Margaret (Peggy) Davies

Peggy and her husband Roland (Rody) bought two small, derelict houses, 303-305 S. American Street in 1961. They immediately started renovating them, doing much of the work themselves. Peggy describes some of the work they did and the hazards and inconvenience of living in a house and rearing three children while the house was undergoing major renovations. She remembers with affection their neighbors on S. American Street and others nearby. Peggy quickly became involved in the neighborhood elementary school, McCall, when her children started attending it. She says, “You had to have a good public school if you were going to have a good neighborhood.” She talks about the numerous teachers’ strikes that occurred when her children were attending public schools and the long-term consequences for all the children in the neighborhood. In 2002, after 41 years, they sold the house and moved to Maryland. She concludes, “I must say, if I had to sum up how I felt about the whole thing, we had a wonderful adventure in Philadelphia.”


DS: – interview with Margaret [Walsh] Davies, affectionately called Peggy, on July 30, 2008, at the Davies’ home in Annapolis, Maryland.

[The tape is turned off, then on again]

DS: Peggy, I want to start off with when did you come to Society Hill?

PD: 1961 in June.

DS: Why did you come?

PD: Well, as Rody told you, we looked at houses in other places, and Rody was fixing up our apartment, and I decided that we had $3,000 burning a hole in our pockets. It was summer, and we were either going to Europe for the summer with that money

or we were going to buy a house. We decided to be practical and buy a house. We looked in Society Hill because someone told us that would be a good place. And it was going through this rehab thing. So we went there. It was very hot, and in most of the houses, (1:00) the occupants didn’t have the windows open and they didn’t have air conditioning, and they had people sitting in chairs in these dark, hot houses, just looking at us. It was very sad – and very depressing. We left and we weren’t ever going back because we couldn’t handle that. We felt we were displacing people. Then we thought about it when we got to our apartment in West Philadelphia, and we said, “Well, we really should go back, because we probably could find a house that we like that we could do over ourselves.”

We went back, and we finally found these two houses on American Street that we thought we could handle. They were two trinity houses next door to each other, with fire places right up the middle, which appealed to us, design-wise. We decided to buy (2:00) them. We’d heard that the people ahead of us, who had owned them for only a year before they decided to get divorced, had bought them for $10,000. They added $1,000 to cover their costs and sold them to us for $11,000. They had bought them from, we heard, Mr. Bezotsky, who lived around the corner on Spruce Street and who ran a bar across Spruce Street from American Street, where Bodine Lamont [at 229 Spruce Street] eventually redid a house. The garden to the Lamont House was where Mr. Bezotsky’s bar was. We heard that he’d bought our houses for $3,000 for the two of them. He apparently knew what was going to happen in the neighborhood, and he was smart enough to become a part of it.

So, then, once we found the house, we had to find a bank to get a (3:00) mortgage from. Not a big mortgage, we wanted to borrow $13,000. So we started to look at banks. Rody was in school, and I was about to go to work for IBM, teaching programming, but that didn’t count, because I was impregnable and we’d just gotten married, and the banks didn’t want to even consider my wonderful, big salary. We looked for a long time and finally we got to Benjamin Franklin Savings and Loan, who were lending money in the neighborhood. We got a mortgage with them, but it had to be for only 17 years.

We couldn’t buy property through the Redevelopment Authority because we didn’t have any financial strength. Rody was still in school. My work didn’t (4:00) count.

The reason these houses were up for sale, as were most of them on American Street, was because they were considered not historically significant. They let people sell those privately while they dealt with the bigger houses on the major streets. I mean, that was my interpretation of what was going on. We bought these two houses privately from these people. As Rody told you, the settlement was kind of an interesting situation. We were so naïve. But anyway, we had our houses. By then it was August, and this was to be Rody’s summer job, but the summer was practically over. We both started to work on it, I on weekends, because by then I was working, and so I would help on weekends, and Rody would work all week, and he worked first on it – actually, he worked on it the whole time he was on that last semester at Penn and then he worked on it from January until October. He went to work October of the next year for Stonorov and Haws. (5:00)

My mother wanted to see what we had bought, and so she came up. She went in one house, the one that was painted, and she went upstairs, went through the house, came down – that took all of five minutes, I think – and went out the door and eventually she went home after the weekend. We didn’t hear from her for about a month, and she used to call every weekend. It was – we knew she was upset. We didn’t let our other parents come. We decided we had to get it finished – almost finished – before we would let them come. So that was a good thing. I have to add to that my mother, years later, said to me, “This is the most wonderful neighborhood. You will never in your life live anywhere like this again.” And she was right. The people – she just loved (6:00) everything about it. She couldn’t get over the transition. So, then we move onto the construction?


