that were the Heart & Souls of our great cities & mill towns
The great cities and mill towns that lined the east coast and dotted the upper Midwest in the 40s and 50s were not the monolithic entities described in books, but rather each of these was simply a collection of very distinct and distinctive local neighborhoods clustered around a central, downtown core.
The downtown center or core of each town or city was the business hub and contained major retail outlets like department, furniture and specialty stores as well as the offices of various local and national companies, banks and in the case of our home town the local courthouse and various government offices. In most cases, the downtown city or town center also served as the local transportation hub that connected the downtown area via mass transit to the many outlying neighborhoods that made up the city and that were indeed its heart and soul. Additionally, the terminals of the major railroads that connected each of these cities and towns with rest of the country were always located in the various city centers.
The local neighborhoods that made up the cities and mill towns of the 40s and 50s usually consisted of several dozen square blocks of homes, apartments and smaller, local retail establishments. These individual neighborhoods usually were usually inhabited by people of similar ethnicity, religion or occupation. In our hometown there were numerous ethnic neighborhoods as well as whole neighborhoods inhabited principally by the members of one specific church located in that neighborhood. Because the various mass transit systems that serviced specific neighborhoods often carried workers directly from a specific neighborhood to the specific plants and industrial areas where they worked, many neighborhoods were populated mostly by people who worked at a factory or in an industry located along or at the other end of a mass transit line. For economic reasons
professionals seemed to cluster in neighborhoods populated by fellow professionals causing every city and town to have their “Bankers’ Rows” and their Lawyers’ Rows” similar to that shown on the left .
Demographically, the further the neighborhoods were from the city center, the more upscale and affluent each neighborhood tended to be. As you got further from the city core, the type of housing changed from straight up and down row houses to row houses with front porches to semi-detached homes and then to single family dwellings. At the same time the “further out” that a neighborhood was located, the large the homes were as well as the lots that they occupied.
Up until the mid 1950s, most families did not own an automobile and depended on mass transportation or walking to get around. As a result, every neighborhood had easy access to mass transportation which was used to get to and from work or to the city’s downtown center. The lack of family cars also caused each neighborhood to be, to a certain extent, self-sufficient in that the residents of each neighborhood had ready access to the sources where a family could purchase their daily necessities and fill their basic social needs all within walking distance of their homes.
Towards this end, each neighborhood had one or more corner grocery stores that people could walk to (usually on a daily basis) to purchase their basic food and grocery needs. In multi-ethnic neighborhoods, many of the corner grocery stores were ethnic owned and carried ethnic products specifically as a service for the local ethnic population. Local grocery stores usually occupied the downstairs, front portion of a corner row home with the proprietors living over top of and behind the store. These corner stores carried a wide assortment of canned goods as well as all the basic staples needed for cooking such as flour, sugar and other dry goods. Most of these stores also stocked limited supplies of more perishable products like fresh meat, eggs and dairy goods. Each store, especially those near schools, always carried a more than adequate supply of penny candy and packaged desert and snack treats like “Little Debbie” snacks, “Tastykakes” and single serving “Mrs. Smith’s Pies”. A fully stocked, self-service, ice cooled soda case (which was padlocked at night) usually sat outside the front door of the corner stores.
In addition to the corner grocery stores, each neighborhood usually had a bakery and a butcher shop. Many neighborhoods had poultry stores where live chickens, ducks and turkeys were kept, sold live or slaughtered and dressed to a customer’s order and specifications.Barbers and beauty shops, usually in the front room of the proprietor’s homes, were plentiful in each local neighborhood. Every neighborhood had one or more local physicians who had offices in their homes and were virtually on call 24/7. Corner drug stores, with the pharmacist/proprietor living over top of the store, were located every few blocks. These always had a fine selection of cigars and other tobacco products, newsstands with read and re-read copies of popular magazines and soda fountains. Because of this, in most neighborhoods the local drug store served as local gathering spot for many of neighborhood’s men and older boys.
The various local neighborhoods were also socially very self-sufficient. Neighborhood churches with their many affiliated organizations served as social centers for many of the neighborhood’s adults especially the women. Corner and neighborhood bars served the same function for many of the neighborhood men while street corners, back alleys, vacant lots and local school yards served as playgrounds for the local kids.
