I grew up in a traditional, small South Philly rowhouse in the 2300 block of south American Street. Our block was one of the few in our working-class rowhouse neighborhood that had houses on only one side of the street.
Our houses were situated on the east side of the block, between Wolf and Ritner Streets. On the west side was Our Lady of Mount Carmel church and school.
The neighborhood eventually became known to some as ‘Whitman’ and it led into the next neighborhood north known as ‘Pennsport‘, but nobody from down there used those names. To us, and to those in the other South Philly neighborhoods, we were ‘Second Streeters‘ (some call us “Two Street”) the name owing to 2nd Street which ran through the neighborhood and was home to many of the Mummer’s Parade clubs who maintained their headquarters facilities along the street.
For those neanderthals not familiar, the Mummers are the thousands who parade each year on New Year’s Day through the streets of Philadelphia in what is a cultural phenomenon of our town. But that topic for another day.
Down on 2nd Street, the families were mostly white. Many were of Irish ancestry, with some Germans and Polish mixed in as well. South Philly is largely known for it’s Italian community, but they were further west from us. There weren’t too many Italians down on 2nd Street.
So back to the topic of this blog post: A third story on American Street. Our block was, and still is for the most part, a long block of two-story homes with peaked roofs in front. It is a kind of signature to the block and a couple of others around that area.
Now those houses are small, so I absolutely understand the idea of wanting more space. Growing up in that house, we had a first floor living room of moderate size that led into a smallish kitchen, big enough to keep a kitchen table for the family to eat around, some cabinets, and your appliances, sink, etc. A door in the back of the kitchen led directly out into a small concrete yard.
Upstairs on the second floor, there were three smallish bedrooms. The main bedroom was in the front of the house, looking out on American Street. That was, of course, the parents room. It was my parents bedroom for years, it became my own room during my first marriage, and was my Mom’s room in the 1990’s.
There was a small middle bedroom without windows, but with a skylight, and then a small back bedroom that on our block looked out over the rear schoolyard of the public Sharswood School. In between these was a smallish bathroom. Enough space for a tub, toilet, sink, and a small closet.
If you haven’t caught on to the key word here to describe the house, it is ‘small’. But it was just the right size for a young family starting out, which is what it was meant to be in the first place. My parents bought the house in 1960, and the house remained in our hands for the better part of the next four decades. It stayed in our hands through divorce, illness, child-rearing, and death.
My dad started to fix it up back in the early 1970’s, and was doing a pretty good job, when my mom’s illness and their ultimate divorce put a halt to that effort. The next real effort at fixing it up came after my mom’s death in 1998, when my brother did some work there to prepare it for sale.
We used to order pizza on many a Friday night when we still lived there as a family back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s from a place called Celebre’s (still serving South Philly to this day), and my dad, brother and I all did it one more time for old time’s sake before the place finally sold around 2000 or 2001.
My understanding is that this is the second owner since we sold it, and as far as I am concerned they may have gained more space, but they have taken a huge bite out of the character of American Street. With one little third story addition, they have shown me that truly you often can’t go home again even if you wanted to.
Our block of American Street was used for filming scenes of the movie Invincible, the Mark Wahlberg underdog story of Philadelphia Eagles receiver Vince Papale. In the film, Papale’s father’s home is just two doors from my boyhood one, and you can see our old porch and the look down-the-block that I grew up viewing on an everyday basis. It’s nice to have that preserved in a major motion picture.
If you ever decide to stop down to 2nd Street, and ride over to the Our Lady of Mount Carmel at 3rd & Wolf Streets, you will find American Street just to the east of the church. A tiny street that is tough to turn down and drive on if you’re not used to it.
You won’t be able to miss the monstrosity of which I speak, the now 3-story home in the middle of the block. What was my childhood home, and the childhood home to my kids, is gone, and so is the character of my little, lovely block. It now just lives on forever in my memories.