Rich History Paves A Path For Renewal Volunteers Will Descend On Germantown Avenue, Tackling Years Of Decay Along The Way. This Is The First In A Series.

Posted: April 20, 1997

Once they simply called it the Great Road, this twisting cobblestone street of factories and storefronts, row houses and stone homes that winds its way from the Delaware River's edge out beyond the Morris Arboretum's serene stretches of green.

German settlers found a haven on this road, which led from their country settlement into the heart of the old city.

Revolutionary soldiers died here fighting to keep that city safe. Runaway slaves found refuge here.

Once they called Germantown Avenue the Great Road. Now they are coming to rescue it.

Next Sunday, to kick off the Presidents' Summit, thousands of volunteers will descend on the avenue for a cleanup - from Cumberland Street in Fairhill to the Montgomery County line.

As they paint, plant trees and pick up trash, they will see an avenue of contrasts - old and new, rich and poor, wearing its history proudly in some places, burdened by the ruins of the past in others. As regular as the tides, the blocks of Germantown change from village to wasteland, decay to revival.

Some hope the cleanup will spark more effort down the road. Others call it a photo op. Many say you can't tackle three centuries of wear and tear with six hours of paintbrushes and trash bags and attention.

Summit organizers chose Germantown Avenue for the cleanup because it cuts through so many neighborhoods and because of its history. But it is the history, more than anything, that shows the limits of what they can do.

The tale of Germantown Avenue, after all, is the tale of Philadelphia - from its proud early years as William Penn's ``holy experiment'' to the industrial boom that made it ``the workshop of the world'' to the lean times that came later, when jobs and workers went elsewhere and poverty crept into the gaps they left behind.

* Across from the Texaco station where Joe Bolden works on Germantown Avenue just above Allegheny, the bucket of a city-hired crane claws again and again into a ragged line of row houses.

``About 30 years ago, this was a beautiful neighborhood, but not now,'' says Bolden, 58, shaking his head slowly.

Thud. Down comes a chunk of wall. Another thud. The claw rips open a third-floor bedroom. A squatter just kicked out by police stands dazed, cardboard suitcase in hand. Neighbors say there were others in there - drug dealers and prostitutes and addicts. And, as they watch the pile of rubble grow, people from the nearby blocks are cheering. Rubble is an improvement here.

But someone loved this block once. You can see it in the curved cut-outs atop the mostly boarded-up brick buildings. You can see it, too, in the carved stone medallion: J.P. Mathieu Block 1903. But no one remembers J.P. Mathieu or the business he once ran here.

In 1930, this block was home to a confectioner, a bird shop, a theater, a restaurant, a cigar company, a hardware store, a tailor, a barber, a jeweler, a shoeshiner. Among others.

In the '60s, Bolden says, pointing to one boarded-up storefront, ``that was a restaurant.'' He points again. ``That used to be a grocery store. That one there was a cleaner's. Oh, it don't seem like the same place anymore.''

He points to where a movie theater once stood, then sighs.

``You know, this is how it went. People started going out of the neighborhood. This got boarded up. That got boarded up. This caught on fire. That caught on fire. Till it got so nobody cared anymore. That's when the drugs moved in. You see the rest.''

* Once, more than three centuries ago, this was a different kind of wilderness, of trees and woods and meadows. What is now Germantown Avenue was a Leni-Lenape Indian path.

In 1683, 13 German families settled along this path in what is now Germantown, on 6,000 acres purchased from William Penn. Quakers and Mennonites, their numbers quickly grew to include members of other religious sects, drawn to the freedoms of the new land. In 1691, German Township was incorporated, encompassing what is now Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. Many of its residents were skilled artisans, weaving linen, spinning wool and making stockings. Theirs was the first German settlement in the colonies.

Back then, it was a place of firsts.

Led by the settlement's founder, a scholar and lawyer named Francis Daniel Pastorius, a group of Germantown Friends wrote the colony's first protest against slavery in 1688. In 1690, a Dutch settler named William Rittenhouse started America's first paper mill along the Monoshone Creek, using linen rags. In 1743, printer Christopher Sauer produced the first American Bible in German.