The neighborhoods that made up the cities and mill towns in the 40s and 50s profoundly influenced their residents usually for life. Neighborhoods were much more than places where people lived, played and many times worked. It was where people developed lifelong friendships and opinions. It was where they were born, went to school, went to church, met their husbands or wives, married, and had and raised their children. In many cases, people lived their entire life and then died and were buried all in the same neighborhood. Some homes housed three or four generations of the same family while other homes had been occupied by members of the same family for 50 or 100 years. This all contributed to a unique clan like kinship and camaraderie that developed between the people who lived in a given neighborhood. Although neighbors had their arguments, disagreements and even fights, if an outsider threatened someone from the neighborhood, the whole neighborhood would come to that neighbor’s defense. If a neighbor experienced adversity, illness, death in the family or other misfortune, all of the neighbors (whether friends or not) would come to the unfortunate neighbors’ assistance bringing food and moral support and in some cases lending money. That was what neighbors were for and what neighborhoods were all about. They were truly the heart and soul of the cities and towns back then.
The people who lived in the various neighborhoods were what gave each neighborhood a very unique and specific character. But conversely, it was the neighborhood that also had a very profound and lasting influence on the people who lived there. Like it or dislike it, there is no denying the fact that the “Old Neighborhood” provided a major portion of the roots of anyone who grew up in an east coast or midwestern city or town in the 40s and 50s. Those of us who did will always be part of the “Old Neighborhood” and it will always be part of us. It is no wonder that until this day when we meet someone from the Philadelphia area, where we grew up, the first question that is asked always is – “What neighborhood were you from?”
“You Can Take Us Out Of Our Neighborhood, But You Can’t Take The Old Neighborhood Out Of Us”
Pat & Frank Fleming
Personal footnote by Frank
Although I was not one of them, the neighborhood where I grew up in Norristown, Pa (or an area within 3 or 4 blocks of the corner of East Oak & Green Streets) included the family homes of several world-famous athletes.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, pro golfer George Fazio, who gave my father lessons, lived around the corner from us on Oaks Street. Fazio won the 1946 Canadian Open, the 1947 Bing Crosby Pro-AM and finished 3rd in the 1950 US Open, played at nearby Merion Golf Club, after an 18 hole playoff with the winner, the legendary Ben Hogan, and Lloyd Mangrum. After his playing days were over, Fazio went on to become a well-known golf course architect. He and the organization that he founded have designed and built many notable courses including the PGA National in Florida and courses at Hilton Head, Pinehurst and Turtle Bay, Hawaii.
Directly across the street from the Fazio residence was the Piazza homestead where major league ballplayer Mike Piazza’s family lived and where his father, who was a friend and contemporary of mine, grew up. Mike Piazza was a catcher for both the Dodgers and Mets and was the 1993 National League MVP and a 12 times All Star team member.
Piazza’s godfather – the fabled Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda whose teams won the 1981 and the 1988 World Series and who managed the 2000 US Gold Medal Olympic baseball team grew up a few blocks away on East Walnut Street. I remember occasionally seeing him play in pickup games on a grocery store parking lot across the street from my house and at Elmwood Park.
Josh Culbreath, a world record holder in the 400 meter hurdles and the Bronze Medalist at the 1956 Olympics and later Athletic Director at Morehouse College, grew up a few blocks away on Green Street.
A neighbor of Culbreath was Charlie Blockson who was a fullback and track star at Penn State in the 1950s. A member of the Penn State football Hall of Fame, Blockson went on to become a prominent author and historian specializing in Afro-American history and is a world renown expert on the pre-civil war underground railroad. The Temple University library has a special section housing his enormous collection of Afro-American books, literature and artifacts.
One of my friends and classmates was Butchy Bono who lived three blocks away on East Marshall Street. Butchy’s son Steve Bono was a star football player at UCLA and then was a journeyman quarterback in the NFL from 1985 to 1999. Playing for the Vikings, 49ers, Steelers and Chiefs, he spent most of his career backing up the legendary Joe Montana and/or Steve Young. In 1995 he had a 76 yard touchdown run which at that time was the longest scoring run in history by a quarterback.
I will always remember and admire those guys from my neighborhood and their kids who went on to fame. If ever there is a “Green & Oak Hall of Fame”, they should be the initial inductees.