Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Hippest Street In Town

South Street. It's funny that I find myself still living off 'the hippest street in town' (as the song goes) after all these years. When I first found South Street in 1978 it was probably one of the more dangerous and freakiest streets in what was a depressed and run down Center City.

In the 1960s city officials had convinced everyone that the crosstown expressway that would run from I-95 to I-76, should be built over the South Street cooridor. Property owners on the street, some who had been there for generations, sold their land to the city and moved out, in preperation for the demolition of 25 blocks of houses and businesses so the Crosstown Expressway could be built.

Well, due to an outcry, the project was tabled (and later became the Vine Street Expressway). Meanwhile, all these properties were vacant. The hippies moved in and created a community of shops - many squatting in vacant space without permission. Food stores opened, restaurants (Knave of Hearts, Cafe Nola, Back Stage, Astral Plane) and tons of little art gallery and consignment shops. By the mid 1970s, South Street had become this weird mix of hippies, punks, freaks and criminals. The police weren't too responsive to the area - so the area policed itself.
note: if you want to see South Street at around this time - just rent TRADING PLACES with Eddie Murphy, Dan Akroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. Jamie's slum apartment is on the 1100 block of South Street. Her neighborhood is South Street, circa 1981 or so. They didn't need to doctor it up to make it look run down, trust me. My friends and I used to hang on the other side of the barrier and watch them film those scenes you see in the flick. Fun Times.
An old neighborhood theatre - that was home to the region's Jewish community - known as the Theatre of Living Arts began to show underground films. It quickly became the center of the street and the center of the arts community. Here's a fact many don't know about the TLA: it began in the early 1950s as a legit repertory house founded by Logan Ramsey and his wife, the actress Anne Ramsey (Momma in "Throw Momma From the Train")!!

Behind the TLA was an old barnhouse that started to have nightly meetings for the newly-organized gay community. This was the beginning of the first Gay Community Center for Philly. The strongest memory of my first visit to the Center is that of a mix of scents: old mildew and wood. The place was definately not as sleek as the William Way Center (1315 Spruce) is today.

In 1981 the Center moved to the corner of Camac and Locust - in the basement of the fleabag Lincoln Apartments, in what used to be some old speakeasy but was now a roach-infested series of rooms that people used for meetings and social events. I co-founded Philly's first gay youth group there in 1981, but that's another post. Let's get back to South Street.

So - it's 1978 and I am already a regular on South Street. I went to a ton of films at the TLA, and became part of the freaky fanbase every Saturday night for the midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (for a bit, I even played Brad!).

I wound up attending my first club experience at The Hot Club in 1979 - in celebration of my 16th birthday! I have no clue who I heard play that night - but I was hooked on the music and the scene and spent all my waking moments volunteering to be part of the 'poster army'.

Back then, pre-Xerox, creating posters for gigs was an art - and involved a lot of silkscreening. Instead of using blank paper, you'd go buy some cheap ass coloring books and use those pages as a base and work right overtop of the art. It took forever and my gig was to walk around and hang em ... keep in mind, this was before any free weekly press - no City Paper or Weekly. The Welcomat was around - but they were so square. So, the only way to reach the fans was to whitewash a wall and cover it with flyers. By being part of the Poster Army, I got to see a lot of shows. I'll post another time about the live music.

But South Street. It was my home. I was accepted there. They didn't care that I was gay. They didn't care that I was a punk. It was a family. I spent much of my senior year in high school hanging on the street with my friends. Once I graduated in June 1980 - I was always in Center City and finally got my first apartment at 834 Bainbridge in 1981. It was some newly-developed house in the middle of a ghetto. I was smack dab in what was the beginning of the 1980s gentrafication of the area. My landlord was this gay man around 40 who was buying up old spaces and remodeling them and then renting them out to other gay men. There were a few wealthy gay men doing the same thing. It was the lavender real estate movement and there I was - with not a clue. (haha)

At the time I was an assistant manager of a discount drugstore at the corner of 21st and Chestnut so after work I would hang with Anita and her husband - who owned Armacord ... a great new wave clothing shop on Walnut near 21st. Then there was Rose, who had her own new wave clothing shop around the corner on 20th street. And of course I spent much of my time (and money) at the punk shops on South -- Skinz being the most well known ... until Zipperhead, that is.

I guess it's fitting that I remain on the 'hippest street in town' ... even though it no longer is what it was ... what is comforting is that, to this day, I continue to spend my creative time producing parties and events that happen on my street...

South Street.


Anonymous said...

God! How I had LOVED South Street before it became what it has! I loved the casual, do your own thing vibe. I was one of the little punks going down there, seeing movies at the TLA, Rocky Horror (Take three steps, turn around and sing!)

brandy101 said...

OK< I just found this post...and HAD to contribute a comment or two ;)

My sister (and fellow former-college-DJ-New Wave/indie rock chick) used to live right off South as well. South & 5th, I'm thinking; she was between South & Pine. she's has a home in Bella Vista just a few blocks away. She adores the 'hood.

Not too many years ago she had a regular column in the Phila. Daily News and occasionally wrote for Philly Weekly (she's a former editor there, from her grad school days.) Apparently her name came up at a City Council meeting after that crazy Mardi Gras quasi-"riot" on South Stree in 2001! She was blamed by one City Coucilman for "inciting a riot" as she had written a PR/"fun things to do" piece highlight a Mardi Gras party/concert/event of some sort at some Irish bar on South. My sister: the troublemaker! hahaha!

Slam said...

My Aunt had a house on Fitzwater & 6th. I grew up visiting her and hanging out on South St. I even lived there from about 86-89.