PD: The first thing that we tore down was the shed in the back, which had been used as a kitchen. Each house had a kitchen that was in the shed. It was about a foot off the ground and still had flour and stuff about. And in the space behind it, about a yard wide, to the garden wall, there was an old refrigerator stuck in that space. That’s what I remember. It wasn’t a working refrigerator. It was just junk. There was a lot of stuff that we had to get out of that house.

Anyway, we tore the shed down first because we needed that space as a working base, sort of. And when we tore it down and we stepped on the dirt under it, (7:00) Rody caved in through the dirt, because there were rat burrows all through that dirt, and the rats had gone somewhere else. We were lucky that they had left and gone to other people’s sheds. At that point, there still were sheds on both sides of us. I don’t really think they went to the south, because that was a brick wall. But north of us [at 220-222 Spruce Street, Janet Lewis’s house], I know they went there because every once in a while they’d come back into our open yard.

DS: And you’d see them.

PD: We’d see them. Yes. So we took that down first. And then we took the roof off. I didn’t want to go up on the roof. Rody told me I was really a sissy if I didn’t (8:00) go up on the roof. So I went up the ladder, forcing myself onto the roof. As we tore it off, of course we were down to just roof rafters, and this roof had a pitch to it, not much of a pitch. It went from about six feet to about 13 feet off the third floor. It was enough of a [pitch] that you could have slid down it. So eventually we were working by just standing on these rafters, and you could see through to the third floor, and we were pitching stuff over into the rear yard. And, you know, standing on – balancing on the rafters. When I think of it now, how naïve I was, I mean, if I’d fallen – if either of us had fallen, we would have been dead or in pieces; I mean, we were 30 feet up off the ground. But that’s how we did things, and we didn’t think about it much. It was interesting, because some of Rody’s (9:00) colleagues from school would not go near that roof, and there I was, up there, wondering what I was doing, of course, but …. Anyway.

DS: So you took the roof off.

PD: We took it all off; everything that was on the roof came off. Then Rody put sheathing on the roof, and then we hired this wonderful roofer named Conrad to come put a roof on, the hot tar roof that Rody described. Then we had the chimney rebuilt, because it was – it’s just a wonder the bricks didn’t end up in the streets. The chimney was – the only thing that was holding it up was that there was flagstone on top of it, and the weight of the flagstone was keeping the bricks in place. But there was really no mortar in between them. There were eight flues in this chimney. It was a massive chimney. So it would have been terrible if bricks had rolled down that roof, not only on our (10:00) watch, but I mean it was that way for a long time. Rody took the chimney down, and he hired a man to put it back up. And the man had a son who was going to help him, but the son was really no help. He was afraid of heights. Rody became the man’s helper, and they rebuilt the chimney.

DS: From the roofline.

PD: From the roofline up. Oh, they lined it. That’s what they did. They lowered terracotta liners down each flue and lined the chimney. Now they do that with stainless steel flue liners. But we did it with terracotta. In those days Rody had devised a way of putting concrete on top of the terracotta and then lowering it and lowering the next one on top of it, that sort of thing. And that’s what they did. Meanwhile, his son sat in the truck. We thought it was very funny, because I was doing very well at IBM, but I would (11:00) cash my check and hand it all over to this mason at the end of the week.

Then we decided to take all the plaster off all the walls, because in some places it was rotten and it really had to come off. Rody felt that we should smooth it out. In retrospect, he’s sorry we did that, but it’s such a little house that we thought we needed every inch. He wishes he had kept it; it would have been a little bit of insulation besides the insulation that he put in.

Anyway, we took this plaster off, and in our own inconsiderate way – I don’t know what we were thinking – we threw it out the window into these trucks. We’re talking warm weather, August, September. People didn’t have air conditioning. Windows were open, and they were subjected to all of our dirt and filth that we were making air-borne, constantly, all day on weekends. I guess Rody did (12:00) it during the week, too. I thought that was pretty awful that we did that.

DS: In retrospect.

PD: Yes, I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t think about it at the time. It must have been terrible to live through that. At one point, we were down on the street – I actually have a picture of us on the street after doing all this dirty work – and the lady down the street came toward us with a broom over her head, and she screamed at us, “You pioneers! You come down here and buy these houses and then you ruin our lives.” It was awful. And all this while, the broom was over her head, and I thought she was going to hit Rody, and she was hefty, and she’s going to kill him. I was so afraid. But she didn’t. She (13:00) never did bring the broom down on either of us. Rody was the one she would have gotten.

But the funny thing is, later, the boys and I used to come down to Annapolis to my mother-in-law’s house and visit for a month each summer. One day, she [the neighbor with the broom] said to me on the street, “I’m so glad to see you back. Your poor husband’s been here by himself, and look how thin he is. He needs you here.” [Laughs] What a change of heart. We worked hard to try to make peace with the neighbors who had been there and to make friends with them. And we did. We had a lot of friends on the street.

DS: Tell me about who was on your street.

