: And would you stay with your grandfather?

LB: No. They just put his address on the list as mine.

DS: Oh, I see. So you would go back and forth by bus?

LB: Yes.

DS: How did you get to school – walking? Bus?

LB: I started taking the subway and got off at Logan. The bus to Broad and Lombard and then to Logan.

DS: But you tell me that your father went to McCall’s School. Tell me about – when was he born?

LB: Nineteen oh eight.

DS: So at the appropriate age he would have gone to McCall’s. And did he ever talk about it?

LB: No, just the fact that he had one teacher who – and my aunt remembers him, too, my Aunt Sadie – they were so afraid of her. She would grab you by the chin. I believe (20:00) it was another teacher or the principal, if you were bad, she would make you come and clean her house. [laughs] And as I say, my father liked to escape a lot.

DS: So, now, where would your mother have gone to school?

LB: She went to St. Stanislaus, which is now condominiums. At Second and Fitzwater. And we all went to that – my mother and I went to the church, St. Stanislaus, which I believe is closed down now, at Second and Fitzwater also. It had a church with a convent of Polish nuns next to it.

DS: So you were raised Catholic.

LB: Yes.

DS: And you went to St. Stanislaus.

LB: No. I went to Rittenhouse Playmate School, I went to –

DS: I mean to church.

LB: Oh, to church. St. Stanislaus, yes. But I had to take Hebrew lessons also. (21:00) I went to Hebrew school.

DS: That must have been interesting, combining the two religions.

LB: Yes. Yes, it was.

DS: So your father died first, did he? Your father died before your mother?

LB: My father had been ill for quite a while, with emphysema, because he was a heavy smoker. My mother was quite active. And all of a sudden, my mother had a malignant brain tumor. She had a seizure and died within a few months, and then my father died a few months after her. Because, you have to realize they had known each other since she was 14 and he was 19. She lied about her age, he said. (22:00)

DS: And how did they meet?

LB: She walked up – she liked to walk up after working – her mother – you realize my father went to Central [High School]. My father was quite bright. She only – I seldom talked to her about this – she only went to the third grade, half a day, in Polish, spoke perfect English (you have to laugh at some of the things you go through today politically with the education of immigrants) and that was it. That was it.

  1. Third grade.

LB: Half a day. In Polish. With the Polish nuns. But she was clearly smart, too.

DS: So how did they meet?

LB: She loved the Model movie [theater] – to go to the movies. And now that’s Lee’s Art Store. Going to the movies one day, she met my father.

DS: Yes, on South Street. (23:00)

LB: That’s where I spent my childhood, when I wasn’t working with her in the afternoon on Saturday. That’s where they sent you on Saturday, all the kids, ‘cause there were no soccer moms. My mother would walk up South Street with her girlfriend. My father – it was such a pressure; he didn’t have a job, he was hanging out on the corner. I believe it was Leithgow. Leithgow cuts into South. It was a Stetson Hat store years ago, and the second floor was a speakeasy. [laughs]

DS: So what block of South Street are we talking about? Where is that?

LB: The Model was between Fourth and Fifth.

DS: So you would go there on a Saturday.

LB: In the 40s, they would send all the children with a brown paper bag full of lunch, because people were working very often. We would watch all the feature films and the serial, like Sabu, the Elephant Boy, Flash Gordon, and it was an all-day affair. (24:00)

DS: You would go and spend the day there.

LB: Yes. All day.

DS: So your parents met at that movie theater also.

LB: No, they met on the corner, because she kept walking up, and he kept saying things to her, and she kept ignoring him. She came up with a girlfriend and said, “That’s him,” meaning my father. And he told her, “You shouldn’t talk so loudly. I can hear you.” In other words, he knew he’d gotten a reaction from her. She’d brought a girlfriend up to see him. And then eventually they had a very long courtship, because – first of all, things were not good financially. And he was Jewish, and that was really terrible in those days. I think it was – that sort of intermarriage is not shocking at all these days. It was terrible, it was terrible in those days. They went out several years, several years. Very funny story about their marriage.

