Phlânerie in Philly: The greatest hits of my High School years

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MARC Rider

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A few weeks ago, during one of the few days in August that had tolerable temperatures, I spent a day in Philly, partly as an excuse to ride the train, and partly as an exercise in flânerie, that fancy French term for bumming around (but making acute observations of modern urban life.) As with all flânerie, I didn't start out with any objectives in mind, but as a ascended from the bowels of SEPTA at Jefferson Station, I started walking through my old neighborhood, where I lived while I was in High School, and my first 3 years of college, from 1966 to 1975. This was mainly the area south of Market Street, north of South Street, west of Second Street and east of 10th Street. We moved to the area just after I finished 7th grade because my Dad, who worked at a hospital nearby, was sick of his commute on Pennsylvania's Longest Parking Lot, aka, I-76, aka the Schuylkill Expressway, aka, the "Sure-Kill" Crawlway. The neighborhood started gentrifying at that time, but housing prices were still reasonable, so my parents though, "why not?"

I booked myself up on business class on the Vermonter. Leaves Baltimore at about 8:45 AM, gets into Philly a little before 10. I booked a somewhat overpriced business class in order to take advantage of the 2x1 seating and didn't mind paying a bit more, as I have TQP to buy if I want to make Select Plus this year, and I don't think any Long-distance trips are on the Horizon before the end of December. I was impressed by how full the train was. I think I snagged one of the last seats left in the business class section. The other thing to realize is that they haven't restored all of the North East Regional service, and before Covid, there was a NY-WAS Northeast Regional that ran right before or after the Vermonter. Now the Vermonter serves both people going to Vermont and also people going up to New York. However, it's consist is only 5 coaches and the half café-half business class car. A normal Northeast Regional consist is 5 coaches, a full café, and a full business class car. This, I think it's a lot easier to fill up the train. I may have had one of the last seats, but not the last, as the seat next to me remained open the whole trip. It was the last row in the car, and I was worried I might have a problem with the recline, but it turns out that there's lost of space behind the last row, so there's full recline.

I had eaten breakfast before I left, but I did try out a "Sweet Sam's" Coffee Streusel Cake from the new café menu in addition to my free cup of Business Class coffee. It was pretty good, but very sweet.

We got up to 30th St. at about 10 AM, more or less on schedule. I did a quick run around the food court, mainly to see what was open. The Pret a Manger and the Au Bon Pain have reopened, in addition to Wendy's and Jersey Mike's Subs, plus Dunkin Donuts. I think there was one other place open, but many of the stalls are still empty.
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30th Street was the same as always. It would be nice if they could get the Solari Board back, but I guess time marches on.
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They were having some kind of track work on the SEPTA lines heading south. It made boarding the SEPTA trains a little confusing. Passengers going to the Airport or Wilmongton/Newark from Center City had to change trains at 30th St., transferring from the upper SEPTA level to the lower Amtrak level.
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So "people aren't using paper timetables" anymore, eh? The message doesn't seem to have reached SEPTA.

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In the Metropolitan Lounge they have a picture of the ticket counter at 30th St. as it was back in the day. I remember this from my riding the rails in the late 1960s right up until Amtrak Day. I'm not sure when Amtrak renovated the station and replaced this ticket counter. I remember it was all manual, no computers. They had sort of a pre-made plate for each destination served from 30th St., which they pulled out of the racks pictured behind the ticket agent and then printed your ticket. It was $4.50 to Baltimore and $4.25 to New York in coach. I think that's somewhere between $30 and $40 in today's money.

I went upstairs and had to wait about 15 minutes before a Center-City bound train passed through. I had no problem with the faregates because I have a SEPTA Senior Key Card, so I didn't bother with trying to scan my Amtrak ticket. I got off at Jefferson Station and was pleased to see that he old Gallery Mall had reopened under a different name ("Fashion Center," I believe). I went up the stairs and started walking.