PD: Next door to us were Mrs. Cannon and her daughter June McCloskey and her granddaughters, Joan and Susan, and two grandsons. I’m sorry I don’t remember their names. Next to that I don’t remember who was in that house, if anyone was. (14:00) There were a lot of vacant houses. A few houses down was Angie Lutman, who had two very handsome sons and a daughter. Lorraine was the daughter’s name. I can’t remember anyone else on our side of the street.

On the other side, 320 South American Street had been done by somebody way ahead of us, and he had planted a gingko tree out front, and it’s still there, and it’s huge. It was just this little sapling when we got there. It was interesting over the years to see that tree grow.

The Pomeroys either were there or they came soon after. Then there was this hermit kind of lady who had cardboard over all her windows. She’s the one who went and got the pitcher of beer every day. We (15:00) had no idea who she was; we never did meet her.

Then there was Mrs. Bieber, who was from the country. She was doing over her house, because her husband had a heart problem, and she wanted to have a house in town for tax time – he was a tax lawyer – so they could come and stay in town for that time and other times when they wanted to be in town. And they’d go out to their farm otherwise. She did it herself, and she was about 50-something. She and Rody exchanged tools a lot. But I understand John Burris went there a lot to help with the design and stuff. It was very interesting. 310 South American. She was wonderful. She would bring us cream from her cows. She was just a really nice lady. She was a Quaker, the first Quaker I guess I ever really knew. She (16:00) did this for her husband, who decided he wasn’t ready to stay in the city. He was going to go on that train and commute, and don’t you know, that years later he had a heart attack on the train and died. So sad. But anyway, she remained a friend. She eventually went to a Quaker retirement home. I heard from another neighbor, Mrs. Riordan, who lived down on [234] Delancey Street, they were in the same Quaker retirement place.

Oh, then coming north on that same side of the street, Peggy Walsh Kelly owned the next house and also two houses like ours put together. She owned 304, 306, which became one house, and 308. She was wonderful. In fact, her name was still Peggy Walsh when the boys were born, and when Eric was born, they wouldn’t let anybody but relatives into (17:00) the hospital, but she got in to see us, because people must have thought she was my mother. She was really great.

DS: She lived there in those houses?

PD: No, she didn’t. She did 304-06 for herself. It was really tailored to her needs. But then she did over a house at Spruce Street, a big house, and that’s where she moved. She had lived in the country, Gladwyne, I believe, and her business, Walsh’s Insurance, was in Philadelphia, in Society Hill, actually [on Walnut Street at Fifth Street]. That’s why she wanted to move in. But she didn’t move in.

Also, you know the people who got the idea to do this redevelopment, they tried to get people who had established records as good business people to move into the neighborhood, so the banks would believe in the neighborhood. Because the neighborhood was really redlined when we went there. It was impossible to borrow money there. They had people like the Ingersolls (18:00) move in, Peggy Walsh moved in, and, let me see, the Newbolds, Dilworths. You know, all over there were people like that who moved in to make them say, “Well, if they invested their money there, it must be all right.”

So the people next door to us, the Cannon-McCloskey group, they worked at Abbotts. Mrs. Cannon worked at Abbotts, and she had retired, I think, by the time we got there. But her daughter worked at Abbotts, which was a dairy between Lombard and South and Second and Third Streets. These grandchildren were very attached to their grandmother. They were really nice people. They were so nice when we had the children. They celebrated; they’d bring us presents and presents for the kids.

One day, there was a – Mrs. Cannon knocked on our door because there was smoke in her house (19:00) or something. Anyway, she was afraid that the Christmas tree was in danger of catching on fire in their house in the living room. And she knocked on our door, and I wasn’t smart enough to know what to do about it. I was busy emptying pitchers, and Kert, who was a little boy – he was about 7 years old – he went upstairs and got the fire extinguisher. We had a fire extinguisher in every room because our house would have been very hard to get out of in the event of fire. He went up and got one and went next door and shot it off!

Then a man who lived down the street – oh in one house there were brothers; one of them was named Baldy. He had been hurt in the Second World War (20:00); so he was on disability. But his older brother, or his younger brother, worked. And this man was coming down the street at the time, and he saw this activity. And he came in, and by then – oh, I guess it was their television that was smoking that they were so worried about, and it was right next to the Christmas tree. Kert had sprayed the TV. Then this man came, and he just pulled it out and threw it on the street, where it exploded.

DS: The TV.

PD: The TV. There never was a fire in the house. Mrs. Cannon felt very attached to Kert then. They were extremely grateful for that. They were just so nice to us all along. Susan baby-sat for us. She stayed with Kert while we went and had Eric. And when we called her to tell her we had to go, it was like 3 o’clock in the morning. She said, “Right now?” [Laughs] But she came over and did it. She babysat for him a lot. She was great.

And they got to do their house over, I think. I’m not sure about this, (21:00) but I heard that there was a model cities program that Kennedy put it, and they would give grants to people to fix up their houses, which was a great idea. I’m not sure they had a grant. I just heard it through the grapevine.