DS: Go ahead. (25:00)

LB: It is a custom in Queen Village – or was a custom – to go see the bride and groom leave the house and go to the church. Then everybody would run to St. Stanislaus Church to throw rice at the couple when they exited the church. Well, my parents were so intimidated by his older sister, who was Jewish, who was married to a very famous ear, nose and throat specialist named Dr. Dintenfass. And Dr. Dintenfass was sending telegrams and calling the police, “You can’t do this.” They got so upset that they got married the day before, with my mother with her Energetics on. Do you remember the Energetic shoes with the heels – they’re very 1930s. Came from work with sawdust on her feet. She got married in the rectory. But then they had to deal with the (26:00) next day, and of course my father had moved in. The next day, all these people are standing around on the steps waiting for the bride to leave the house. They seemed to know this. And, I mean, where were they going to go? How could they go to the church, have the people follow them, when they’ve already gotten married? So she said they went in my aunt and uncle’s car and drove down to the river and just sat there. I don’t know what the people thought. Then they eventually came back, and they had a wedding reception in the back yard, with a keg of beer and food.

DS: So tell me, did not the Catholic Church object?

LB: No, my father loved this priest, Rev. Casey. He seemed to let them through, he seemed to let them through.

DS: And this was, again, at St. Stanislaus. (27:00)

LB: Yes. He was not Polish, Rev. Casey.

DS: Well, that’s an interesting story. OK. Now, you did not end up in the meat business like your mother and your grandmother.

LB: No, no, no. They sent me on to – from day one, my father _______________ wanted me to have a good education. I went to Girls High, I went to Boston University. Then I went to teach at Girls High. I’m retired. I’m teaching part-time at Drexel [University].

DS: And did your mother and father live at some point in the [Society Hill] Towers?

LB: Oh, yes.

DS: Now, tell me, what memories do you have of that period when the Redevelopment Authority came into this neighborhood and started re-doing, selling the buildings, that whole transition between the food produce center moving out, the boys coming home from World War II and moving to the suburbs, not wanting to stay in this (28:00) neighborhood, and then the Redevelopment Authority beginning to sell off the houses to the people who were coming in in the ‘60s.

LB: My only remembrance is my father grew very negative about it. “These people are crazy. They don’t know what they’re getting. These people are crazy.” There was a constant going back and forth. My mother wanted to buy property. It got so it was not a happy time. She had looked, I think, for $36,000, if my memory serves me correctly, at the Pei houses, and wanted to buy those. But my father wouldn’t have any of it.

DS: He didn’t want to own any of those houses?

LB: So this whole redevelopment was unhappy for me. Because I remember that. Constant bickering.

DS: He didn’t like what they were doing?

LB: Yes, he thought they were nutty people. [laughs] (29:00)

DS: [laughs]

LB: And of course he couldn’t relate.

DS: He couldn’t relate.

LB: My mother could relate to anybody.

DS: Did they buy up any properties just for investment purposes?

LB: One, which they held for a while, on Second Street, but my father was so against this, that he gave her such trouble.

DS: So they sold it?

LB: Yes.

DS: But you, as a child, did you have an opinion? How old would you have been then?

LB: In the ‘60s? I was born in ’41. I’d be in my 20s.

DS: Yes, so you were probably not living at home any more.

LB: At one point I was, and then I left and moved to Center City. But Society Hill was almost deserted. I had the impression of, just before redevelopment started, it was a sad place. It was under-populated. It was, as I say, gray and black to me. Deserted. (30:00) And I guess because of the lack of people, because I can remember deserted places that I had had fun with my cousins and played in as a child. Third Street, the Bouvier houses, we used to play in the cellars. We used to play in cellars.

DS: Cellars? Of abandoned houses?

LB: Yes. It was fun. There were old rags down there. I mean, we were on our own. It was on Third Street.

DS: They do. You can go down underneath the first floor. And you would just go and explore in these old, abandoned houses? And it wasn’t dangerous?

LB: Nothing ever happened.

DS: Who were some of these other friends of yours that you would play with? (31:00) Patsy Stevenson? No, that’s not a name you know?

LB: I think mostly – some Hungarian children across the street. And my two cousins. From the restaurant on Second Street. You have to realize, I was bussed out of the neighborhood very early with some children of Jewish merchants on South Street.