As I was walking down 10th St., I made my decision to walk through my old neighborhood, but I was still several blocks away. My first "acute observation of modern urban life" was of the nurses at Jefferson Hospital, obviously on break, treating themselves to ice cream from an ice cream truck. As this was still in the middle of t5he morning, this seemed odd, but then I figured that hospital shifts are so weird that, who know, maybe for these nurses, it was like an afternoon break. I turned down Spruce Street and passed by Pennsylvania Hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751 and now part of the University of Pennsylvania medical system (as opposed to the Jefferson University system). Given that there are 5 medical schools in Philadelphia, I guess it's a good place to get sick. A little farther on, I passed by Mikve Israel Cemetery (1740), one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the US where many notable Jews from the Colonia era are buried. Then I turned down 6th Street and headed toward my old house.

--to be continued
 

railiner

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I remember it was all manual, no computers. They had sort of a pre-made plate for each destination served from 30th St., which they pulled out of the racks pictured behind the ticket agent and then printed your ticket.
I recall those…I believe they were the old Burrough’s Ticketeer machines. The plates were called matrixes. Trailways major stations in the NEC also used them…
 

MARC Rider

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After walking down Spruce Street, I turned south and followed 6th St. over to the General George A. McCall Public School, where I attended 8th grade. I had spent 7th grade in a suburban junior high school, this was a bit different -- only about 25 people in the entire 8th grade class, so even though we moved from teacher to teacher for our different subjects, the kids in the class were always the same. Our homeroom teacher was also our math teacher.

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Despite the big change in the atmosphere of this more diverse city school as compared to my suburban junior high, I did pretty well there. The only time I got into trouble was when my science teacher sent me out to the hall for some small infraction that I don't remember now. When I closed the door behind me, a gust of wind, or differential air pressure, or something like that caused it to close with a rather loud bang, thus making it seem like I had petulantly slammed the door in great disrespect to the teacher. So he charged out, now really mad at me, and dragged me down to the principal, a real old-school kind of guy. So I get "suspended," which means I get to go home and can't come back to school unless accompanied with a parent. The principal asked me, "who gives out the beatings in your family?" That was the person he wanted me to bring to school the next day. This provided a bit of a quandary for me, as my parents didn't believe in hitting their kids, except in self-defense. I had to think fast. I couldn't tell him that my parents didn't believe in beating their kids, or he might have called Child Protective Services, but I also couldn't let him think that my Dad was such a wimp that he let my Mom do the beatings. So I told him that my Dad was the one, which meant Dad had to take off work the next morning and bring me into school, where we had a very nice talk with the principal, where I made the proper groveling apology, and all was forgiven. But the principal was an OK guy, he liked to play chess with the kids, which he did with me, and beat me like drum. So I guess I did get beaten for my misbehavior, after all.

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While we were very conscious of history in our neighborhood, after all the United States was started here, here's a little even that I never knew about in my day, and it happened on the block where I lived.

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While the neighborhood was the home of free Blacks in the era before the Civil War, by 1900 it was more or less the Philadelphia equivalent of the Lower East Side of New York. When we moved there in 1966, a lot of the old Jewish immigrant ambience remained, although the gentrification was moving rapidly. This structure was the Vilna Congregation, a small housefront synagogue on Pine Street, a block from our house. No, we were not members, we went to Society Hill Synagogue on Spruce Street, which was originally a Romanian congregation that passed its historic building on to our congregation of "heretical" non-Orthodox Jews. However, I did have an experience here, too.