DS: So now, the sequence of fixing up the house and having your children. Were you living in the house by the time you had Kert, your first child?

PD: Oh, you could say that. I’m not sure you’d call it living. But we were renting an apartment in West Philadelphia and doing the house over at the same time. Of course, we decided that was an awful waste of money and a luxury to have two places and to pay for two places at once. The apartment was $60 a month, and our mortgage was (22:00) $123, but still we wanted to avoid that. So we moved in prematurely in May 1962.

We didn’t have stairs. We didn’t have a kitchen. They were two major items in my mind. We did have bathrooms by that time. We ran up and down ladders that were where the stairs would eventually be. The floors weren’t done and the house wasn’t plastered. We had it plastered after we moved in. When you walked across the floor, the dirt went through because the floors were old and the boards were separated. The dirt would go through to the next floor. To minimize the airborne dirt, we located our bedroom on the third floor. We moved in in May of ’62, and I had to wash my clothes every night that summer to wear them to work the next day because everything was grimy.

We had no (23:00) windows, so things came and went as they wanted, creatures. Rody thought that was nice, sharing our house with nature. I didn’t find it so exciting. He liked bats, I didn’t. That’s how we lived. We took our dishes down the ladder to the basement and washed them in the deep sink. The kitchen, you know, it had a stove on a crate, a card table with our dishes on it and a refrigerator. That’s how we functioned. We had a beautiful dining room table that we used, always, the whole time we lived there. We ate every meal at that dining table. That worked very well.

But we had Kert the next February, and we put our stairs in in November – no, no, no, after that, December, I guess. I had fallen down the ladder around (24:00) Thanksgiving, and fortunately I rode the rungs of the ladder down to the first floor, and hit the wall, which had just been plastered, which I broke. I just lay on the floor; I was so scared. I was very pregnant, seven months maybe. I was terrified the baby was going to be born right then. I just lay on the floor. The Robertses [Lynne and Franklin] were at the door. I was on my way to answer the door, and I was in loafers, and the heel of my loafer had caught on the stair. Rody let them in, and I continued to lie on the floor until I felt like I could get up. I made Rody call the doctor, and he said, “Don’t worry about the baby. The baby just was roughed up in the amniotic fluid. Just make sure Peggy stays calm.” So that’s what he did, and I was all right.

Then we really worked (25:00) hard on getting the stairs in. I think we already had everything put together, but we got them in. Then the kitchen wasn’t in until Kert was a month or two old, maybe. We were still going down that ladder to the basement to do dishes when he was crawling. He was crawling, and we were doing that. And we had put this floating panel on the party wall up in the dining room so we had insulation between us and our neighbors, and I was so afraid that Kert would get into that insulation once he started to crawl. Rody put that wall up. I mean, we were just one step ahead of disaster the whole time, trying to get things done before something awful like that happened. We were very much in the process of working on the house when Kert was born. (26:00)

I went back to work; I worked part time after he was born, not for IBM, because they were in an antitrust suit and they couldn’t have their employees work for customers. But they found me work, because Kert was born with a cleft lip, and we needed surgery. The plastic surgeon was on the Hope ship, and he couldn’t see him. And people at Rody’s office told him that it was going to cost $3,000 to get Kert’s lip repaired, and our house was undone; so we couldn’t sell our house. And we didn’t have any money. So I went to IBM and they found me customers to work for. I told them why I had to work, because we were having this surgery. This is so nice. After the surgery, I found out that IBM kept me on their rolls, paid medical insurance for me, until after Kert was operated on. And I had been out of there five or six months by then. They paid for the surgery, (27:00) which only cost $300 rather than $3,000. The doctors didn’t know we were so hard up, but IBM did because I went there and asked for work. So I only did that – I worked twice for a company, the Institute for Scientific Information in West Philadelphia. I went to IBM to check it out every day. And when I went to IBM, a lovely African-American lady around the corner took care of Kert. She was wonderful and soft, and I’d go in there and there she’d have him on her bosom and just be rocking him. You know. He was perfectly happy with Mrs. Holloway.

DS: What was her name?

PD: I think it was Holloway.

DS: And she lived on Spruce Street?

PD: She lived where Becky lives [234 Spruce Street].

DS: Becky Stoloff.

PD: I think so, yes. And she had a granddaughter, Cecilia, there. It was really (28:00) great. She was so nice. I’d just take Kert there and go up to IBM for two or three hours. I was nursing him at the time; so I couldn’t stay long. Then I would come back and pick him up from Mrs. Holloway. She was great. Really nice.

Then we had him operated on when he was three months old. It was very, very successful. Then, when he was three years old, he was coming down the stairs. We had been somewhere, and he got this idea. He was coming down the stairs with a pillowcase over his head. He thought he was on the floor, but he was on the bottom step. And he stepped off that step, and he hit that fireplace wall, which, of course, was (29:00) unforgiving. He split his head open, from his hairline to his eyebrow. This dear little baby of mine. He was three years old, but it was awful.