DS: Tell me about South Street when you were growing up. What was it like?

LB: It was wonderful. And again, to bring up my father, he said, “I wouldn’t walk on South Street. It has changed so much.” There were wonderful Jewish stores. I (32:00) remember Auerbach’s, where I was always checking the clothes, children’s clothes for an Easter outfit or a spring outfit or a fall outfit. When I got older, I always went to Berkowitz. I remember that name, very well-known Jewish –

DS: Where was that?

LB: He was further up, maybe on the 600, 700 block. Very well known. Everybody went there, get one, you know, fabulous outfit a year. That was as a young adult. Can I tell you another story?

DS: Sure.

LB: There’s a wonder- -- it’s a coffeehouse now, and it used to be what the immigrants called a tea house. And I think it was actually where the Jewish Mafia hung out. I know that for a fact. So that’s fun. They were fun guys.

DS: This is on South Street at Gaskill? (33:00)

LB: Yes. At the corner of Fourth and Gaskill. Now, I think it’s called Java Coffee.

DS: Java Coffee.

LB: So that was fun.

DS: And how did you know these things? Your father would talk about it? Would he?

LB: He didn’t talk too much about the Mafia. [laughs] Well, he used to hang with them, but he didn’t talk about them too much. Everything was very immaculate on South Street, very immaculate. The Jewish merchants –

DS: Clean.

LB: Yes. That was called the Jewish Quarter, the South Street corridor. If you’re interested in that, Harry Boonin has done a whole book on that. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.

DS: Harry who?

LB: Boonin. So very respectable Jewish merchants – Oh, Fourth Street, besides being merchants, fabric merchants, it was just lined with pushcarts. Lined with (34:00) pushcarts.

DS: With food.

LB: Yes, mostly produce. And I was sent every Sunday on the same errand: to get lox at the Famous Deli, which was wonderful then, and to get herbs for my mother’s chicken soup, because she made chicken soup every Saturday. So you know, there’s that Jewish joke years ago? No. Some Jewish comedian says, “I thought the first six years of my life I was an errand boy.” I went to get rye bread. Because you kept constantly running errands.

DS: And she would send you.

LB: Yes.

DS: What else – when did South Street start to change?

LB: I think the 60s.

DS: Early 60s? (35:00)

LB: No, maybe later on, the 70s. Well, first of all, it got abandoned. A lot of people left. I can’t remember when this whole movement to the suburbs came about. That was really disgusting. That sort of change was just too much.

DS: Tell me about the black people that you knew as a child.

LB: Not too many. It was an interesting block, Monroe, because we would be – it was where I grew up, between Second and Third, and they really stayed to themselves. There was not much dealing; we didn’t deal with each other, bother each other. The first half of the block was Polish, and the second half was black. Now I have the feeling (36:00) that the houses they moved into – and this may have been the group emigrating up from the south in the early 60s.

DS: After the war. Or during the war, maybe?

LB: After the war. They lived in what we called tenements, which are now very valuable properties, closer to Third Street on the left as you go up Monroe. I have the feeling that they may have been fabric shops or sewing shops – what do you call them? Sweat shops. Because I don’t think those things ever really had private toilets. They had very high ceilings that are up the second part of Monroe, and then there were the Polish people, and I remember there would be fights, because there was a taproom, and people would get drunk. So the Polish people kind of hit each other with their fists if they had an argument, you know, because they’d had too much to drink. I remember, when they would (37:00) fight, and this is true, the black people used to slash each other with razors, and years ago you did see many, many black people walking around with a razor scar on their faces. So, no, I don’t remember talking to any black people at all.

DS: Hispanics?

LB: No.

DS: None that you knew?

LB: Mostly Polish, a couple of Italians, a few Irish. That was it. No Asians.

DS: Anything else that you want to tell me about?

LB: Just that it was sad. I felt that the dilapidation of the buildings – I mean, I’d had a happy, very vibrant childhood. Every household spent their time in the streets. As I said, putting the radio out to listen to it on Gaskill Street. And my Aunt Sadie, who just died at 103, would talk about the organ grinder coming around with his monkey. So it (38:00) was very communal. Well, maybe less communal but still communal when I was growing up in the 40s. I remember the ice man coming with a block of ice. That’s because we didn’t have refrigerators. The wagons. Everything was a horse and wagon. And then what’s really sad was everything turned black and white, it was very depressing, getting very deserted. People were leaving.