Right after we moved into the neighborhood, we were to attend services on Saturday back in our old suburban synagogue to celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of my Hebrew school classmates whose parents were also friends of mine. I had already had my bar mitzvah a couple of months earlier, so now I was a "man" and had a fancy new 3-piece suit to prove it. We were about to drive off when my Mom realized we didn't have a card for the gift, so she sent me down to the corner drugstore a block away to buy one. Which I did, but a 13-year-old kid walking down the street on the semi-gentrified fringes of South Philly on Saturday morning in a 3-piece suit was a bit conspicuously out of place. As I was walking back to the house, an old guy stopped me and said in a thick Yiddish accent, "Hey kid, are you Jewish?" When I nodded to the affirmative, he asked, "you Bar Mitzvah?" which I nodded to the affirmative. "Great!" he said, "we need you for a minyan, just a couple of minutes." A "minyan" is the minimum quorum of 10 adult (or at least 13 year old or up) men needed to properly conduct certain parts of Jewish religious services. He dragged me over to the Vilna Congregation, which had a really nice cozy chapel-like sanctuary inside but was obviously on its last legs with the old guys from the old days the only people remaining, and they couldn't even scrounge up 10 guys to conduct the service. They took me in and even gave me a Torah honor, which I had only had once before in my life, at my Bar Mitzvah. I will say, they really pounded through the ritual pretty quickly, at least compared to my experiences at our synagogue, where our Cantor was a little more operatic. I was, of course, a little concerned that my parents might have wondered where I went but hoped that the fact that the prayers were done quickly might allow me to return before they noticed.

Of course, I was wrong. As I rounded the corner of 5th and Pine and walked down the street to my house, I saw a police cruiser with a flashing light parked in front and my father in worried discussion with the officer. They were, of course, relieved when they saw me strolling down the street, but I am eternally grateful that my parents didn't believe in corporal punishment. On the other hand, how could they punish me for doing such a good deed helping these old guys meet their religious obligations? It goes without saying that we missed my friend's bar mitzvah ceremony (but not the luncheon afterward), but my parents said that when they told the rabbi the reason why, he smiled.

By this point, I had passed the house where I lived from 1966 through 1975 and I decided that my flânerie would consist of tracing the route I used to take when I walked the family dog every evening at about 10 PM when I got home from my after-school job. Well, that route with a few detours to see some of the sights and also to get a nice cheesesteak for lunch.

-to be continued
 
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I always like seeing photos of 30th st. station. It's a real classic and especially like that it is still mainly a transportation center and doesn't try to be a mall like Washington.

Growing up in Wilmington my parents often took me to Philly for shopping or a ball game. I still remeber the shoppers special ticket was $2.50 round trip. And I recall too those elaborate ticket counters with racks showing space available in Pullmans for the many long distance trains, most of which required a trip to North Philadelphia to connect.
 

MARC Rider

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So, back in the day, I had an after-school job that ran from 6 to 10 PM schoolnights. After I got home, my family job was to give the dog his evening walk. I would ask him, "do you want to take a walk?" and he would bark excitedly, run to the doir, and sit quietly while I snapped on the leash. Yep, call me Dr. Pavlov, though I'm not sure whether it was the dog or me who was being trained.

The walk ran north up 5th St. to right behind Independence Hall, then I'd turn into the historical park, and walk through to 3rd. Street, follow Dock St. to the Society Hill Towers that interrupt 2nd St., South on Second St. past Head House Square, then back up Lombard St. to Home. Most of the area is pretty much the same today as it was back in 1970, except that what was a vacant lot along Dock St. is now the Philadelphia Marriott Old City Hotel.

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This is the Curtiss Publishing Building on 6th St. right behind Independence Hall. For years, this is where they turned out the Saturday Evening Post. By 1976 the building housed the offices of EPA Region 3, that is, all the EPA local activities for PA, MD, DE, DC, VA, WV. I walked in in September 1976 with a freshy minted BS in Geology "interviewing for information" (i.e., looking for a job.) It's hard to believe that I was able to just waltz right in, tell the receptionists what I was looking for, and a few minutes later finding myself in a private office with a management type who was perfectly happy to tell me how to go about applying for a job, even if there were none immediately available. He also told me a lot about EPA, and what it was like to work there, and all sorts of other useful things. I'm not sure where the current EPA Region 3 office is located, but I think that to enter it now would involve biometric ID card operated turnstiles, REAL ID for visitors, airport style security procedures, armed guards, and appointments. Times have changed, and probably not for the better. No, I didn't get a job, but I was advised to try graduate school, which seems to have worked.