Rody wanted to take him to the nearest Emergency Room, and I said, “No, no, no. We’re going back to Dr. Peter Randall,” this wonderful plastic surgeon who had done his lip. So we called Peter Randall’s office, and they said, “Well, he’s in surgery, but you come right out here. So we went out, and they stitched up his head. It had to be stitched internally and externally, and they wanted both of us to be there to comfort him. And I got so dizzy and woozy that Dr. Randall had to stop and hand me the smelling salts. [Laughs] But he eventually got the thing stitched up. And then, while it was healing, Rody was playing lacrosse with him, and it split, but it split on the inside only. It had healed on the outside. So that was an adventure. He said he was playing Poozer, which was in a Dr. Seuss book. (30:00) And here he is with this pillowcase over his head.

Something else about neighbors. We were talking about neighbors. We didn’t only have neighbors on American Street. On Spruce Street across the street were the Kosses [Ann and Al]; he was the barber, and his wife is a lovely, lovely woman. When the kids were born, Kert was born, she gave him a silver dollar. She said it was a tradition that was good luck. We still have it. One day, she took care of Kert, so I could go to Snellenbergs; they were going out of business. I went there and I came back and I said, “That was so crowded. I couldn’t even look at anything. That was the worst experience I’ve ever had shopping.” She said, “You should go to the Strawbridge & (31:00) Clothier Clover Days. They’re wonderful.” And do you know? I never missed one from then on. They really were wonderful. And the clothes lasted. They lasted through three children. They were very special people for me. I always enjoyed talking to Mrs. Koss. Nice lady.

DS: As you were re-doing – renovating – the house, Redevelopment didn’t really have any restrictions for you, or did they come in? Did they have to approve your plans?

PD: Yes. Rody –

DS: Even though you hadn’t bought the property from them?

PD: That’s right. The Historical Commission had to approve the plans, not Redevelopment Authority. Rody had to draw plans, and Historical Commission (32:00) had to approve them before we could get a building permit. Everybody had to go through the Historical Commission and get that stamp, or L&I [Licenses and Inspection] wouldn’t even look at it to give you a building permit. So we got the building permit that way.

Now, you talked about Redevelopment Authority, and I guess it was Redevelopment Authority that would come around and check on our progress, once we got going. One day, when I was nursing Kert, he spit up on me, and my clothes were all soiled, and there was a knock at the door. I went to the door and there was this young man, and he told me he was from Redevelopment Authority, and he wanted to see what our progress was. I didn’t want him in the house. I said, “Well, we’re working on the house as fast as we can. See, we still have a plywood floor here in the kitchen. (33:00) And Rody’s doing as much as he can.” And he said, “Rody? Are you married to Rody Davies?” And here I was in this state with this blouse all messed up. He was a planner who had gone to University of Virginia with Rody. We’ve since become big friends. It was funny, because I didn’t know Chuck Squire, and I was so embarrassed.

But anyway, they did come around every once in a while to see how we were doing. We didn’t have to – we had to do the house. I mean, Rody had found the window sizes and everything on the original insurance policy. They were very strict about that, and how you were going to construct the shutters. I remember that was a big number, because the shutters in the Georgian period were constructed differently than those in the Federal period. Both of those periods were in that neighborhood. They wanted them constructed in the right way. We ended up not putting them up until right before we sold the house, (34:00) in 2002. We got away with it, I guess, because we were on American Street. It didn’t seem to be that important to them.

DS: At what point did you show the house to Mr. and Mrs. Davies?

PD: Oh, they came up after Kert was born, after we had a kitchen. No, no. They were there right after he was born. They came up then. We had stairs, you see, to the second floor. So they could stay.

DS: They stayed with you?

PD: They stayed with us for the weekend. The Davieses actually were away when Kert was born. My mother came – she was working – she came that weekend with my Dad, and then they went back home, and the next weekend Rody’s folks came.

I was really there by myself during the day. That’s a story unto itself. It’s so typical of our adventure together, Rody and I. (35:00) He had to go to work. So he would leave me the box of powdered milk that we drank at the time, carrot sticks and celery sticks, and he would go off to Stonorov and Haws. Oh, and he gave me oatmeal in the morning. And he would do that and go off to Stonorov and Haws for the day. Then he would come home and fix dinner. He also left me a basket on a rope, so if anybody – the mailman – came to the door with a package, I could lower it out of the window – Kert’s room was on the second floor – and then hoist it back up. He had me all set up. That was how I lived. And when I look back on it, now that I am interested in nutrition, really interested in it, to think that I was living on celery sticks and carrot sticks when I was nursing, it just horrifies me. But anyway, that was how we did things. We just made do, however. And it was always some clever little system Rody would devise. You know, it’s been a great adventure with him. (36:00) He’s a wonderful man, fun to live with, but there’s an adventure and a test a minute.