DS: What else besides the ice man? What else would be delivered to your house?

LB: Milk. That was it. No supermarkets.

DS: Did you hear of anything called Givella water?

LB: Yes, I remember my mother talking about it. Is that a cleaner, or is it (39:00) an antiseptic?

DS: It’s like Clorox. It’s not Clorox, but it was like Clorox in that it bleached and cleaned.

LB: She would talk about it. I don’t remember seeing, but I remember that she liked it a lot. But that was not for – there was something else for lice. She was always petrified I was going to get lice. That’s why I could only go to Model movies, because where the TLA is – it was called the Standard or the Regal, and she wouldn’t let me go there. Now, maybe that’s where the black kids went. I’m not sure. But there were places – these movies were called scratch houses, because your kids would get lice. [laughs] So I was only allowed to go to the Model. That’s the derivation of the term scratch house. Kids would end up scratching a head full of lice.

DS: And what was the name of it?

LB: The Model, that I went to, now Lee’s Art Supply, and down in the previous (40:00) block of South, on the other side of the street, TLA, not the video store.

DS: The movie house.

LB: Yes.

DS: And that was called what?

LB: It was either the Standard or the Regal. Regal. And that’s why I could not go. I would get lice. I never got lice. Never.

DS: She knew about these things clearly.

LB: Yes, and the other thing, I would visit my father. I loved the firehouse. I thought he was a very romantic creature, because he would slide down the pole for me. An interior design [unintelligible] took it over. It’s a double property. At Second and Queen. Have you ever passed there?

DS: Second and Queen was where the firehouse was?

LB: Yes, and I think there is a dog outside, as a statue, because they always had a Doberman when I went there. (41:00)

DS: He was there his whole career?

LB: Yes. Then he went to – they closed that and he went to the fire boat. He was on the fire boat for a while.

DS: Oh, interesting. Did he ever take you there? On the fire boat?

LB: No, I was too old at that point. No, just the sadness, to see a place – I didn’t realize it. It just got so depressing, and then it seemed very slow, the renovation of the area, the gentrification. It seemed very slow to me.

DS: I see you brought a picture of an infant. Who’s this?

LB: Oh, this is my Aunt Sadie. I just wanted to show you. This is 500 South [Street]. There was a place called Pomerantz. Now, if she were alive, she’d be 106, 107. (42:00) And what they would do is they would send them back to the old country. They would take these pictures and send them to the relatives in the old country. This was Fifth and South, that’s where this was taken. No, this is Goldstein’s. This is Fifth and South.

DS: Five hundred South.

LB: Well, maybe they changed numbers.

DS: And this other picture is of the school? Do you think this is of the whole school? Or just a class? At McCall School. And they’re showing the teachers and the student.

LB: And the school nurse. And look at the one little black kid back there.

DS: So all these white families, there’s just one or two blacks.

LB: Here? No. I don’t think so.

DS: Interesting.

LB: See how adult they look, the little boys with the ties and the girls in sailor blouses.

DS: In the uniform. Do you have a date on this picture at McCall’s? (43:00)

LB: Well, he was born in 1908. I don’t know the date. How old do you think the children are in this picture?

DS: They look like 4 th, 5 th grade? Third, 4 th, 5 th?

LB: So that would make them what. Nine? Eight?

DS: Eight or nine? Ten? Eleven?

LB: Ten. Eleven. Well, then, it would be about 1918, 1919.

DS: They all look well dressed and combed and clean, and all the boys have ties on, and the girls have what looks like a uniform. Some of them do. It’s a wonderful picture.

LB: I said to Sadie, how did your mother afford this? They had six children. And she said, “My mother sewed our outfits.” They were beautifully dressed. She sewed (44:00) all the outfits.

DS: And who is she? Who are we talking about?

LB: That was my grandmother, my paternal, my father’s mother.

DS: She would sew – she did all the sewing for –

LB: The people from Budapest, who could sew, who made apple strudel, the dough and delicious pastries. They were talented people in their own way.