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Here's the back on Independence Hall. It was at about this point in a dog walk that happened when I was home for a college break that they were commemorating the bicentennial of the First Continental Congress, which was held in 1774. That evening they decide to set off a really nice fireworks display. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to see too much of it, because the dog freaked out at the first BOOM and dragged me around the walk route very, very quickly. When we got home, he was still panting with nervous fear, and the next evening, when he saw me with the leash, he turned tail and ran under a couch. All that Pavlonian training, gone with a single fireworks discharge.

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Here's the other site of Independence Hall. Back in the day, you could just wander right in and see the room where they signed the Declaration of Independence and debated the Constitution. The Liberty Bell was mounted on the first floor right under the bell tower, and visitors could just walk right up to it and touch it if they wanted. Now it's all crowd control barriers, and you need to take a timed tour to see the inside, and the Bell is located in a separate pavilion, which is located right next to the site where the President's House stood when Philly was the US capital between 1790 and 1800.

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Well, here's the Liberty Bell. The crack is on the other side, but the lighting didn't make for good pictures on that side. The Bell, by the way, didn't have any particular significance until the Abolitionists started using it as a symbol in the 1840s or thereabouts.

Right by the entrance to the Liberty Bell there's an archeological excavation of the 1790-1800 President's House. There were some interesting explanatory panels, including a description of the machinations that George Washington used to bring his slaves there (and keep them) in violation of the 1780 Pennsylvania Emancipation Law that only allowed people to bring their slaves in for 6 months or less. Basically, he rotated them in and out of Pennsylvania every 6 months. Anyway, this is stuff we never learned in high school history class, and it happened right in my hometown.

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Here we are looking down Dock St. at the Society Hill Towers. By this point, I had made a detour over to Market St. to stop by Sonny's Famous Steaks to pick up lunch. I was going to find a nice park bench to sit and eat. Back in the day, I'd be walking the dog up the steps through the trees and check out the view from the bluff where the Towers stand...

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Nowadays, I guess my dog and I would be a lot less welcome. :)

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Here's a 200+ year old house typical of the neighborhood. Back in the 1960s you could buy one of these for a couple of thousand dollars if you would commit to fixing it up in an authentic manner (at least on the outside). The neighborhood was basically a slum, but it's not anymore. I know I can't afford to live there.

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This is the Headhouse of the New market. The market dates from 1745, the headhouse was built in 1804 and contains the oldest firehouse in the US. (Well, it's not a firehouse anymore, but rather a community center.) A block past this is Lombard Street where my dog and I would turn right and head for home, but on this day, I went an extra block down to South Street and explored some of the more recently gentrified areas in Queen Village and other parts of South Philly.

-more to come
 

Joe from PA

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We live 8 miles West of Phila. Back in the early 1960s, I was attending The Philadelphia Collage of Art at Broad and Pine. Had apartments at 9th and Pine, then at 11th and Spruce. Was born in Queens NYC, so I've had some city life.
 
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I love the Curtis Publishing Building! Partly because of its Saturday Evening Post history, partly because it’s a peaceful place to take a break on my walks (although much shorter than yours!) in that area, sitting in front of a lovely mural.
 

MARC Rider

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Now the Vermonter serves both people going to Vermont and also people going up to New York. However, it's consist is only 5 coaches and the half café-half business class car. A normal Northeast Regional consist is 5 coaches, a full café, and a full business class car.
I've really got to proofread these things before I post them. While the Vermonter consist that day was only 5 coaches and the BC/cafe car, a normal Northeast Regional has six coaches, plus the cafe, plus a full BC car. Thus, the capacity of a Vermonter trainset is less than that of a normal Northeast Regional, which means that if they're using the Vermonter to sub for a Northeast Regional, it's going to be more crowded than the usual train.
 
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