DS: Tell me about school for the children. You had three sons.

PD: Three sons. There was dyslexia in my family. My sister had three dyslexic children out of five, and my brother had two dyslexic girls. So we were very aware of that. Those children were older when we got married, maybe 5 to 15, something like that.

We were trying to avoid that. We got involved in the Greene Towne Montessori (37:00) School, because we wanted them to have a good start, and sent them there. Rody went there; he stopped working – he had his own firm by now – he stopped working for about a month and went up there and built little tables and put up partitions and did all the things they had to do to make the third floor of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, up near the Franklin Institute, ready for small children to come in and have a school that met fire code. Actually, Portia Sperr started this school and a lot of other nice people with whom we became friends. It was really fun.

Kert was in the first class. It seems to me the first teacher didn’t last very long. I can’t remember things like that. Anyway, it worked out well. All three boys went there. It was a good thing for the children. It really did give them a good start. They went there to school, for the first three years, ages (38:00) three to five. They didn’t have the afternoon program when Kert went, so he only went there for two years. When he was five and a half, we had him tested and put him in first grade early at McCall, which was the neighborhood public school. Eric was just entering Greene Towne at the time; so he was in his first year at Greene Town during Kert’s first year at McCall.

Within the first week at McCall, Kert went to school, and he was a little late. I was a very late person, and he was late. I walked him to school. I was about to leave the schoolyard, and I heard crying. I recognized it was Kert. I went upstairs in the hall, and I said I was looking for my son. There was this big man who was the school psychologist, (39:00) I guess, and I said, “I’m looking for my son. He’s crying.” “He’s all right!” he screamed at me, and it really so shocked me that this man did that – I can’t remember his name – that I decided I was going to get involved in the school. And so I did.

I helped in the classroom. Kert had a wonderful teacher. I can’t remember her name, but she was a wonderful first-grade teacher. That worked really well. He learned a lot from her. It was just great. I must say, coming from a Montessori School to a public school, he spent a lot of energy in the beginning just learning the rules of the school, like you don’t step out of line when you go to the lavatory; you don’t get a drink when you want one or (40:00) when you need one. That took a lot of his energy in the beginning, but he did well there. Mrs. Hobbs, that’s who his teacher was. She was great.

Anyway, eventually Eric went to McCall. Eric was reading when he got out of Montessori School. He had had the advantage of a full day his third year, and Kert only went to Montessori School two years. Eric went to McCall, and he had Miss Gabriel first year. It was supposed to be an open classroom, but she had been a regular teacher for years and years, and that’s a hard transition. She was nice enough to let Eric read – sit and read – when the other kids were learning to read.

He had a great class of kids there. The kids that he was with at McCall never had the opportunity to go to (41:00) Masterman, because the psychologist was out or something, and they were never given the application. So that class hung together right through eighth grade. They were a bunch of really bright kids. And there weren’t a lot of [teachers’] strikes. I guess there were some, but I don’t remember. They stayed together anyway, in spite of the strikes.

This was one of the downsides of public schools. There were ten strikes in Kert’s 12 years of public school. Two of them were for two months, and when Kert was in his first year of college, there was another two-month strike, and we took Eric out of public school. He was a freshman at Central High. I mean, he had just finished his freshman year. We took him out and put him in Germantown Friends. Geoffrey’s class during that strike were eighth graders, and I didn’t want them to leave. That was what would happen in the strikes. These two-month strikes, the parents just couldn’t bear it. They would go to a private school. And then the school population from the neighborhood would be (42:00) diminished. And you had a different school when the strike was over.

I tried really hard to keep it together. I took about 15, maybe 12, of Geoff’s friends to Rody’s office during that last two-month strike, and taught them in the office. We had a great time. We went on field trips and everything. I’m a certified high school math teacher, but I had more fun with those kids, because I had been a guide in the Park and I could teach them history. We went on field trips in our VW van, and we didn’t have seatbelts then and we could put any number of kids you wanted in that van. It was just a lot of fun, and we did it for two months. The class hung together. A few kids left, but not as many as would have left.

Anyway, my adventure at McCall, I was eventually President of the (43:00) Home and School, and we had about 18 people on the Board, and at least six of them were ex-teachers who happened to be parents at McCall. Everybody worked really hard to get the school to have sort of a working-together relationship. We had dinners at our houses. We had pot luck suppers. We did everything to try to bring people together socially, as well as the teachers, so that it would be a concerted group effort. I think it helped somewhat. It was discouraging, because of these strikes. I mean, you’d work and work, and there would be a strike, and everything would go to pieces. We lost a lot of good people in the neighborhood.

