The Old Neighborhood
THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
In the fifties, when I was a young girl, my family lived in a nice inner-city Philadelphia neighborhood where most of the residents came from Ireland in the early 1900’s, and in the twenty to twenty-five block radius, there were three or four families from France or Germany on each block. In those days, your mother or grandmother always lived a block or two away and you raised your children the way you were raised (with the help of grandparents at times), sent them all to the same grade school (when Catholic school was free) and they would play with their cousins, because more than likely, when your brothers and sisters married, they lived a few blocks away from you too. Mothers would set up a playpen on the front porch for their older babies and toddlers so they could take in the sunshine and air.
Everybody knew each others’ families and were reluctant to move from the neighborhood, but it was not unheard of to move from one street to another only a few blocks away, because you were comfortable with the area. These people grew up with you, your cousins, brothers and sisters. They went all through school with you or you knew them from your mother’s Tuesday night Novena Group at the Church. The people in the neighborhood followed their own chosen faith, but went to Bingo Nights at the Catholic Church Hall, potluck suppers at the American Legion, worked for the Electric Company, the Gas Company, the PTC (the bus company) or Yellow Cab. The man who drove the Mister Softee Ice Cream truck lived down the end of our street and once in a while, he sprung for free ice cream for the kids in the neighborhood.
On spring, summer and fall evenings, the family and neighbors sat out on their front porches, smoking cigarettes, nursing cold drinks, some with their bottles of beer, others playing cards, some taking their evening constitutional, or Mr & Mrs Murphy showing around the pictures of their fifteenth grandchild. Or was it their sixteenth? Oh, well. The children played hopscotch or Double Dutch jump rope, marbles or stick ball right in the street in front of their house. Not too many windows were broken that can be recalled. The newspapers were a common topic of the nighttime chatter that dwelled on human interest stories, or some bizarre item that happened to peek through the otherwise tranquil reports. Some discussed the back street crimes that were just too blatant or shocking for the news in those days, but the word was picked up in the corner tap rooms and brought home.
But the quiet life we led was soon to change, as did the neighborhood. The people started to move away because they made more money now, as the economy was changing. They found better houses to live in, bigger and with pools, and soon, new people moved into our neighborhood. You got to know them, but it wasn’t the same because you longed for all your old friends, neighbors, confidants. The loneliness would grow into discontent and you wondered if you were going to spend the rest of your life in the same house, just the way your mother or grandmother did, raising all the kids and then have to sit back to wait for their Sunday afternoon visits. To some, the picture seemed pretty grim. So like them, my family moved away.
Choosing a “new” neighborhood was a real chore and so was the moving into the “new” house, going to a “new” school, making “new” friends. But, as with most things, you get used to it and all the things that were so “new” soon become taken for granted, a way of life again. You grow up, get married and forget the way things used to be in your old neighborhood, with your old friends. But then one day, you see someone you think you know in the mall or a shopping center. Or the guy in the next car at the red light vaguely resembles John O’Malley from the old neighborhood. Or the lady at the checkout in the supermarket looks like Bridget Kelly. But you can’t be sure of any of them, so you don’t bother to approach them.
So you think about it all week, till Sunday afternoon when you take the kids out for an afternoon ride and you suddenly find yourself going in the direction of the Old Neighborhood.
A few blocks in, you find other faces looking at you from the houses of your old neighbors and relatives. You wonder when some of your old friends finally moved away. Nothing and nobody looks familiar. The drug store is now a pinball hangout and the corner Unity Frankford grocery store now deals exclusively in Soul Food. The last Mass at Church has just let out and there’s only a handful of people in attendance, when it used to be quite a few hundred. The one policeman who used to swing his nightstick while walking down all the main thoroughfares has now been replaced by five two man police cars and K9 dogs. The old PTC depot with its string of bus drivers standing round waiting for their next run and whistling at all the girls, just arrive at work, right on time, to board their respective routes immediately. The ice cream store that was across the street from PTC isn’t there anymore; it burned down. PTC isn’t even the name of the bus company anymore; it’s SEPTA now.
Driving a few blocks over to Grandmother’s street, there are still no familiar faces. In front of her house, there used to be two big cement flower cauldrons sitting on each stoop; now there are German Shepherds in front of the house. Live ones, not stone. At the end of her street, the Pub Tiki Restaurant is now a parking lot, because the people living on these streets now have one, two or three cars and nowhere to park. In the old days, one in every ten houses had a car, and then only one side of the street used for parking was enough to accommodate them.
The Tastykake Company sign always lit the night time sky; these days only the “T” is lit and all the other light bulbs for the letters have been broken by wandering children, probably looking for something to do on a summer afternoon. We passed by our old street, and our house and the three attached to it have been turned into a day care center. A big wooden placard hangs over the center window which reads “Dumpling Grounds Day Care Center”. When I was a kid, there were no day care centers; your mother either stayed home or your grandmother, aunt, or neighbor watched you, if the need arose.
Driving to the outskirts of the neighborhood, we found the old playground there but that, too, has changed over the years. The sliding board has two or three wrungs left on the ladder and the eight swings are non-functional. The monkey bars are gone. And the merry-go-round looks much smaller now than I remembered on those summer days when you held a handlebar by one hand, ran one turn around, then quick jumped on for a short ride that usually made you dizzy. The merry-go-round here was wobbly and wouldn’t go a full turn easily without screeching.
Crack viles and needle syringes littered the ground. A lot of trash and empty bottles were strewn about and the trash receptacles were full to capacity. Across the schoolyard, the old school building had black wrought iron fence around it and chain link cages on its windows. The front of the school had been vandalized with graffiti.
We started to drive toward the American Legion Hall, but the children were getting restless with all our reminiscing, so we decided not to visit any more disappointments. We started toward home before it got dark, and I couldn’t help but wonder why things had to be that way. Why didn’t people take care of their houses the way we did, and why didn’t they leave the awnings up, and why didn’t someone look after the playground the way Old Jack did when I was a kid?
Ah, when I was a kid. The keywords. We can’t expect things to remain the same, I guess, or there would be no growth. But I can have my memories and still change with the times. Going back to the old neighborhood again was disappointing, yet gratifying at the same time. Oh, sure, I expected to see a familiar friendly face or two, or even some of the same stores in the neighborhood. I even expected the policeman to be the same Mr Mueller who lived a few blocks over.
But it gave me a chance to remember.
I think I actually heard the echoes of children’s laughter in the playground, the same as when I was a kid. Going back gave me the chance to exercise my memories of times gone by.
It’s funny, though. While reminiscing between the two of us and trying to tell the kids of the way things were, thoughts aren’t quite the same remembered in retrospect.
© June, 1990 by Anne DiGeorge
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2/2/2014 - updated by Rachael O'Halloran to replace pixelated Copyscape logos and correct format issues.
© 2011 awordlover