DS: People have talked about bakeries in the neighborhood. Do you remember Tanenbaum’s?

LB: Second Street on South. Teitelbaum’s. Yes, I remember the banana cake with chocolate icing.

DS: [laughs] Banana cake with chocolate icing? Was it good?

LB: Yes. And lady fingers with sprinkles.

DS: Now was that retail or was that wholesale?

LB: We bought retail.

DS: You could go in and buy?

LB: Yes. My mother knew the owner, Isaac Teitelbaum. (45:00)

DS: Other bakeries?

LB: Fourth Street –

DS: Between South and Lombard there were some bakeries.

LB: Levin’s.

DS: Levin’s. OK.

LB: Third Street. I’m so bad with addresses. My great grandfather, a Hungarian Jew, was a shoykhet. They used to –

DS: A what?

LB: A shoykhet . A kind of a Kosher butcher. And for some reason they were taking – I remember my father’s young sister and brother. They were taking a chicken to have the throat slashed. You had it cut by the shoykhet. It was over and done with. He got stuck with that job. [laughs] And a gorgeous voice. And they could never find him to sing in the synagogue. The Hungarian synagogue was on Gaskill Street. And again, (46:00) that was another activity, harmonizing. You’d harmonize, you know, with four or five other fellows, on the corner of Fourth and Gaskill Streets.

DS: And there were a lot more businesses around on each block, so there were more people coming and going to the businesses?

LB: Yes. Now, the one thing I find a little difficult about the neighborhood now is, while it’s been beautified – it’s gorgeous, the most beautiful neighborhood in the world – is I don’t see people. But that’s interesting.

DS: It is. It is. It was a dif--

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

LB: My parents finally moved to the [Society Hill] Towers because the house was too difficult to maintain. He was, of course, much older. They didn’t travel a lot, because he was ill and they had a limited income. So they would spend a lot of time here. My father was annoyed that he didn’t have a stoop to sit out on, and he would take his chair out in the summer, his beach chair. My mother and I were mortified. And I bumped into a fellow from South Philly who lived in my building, who said, “Hey, I think your father’s got a lot of guts to take that chair out there and sit there.” And, actually, some men started joining him. They would come out and discuss politics.

DS: Join him?

LB: Yes. So that was interesting.

DS: Missing, when you live in an apartment building.

LB: The isolation was and is incredible.

DS: No more stoop or front porch.

LB: Exactly.

DS: Good for him. (1:00)

LB: And the thing is, even though, my neighbors would always, as I got older, peek through their blinds to watch everyone’s comings and goings. It was bad, but it was good. Everybody knew what was going on. Nobody had a sense of danger or isolation. I get more worried about walking around here at night than I do up in Center City, because of the lack of people.

DS: So in your childhood, everybody knew everybody else and could watch out for each other’s children.

LB: Like the lady who changed my diapers, because my father couldn’t or wouldn’t do it right.

DS: So that kind of interaction was a definite plus.

LB: Yes, and with a feeling that there was a community. I’ll never forget this. I was kicking a can, coming home from school, and this fellow said to me, “Hey, kid, your parents paid a lot of money for your shoes. You shouldn’t kick that can.” And (2:00) now, I mean, you wouldn’t say anything to anybody, people are so whacked out, including kids. But it was a kind of looking out, and I know he knew my mother, because she was in business, or he was just a guy walking down the street. Like people would approach me and say, “I don’t care what your mother is selling,” when she had the store, “but I would just love to see her smile as I looked at her through the window.” They would come up and talk to you, even if they didn’t know you. People don’t do that nowadays.

DS: So she liked doing her business. I mean, she enjoyed her work.

LB: Oh, yes. She loved it.

DS: She loved it. And the interaction with the people, probably.

LB: Yes. And even when she was dying of the brain tumor, I would get my cousin to go up in a wheel chair to the Reading Terminal. She had that sense of the market and the hustle and bustle.

DS: Did she ever talk about the changing of the neighborhood? The (3:00) changing of South Street. She must have been there. I can remember her from when we built, which was in ’64.

LB: You remember her?

DS: I do. But she would have come through the period where she saw the neighborhood going down and then South Street changing several times. You know, they were going to put the Crosstown Expressway in, and then that got canceled. And she would have lived through that period. Do you remember what date or what year she closed the store?