Actually, most everybody tried McCall, even Deborah Newbold, Deborah Dilworth Newbold, tried McCall. Her child landed in a (44:00) class with 47 people in first grade. Her father was Superintendent of the Board of Education, or whatever the title was, at the time. So you know, it was hard; it was hard to stick with it, and I understand why some people didn’t, because it wasn’t easy. But the kids went from there. Kert went to college after he graduated from Central. Eric was then a sophomore at Germantown Friends, and Geoff was an eighth-grader, and Geoffrey went to Germantown Friends the next year.

I was accused at McCall of trying to (45:00) make it – run a public school like a private school, because we published reading lists and parents’ lists and all this stuff. I thought, “Why not? It’s not costing any money to do that. And why not?” Someone told me I was an idealist, and it would never be terrific. You couldn’t do that in a school. Hey, Germantown Friends was more than I ever dreamed a school could be. Rody and I both went to private high schools. They were good; they were great schools. But Germantown Friends was so much more so that I couldn’t believe that a school could be that good. It was interesting.

DS: Tell me about other neighborhood activities that you –

PD: Well, one thing that I think was very special. Joan – Joan Putney – started a lot of this – was the babysitting co-op. A lot of us were from out of town, and all of a (46:00) sudden, I mean, as time went on, not all of a sudden, it was like you had family. You had a lot of aunts and uncles [in the neighborhood]. The other kids were like your cousins. You went there and spent the night, even. You went and had meals. You had your favorite “aunt.” You had the places you really would like to go. We had eventually – it started out with six families and ended up with, like, 25. We had picnics in Fairmount Park, pot luck picnics. It was just so community. I mean, we really worked on building a community. It wasn’t just going to be a bricks-and-mortar, you-have-your-lovely-house kind of neighborhood. It was going to be a community. I think we all worked very hard to make it so, and included the people who had lived there for a long time.

DS: So you had a lot of interaction with the people who were born and raised there?

PD: We did. (47:00)

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

PD: – the block parties, that we usually had in the 200 block of Delancey Street. They were so much fun. Now they have practically a block party every Halloween in that block. It was such fun. We all brought stuff, and we shared, and the kids ran around and had a good time. Our children loved it so much that Eric goes back and gets a hotel room to stay there for the weekend at the Sheraton. He says it’s kind of weird to stay somewhere else in your own neighborhood. They have a hard time going down American Street, emotionally. They loved it so. I mean, they just have great memories of growing up there. It was hard in a way, because all three of them were mugged at some point. But they still loved it. They just loved it. I mean, the community, the sense of community was incredible. (1:00)

DS: Yes, it’s true. Civic Association?

PD: Yes, I was on the Board of the Civic Association at one point, though I couldn’t begin to tell you what year it was. I remember that Tillie Speck was the President. They did a lot of good. It was interesting, interesting meetings. They were like great theater many times. I do think they did a lot of good. I don’t know what we would have done without it, really. You had to sort of fight for your rights all along. I mean, with the schools, we were there demonstrating at City Hall during those strikes. You just had to be on your toes all the time.

DS: What else besides schools would the Civic Association be dealing with?

PD: They weren’t involved in the schools, I don’t think, ever. Maybe they were. I wasn’t aware of it. I don’t have a lot of memory for the Civic Association, except (2:00) that they brought up the issues of zoning and stuff, and I think they kept some awful stuff out of the neighborhood – from happening in the neighborhood. That’s what I mean. You had to be on your toes all the time. Somebody had to be vigilant about what are they planning to do next. What is this individual planning to do next?

We did try to get the lot at Third and Spruce for a park. The children went to Starr Gardens to play baseball, for example. When they got up to bat, their gloves would disappear. And it was a long walk. When they were little, you had to go with them. We thought if we could have a park at Third and Spruce, it would be great. The children could play in this park right in their neighborhood. People were always walking by. It was constant neighborhood interaction and people- watching. Delancey Park was right there for the tots. But the city (3:00) said they needed the tax dollars; so they built houses there. But our kids ice skated there before that. We flooded that lot once –

DS: That was where Metropolitan Hospital was?

PD: Yes.

DS: And after the hospital had been torn down it was an open lot?

PD: It was an open lot for a while. The hospital had been a cigar factory before it was a hospital. It was a converted cigar factory.

Another open lot was the open lot between Delancey and Spruce and Front and Second. We walked our dog, Skorsten, there. He was a big part of the neighborhood. It was wonderful, because we’d go down there and walk him, and all these kids would come and play with him. He ran away a lot. He would love to go to the [Society Hill] Towers and swim in their fountain. One day, I was over there with him, and a lady came out of one of the towers with her child (4:00) and said to the child, “See, he’s not a seal. It’s a dog.” Apparently, they lived really high up, and only Skorsten’s head would be above water when he went swimming in the fountain. And he went right for the fountain. I mean, that was it. He never went for the river, which really amazed us, that he didn’t even try to get in the river. Because here in Maryland, he went out the window of the car once to get to the river. It wasn’t like he didn’t know the river was there. Maybe he knew it was dirty and he shouldn’t go in it. I don’t know. But he was a big part of the neighborhood. He was a wonderful big, black Lab. Ran me to death, with children in my arms and my tummy and everything.

