By Patricia McLaughlin
About 30 years ago, we bought a house in the "Art Museum neighborhood" in kind of a rush: We'd told our landlord we were buying a house, and then backed out of the deal but, by then, he'd decided to move into our apartment himself, so we had to move anyway.
We hadn't particularly meant to move to Spring Garden. In fact, we lived here for months--surrounded by drop cloths and buckets of joint compound and the implacable seepage into everything of the dust and grit produced when you demolish or repair walls made of plaster and horsehair, or so somebody said at the time--before we knew we had. (It's bounded by Fairmount Avenue on the North, Spring Garden Street on the South, the Parkway and East River drive on the West, and maybe Broad street on the East.)
We also didn't know at first that we were only a few blocks from a major drug
corner; I learned this from a cabdriver who declined to take me home one night.
"I could get my cab impounded," he said. We were also right around the corner from the Eastern State Penitentiary which, according to some survey, a majority of neighbors wished were still a working prison, because its presence had deterred crime. I think there was also something about the prison workshop producing well-priced kitchen cupboards.
We bought the house from a Mr. Czarnecki; he and his late wife had moved in around 1958 and raised a family there. Now he was old and, judging from the rows of pill bottles lined up on top of the china closet in the dining room, not well. His Teamsters Union newsletter kept coming for months after he left.
Every room had brown wallpaper, and the number of extension cords in use testified to the scarcity of electrical outlets, but the locks on the cellar door, the china closet, the linen closet, the shallow closets in the second-floor-front bedroom and the closet in the second floor bathroom all still had their original brass keys, their bows polished to a soft shine by fingers that had been turning them since 1868. (I read somewhere that it was only after the Civil War that street car lines reached the neighborhood,and that attracted developers.)
The day I went over to measure for curtains, Mr. Czarnecki caught me looking at the crystal chandelier in the dining room: Its swooping glass arms were thickly furred with dust over a coat of cooking grease.
'The wife," he said, "she used to clean it." He said it as if this had been some inexplicable quirk of hers. There were still maybe a dozen white- and gray-haired ladies on the block then--you'd see them out sweeping their sidewalks in the
kind of housedresses I remembered my grandmother wearing. I'd kind of lost track of the idea I'd grown up with in the '50s, that cleaning things--and waxing and polishing and starching and ironing them--was the essential female vocation, but the new neighborhood (and probably my new status as a homeowner) reminded me. Before we put the vintage 1940s gas stove out on the curb, I cleaned it thoroughly.
Mary and Katherine, the ladies two doors down from us, had husbands when we moved onto the block, but, one by one, they were widowed. I remember how impressed I was by their trash, placed squarely on the curb, neatly wrapped in brown paper recovered from grocery bags, fastidiously tied up like a birthday present with rags ripped into strips. They were recycling before recycling was cool.
Then one died, and the other moved out to Colorado to be near her son, and one day all the windows of their house were wide open and some men were throwing every single thing left inside out the windows.
Clothes, furniture, window shades. Some things made it into the dumpster; some
things hit the sidewalk. It seemed sacrilegious. I rescued a yardstick; I think
it was from a car dealer in Reading.
Margaret lived halfway down the black from us. I'd see her out sweeping her sidewalk, sometimes two or three times a day. It turned out she was losing track, couldn't remember if she'd swept or not, so she'd do it over to be sure. She disappeared to a "home," and there was a house sale one weekend. The barkcloth curtains (giant maroon and green fronds on peachy tan) from the South window halfway up the stairs to her third floor now cover the cushions on the Morris chair on our back porch.
Estelle, who lived across the street, was 86 when I met her. She told me she'd been born in the second floor front bedroom of that house. She said that, once, she'd been standing on the stoop when a lot of policemen came running down the block with big guns. "They said, 'Go inside! Go inside, girlie!' But I was too newsy."
Willy Sutton had escaped from Eastern State.