LB: No, I’m not good at that. I’m really not good. I can search my memory when I go home.

DS: This has been wonderful. Thank you. (4:00)

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

DS: Another story.

LB: The only thing my mother had to adjust to was a different clientele. Disappearing of the large families of workers, of longshoremen who would come for their huge order every week. One of the newer – during the 60s – inhabitants -- it was the only time I ever heard my mother complain – said, “You know, this woman drives me crazy. She’s buying a quarter pound of this, a quarter pound of that. And she’s paying by check!” Because we were used to – it was a cash and carry. She would take her payroll to start, when she was working to four o’clock, to the market and put it in her brassiere. So that’s how we would work. [laughs]

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

DS: Another story.

LB: When people couldn’t pay, she would take their bill and put it on a hook. That was called “Buying on the Hook.” I still have that hook. I still have the hook with the unpaid bills. (5:00)

DS: And what would happen? Would they eventually get paid? Or would she just write it off?

LB: I think she wrote a lot off. And I think someone told me recently, even after she went out of business, she would help poor people with food. She was very good to the poor.

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

LB: There was a Jewish bank, and again, I am so bad with addresses. It was on Third Street, to the left as you go off South. It may be a restaurant. There’s a lighting place. No, I think it’s a restaurant. And when the Jewish immigrants – the first people who came out were German Jews. At first, they were very upset about this movement of eastern Europeans coming here, because they were lower class, and the German Jews (6:00) didn’t want their reputation jeopardized. But then they realized – and this has been called one of the reasons for the success of the Jews in this country was there’s a circulation of capital. There was a bank – there is a plaque on Third Street – as you go off to the left at South – that it was a bank, and during the Depression, my parents were saving to get married, and they lost all their money. And my father never let me forget the Depression, never had a credit card, never had a stock. And I would roll my eyes. Now here I am, heavy into the stock market, and it’s happening again.

DS: Interesting.

[Tape is turned off, then on again.]

LB: Kesher Israel Synagogue, which is on the 400 block of Lombard on the (7:00) south side, was where my father used to go, and it became so dilapidated that – you know, I remember at one point being there and seeing a tree growing through the roof. And they talk about birds flying in. Unfortunately, one day, somebody came in and wanted to rob the place, because of the desertion, because there were older Jewish men gone there to pray. And there’s something called a pishka; I guess they were going to get into the pishka. But anyway, they ended up killing someone. Because I think at that point, I don’t know [unintelligible] – I think drugs were coming in. So it was getting a little scary. That’s why my mother didn’t open up a new store again. And I would be so nervous, as my father got older, that they would call on him for a minyan. (8:00) You know what a minyan is; you have to have nine men to say a prayer for the dead on the anniversary of the death – so he would always go. And I remember at the end of his life, picking him up, I was so nervous about having him go there. Now, I believe it was an Israeli or a Russian Jew came and totally re-did that synagogue. It’s a very vibrant, wonderful place now. As a matter of fact, actually I had my father’s funeral service at Kesher. The service was in the chapel of the synagogue, which is very unusual. I spoke to a scholar, a Jewish scholar, about this. You don’t bury Jews from synagogues. My Aunt Sadie said, “You’ll never get him in there.” And I said, “You want to bet?” Because I felt to go up to Goldstein’s in North Philadelphia was not my father. He was so much about what the old neighborhood was. And Kesher Israel was the Universalist Church, where Priestly spoke, John Adams came at one point to hear someone, and there was (9:00) a big Zionist movement there, later on. But it did fall into incredible dilapidation. But now, I think it’s just lovely, one of the loveliest rooms, with a huge chandelier.

[End of interview.]

A hand-written post script on the draft says:

“The black shoe-shine man at Leithgow Street and the merry-go-round which would visit the neighborhood were magical.” Transcriber’s note: in reviewing the first draft of the transcript, the narrator made some changes to the narrative as recorded. These changes appear in the transcript but not on the tape. &nbsp

© 2008 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
116 Delancey Street
Interview Date
January 31, 2009
Beck, Lois
Narrator Type
Oral History Sources