DS: Anything else, Peggy, that you’d like to talk about?

PD: I want to say something about the schools again. We worked to make that (5:00) school a good school, because it was my feeling that you had to have a good public school if you were going to have a good neighborhood. Early on, people would come there and they would live there, and then when their children became school age, they would move to the suburbs. The Erdmans [at 312 Cypress Street] did that. A lot of people did that. It was clear that if we wanted to keep young people in the neighborhood, we had to have a good school.

I must say, everybody joined in it, and everybody became a good sport and sent their child to the public school first, before they went anywhere else. I think that that was what we felt, and I understand that now McCall School is a real factor again in the neighborhood.

Rody and I started a paper drive there. Once a month we collected newspapers and recycled them to raise money for the school and also save the planet. It was amazing how many people would come and (6:00) bring their papers and put them in our VW van. We would take them to a dealer and then bring the van back – (it was only Saturday morning) – and load it again and again and again. It was great. It really was.

We realized we were kind of in it alone. One day my sister came to visit, and I couldn’t visit with her because I had to be at the paper drive. She had come from Boston, and that was sort of the end for me. I thought I really should have been able to visit with her, but no one would step up to the plate. Actually, I couldn’t ask many people, because she came on Friday night, and it was the next day. But I thought it was a great thing, and we raised a lot of money for the school. We painted the school. We painted a room in the basement and started a school store. We did a lot to try to help the school and make it a great school. We painted the school yard. (7:00) We painted games on the surface of the school yard.

Let me think. Is there anything else? Oh, a big part of the neighborhood. There were two things that were wonderful. There are a lot of things that were wonderful but these….

My feeling – We have such good friends from the neighborhood. We will never be able to replace them. I must say that’s what I miss the most about having moved. If you were lonely in that neighborhood, you could just go to (8:00) SuperFresh. You’d be bound to run into somebody. It was a meeting place, a neighborhood watering hole almost. We were back [in Philadelphia] for something lately and went in there, and don’t you know, we were in there forever, because we kept running into people that we knew. So it’s still the same.

And another thing that was great for us was that Rody and I bicycled everywhere when we lived there. I started bicycling when the boys were little. We only had Kert and Eric when I started. I used to go to a Laundromat on 10 th Street, 10 th and Spruce, to do our laundry. I kept getting parking tickets. I’d go in and do the laundry and come out and have a parking ticket. It was $3 for a parking ticket, and we only spent about $20 for everything, our food and all. And here I was spending $3 on a parking ticket. It really upset me. So I decided, if I had a bike, I couldn’t go to the Laundromat on a bike, but if I had a bike, I could go to a lot of places and not have to deal with parking.

Rody (9:00) didn’t want me to have a bike. One of his friends had one, and it got caught in the streetcar tracks, and he really got hurt. But I told him I’d ridden a bike a lot when I was little, and so I got the first bike. Rody liked it so much that it was only a few months before he got a bike. And we went everywhere on our bicycles. And I think between our very steep stairs in our house and that bicycle, I never had to worry about my weight. I miss it. That bicycle was like my horse. One day I was riding to the office, and all of a sudden it was very wiggly, and I couldn’t figure it out. I went to the office and I parked it and I went in and I worked and I came back and I rode it home, and it wiggled. Then I said something to Rody, and we went out in the yard. He looked at it, and it turns out it had broken in half.

DS: What had? (10:00)

PD: The bicycle had. In the back. The fork had broken. The back wheel was being held by – the frame had broken into four pieces. And that can’t be fixed. It was like my horse had died. I actually put it in the backyard. I couldn’t part with it for a while. It was so sad. [Laughs] When we came down here, Rody bought me a bike, but I have to carry it down the hill to ride it. So I don’t ride it much. And I’m a little bit afraid of riding it on the hills. But anyway, that was a great part of it.

I must say, if I had to sum up how I felt about the whole thing, we had a wonderful adventure in Philadelphia. My husband Rody says, “It was a great ride, wasn’t it? It’s been a great adventure.” And it really has. We have all these wonderful friends, whom I miss. I have unlimited long distance, so I can get to them [Laughs]. It’s really nice, and fortunately we come back fairly often. That’s it. That’s my story. (11:00)

DS: Thank you.

PD: You’re welcome.

[End of interview]

Transcriber’s note: in reviewing the first draft of the transcript, the narrator made some changes to the narrative as recorded.

© 2008 Project Philadelphia 19106™. All rights reserved.

About the Interview

Dorothy Stevens
Cynthia J. Eiseman
Interview Location
Annapolis, MD
Interview Date
July 30, 2008
Davies, Margaret (Peggy)
Narrator Type
Redeveloper - Restoration
Oral History Sources