When Estelle got cancer and her house went on the market, I heard somebody describe it as having "no kitchen." Which probably meant no built-in cabinets and counters; our house hadn't had them either. These houses had kitchen tables instead, and Hoosier cabinets or cupboards from the prison.
Most of the old ladies are gone now. Tom, the lawyer who lives across the street, is the block's most reliable sidewalk sweeper. New people moved into their houses, many with kids. There were summers of general stoop-sitting and kids riding tricycles and playing street hockey out in the street and, whenever a car turned into the block, parental cries of "Car!" "Car!" "Car!" "Car!" echoing off the brick
fronts of the houses. Those kids are out of college now, but there are more new
people, and a cohort of new babies on the block They're in strollers now but maybe, by next summer, some of them will be ready for trikes.
Another cohort of white-haired ladies were the backbone of the choir at St. Francis Xavier at 24th and Green when I joined it but they died or went to live with their children or got busy, and the choir dwindled and eventually was replaced by professionals who can sight-read and be counted on to show up. I miss it.
The neighborhood cats that used to patrol the wall that separates the backyards on the south side of Wallace from the adjacent backyards of the houses on the north side of Mt. Vernon are gone, too. The new people, like us, keep their cats indoors.
Before our time, the City had taken the lots between 22nd and 23rd Streets and Fairmount Avenue and Aspen Street by eminent domain for a school it never got around to building and torn down all the houses. The lot stayed empty for years, attracting abandoned sofas and other trash and providing free parking. Now it's a nicely landscaped parking lot with an attendant, but it isn't free anymore.
For awhile there was talk about tearing down the Penitentiary--the world's first prison built to evoke penitence--for a supermarket or maybe a pizza place, but it's a national historic site now, with tours way more interesting than the ones at Alcatraz. Its ongoing preservation is supported by the biggest Hallowe'en haunted house in the nation, an admirable achievement that, unfortunately, makes it virtually impossible to find a parking space after 5:00 PM for much of October. Its front terraces, once choked with weeds and multiflora roses, have been turned into a garden by neighborhood volunteers working with the Pennsylvania Horticultural
Society. (We weed on the second Saturday morning of each month, and would be
grateful to have your help.)
The understocked corner store half a block from us--dark oiled wood floors like the ones in corner stores when I was a kid, and Wonder bread, Campbell's tomato soup, newspapers and milk--has been replaced by Garden Fresh, which has fresh vegetables and cheese from DiBruno's and $6 bread from Metropolitan Bakery.
Lifesport, the gym around the corner in the other direction, arrived in the neighborhood soon after we did; now I can get through
nearly all the exercises in Gina's Pilates class without taking a breather.
There are lots more restaurants than there used to be, and a great used book store around the corner, and a Whole Foods within walking
distance. The allée of tall trees that offered a natural shortcut across the
grassy lot in front of the Youth Study Center disappeared last year to make way
for the new Barnes Foundation museum.
The rowhouses on the blocks that housed the notorious drug corner were plowed into their cellars. Now it's a community garden. I remember
how long it took to dig the bricks and other buried treasure out of my plot the
first year with pick and shovel. A passing homeless man showed me how to rig up
a two-by-four and a half-buried rock as a lever and fulcrum to extract a
resistant rusted muffler and exhaust pipe from the compacted clay. Today it's
an oasis of leafy green and birdsong enclosed by a wrought-iron fence so
beautiful-- wrought-iron birds and butterflies perch in its curlicues-- that it
had only been up for a couple of months when a landscape contractor from some
suburb tried to steal it to re-sell to a client. I guess he thought nobody'd
notice, but somebody did, and called the cops.
When friends come to visit, they say how much nicer the neighborhood is now, but I miss the old ladies and the free parking and the choir and the neighborhood cats. I guess it's like anyplace: Time passes; things change. There are gains and losses, and sometimes it's hard to know which are which.
Cover Photo: The author's block on Wallace Street in Spring Garden.