At first, the settlement was isolated, but the city quickly discovered its advantages. Germantown wool and linen earned a name throughout the colonies. And starting in 1744, with John Wister's still-standing Grumblethorpe, city dwellers escaping Philadelphia's heat and congestion began building large summer estates among the first settlers' small stone houses. During yellow fever epidemics in the 1790s, they poured in; among them was George Washington - who moved the government to Germantown for a month in 1793.

In 1777, the Revolution raged. The British army, camped in Germantown, set its sights on Philadelphia, the colonial capital and commercial hub. The troops prepared to attack. But Washington and his forces struck first, launching the Battle of Germantown Oct. 4, 1777, in what is now Mount Airy. At first, Washington's troops did well, but their luck turned down the Great Road.

* It is early morning, and the fog is made thicker by the dusty road and the smoke from each musket blast. American cannonballs come crashing through the wooden front doors and the windows of Benjamin Chew's two-story gray stone house, now called Cliveden. All over Germantown, residents huddle in the darkness of their cellars. Soon, soldiers' bodies are strewn across the grounds, mingling with the limbs of lawn statues caught in the gunfire.

Not just here, but up and down the Great Road, the battle thunders through.

For three hours, Washington's troops try to storm the house and set it on fire. But the house's heavy stone walls stand firm. Finally, Washington's troops pull back. And the British march to the city.

Elsewhere the Revolution continues, and the British - who thought victory in Philadelphia would snuff out the rebellion - found the forces of freedom too great.

That battle is long over. But on the avenue, new battles - against crime, joblessness and poverty - still rage. Remnants of the past are everywhere in modern-day Germantown. The avenue is a National Historic Landmark, and between 500 and 600 colonial houses still stand in Germantown, says Barbara Silberman, who directs the Germantown Historical Society. There is no way to hold onto them all.

``It really comes down to what's important, what priority preservation has when there are no jobs, no food on the table,'' Silberman says.

* Vernon Park, just above Chelten Avenue, is John Sgrillo's battleground - eight acres of public space, an 18th-century mansion, a senior center and monuments. A few decades back, it was a well-groomed, comfortable place with a bandstand for concerts. But then the city stopped tending the grounds, and by the late 1980s, the winos and the addicts seemed to have taken the park from the neighborhood as stubbornly as the British troops took Cliveden. A great public space was slipping away.

Sgrillo, 66, is president of the Friends of Vernon Park, who refused to let that happen.

Bit by bit, in the 1990s, they got grant money, mostly from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. They cleaned up trash, removed the benches and fences that the winos and druggies had claimed, scrubbed graffiti, pruned long-neglected trees.

Sgrillo, who moved here 40 years ago, loves his neighborhood's old houses and diversity, its proximity to Center City. But the park is just one example of the problems now hovering around his home.

Change is gradual. But by the 1980s, it was bad. ``You wake up one day and suddenly you have what looks like a vacant lot instead of a park,'' he said.

The neighborhood was changing, too, Sgrillo and other residents point out, especially the shopping area right at Germantown Avenue and Chelten.

Back in the day, old-timers like to tell you, someone spoke of the avenue and you automatically knew which one. As late as the 1950s, you put your gloves on to walk its blocks. Haberdashery, furniture, dresses, hats - the avenue had it all.

Now, some complain, the intersections are blaring discount cities. Cut-rate vitamins, shoes, baby clothes. Cheap things, cheaply made. Fast food, too - fast eaten, fast forgotten. This is all many people can afford.

For decades at Germantown and Chelten, there was Rowell's department store, where you could get a good tuxedo. Linton's restaurant. Movie houses. All gone now.

By the early 1960s, white residents were fleeing the city for the suburbs and huge new shopping centers. Plymouth Meeting Mall opened in 1962. By the end of the 1970s, the Germantown shopping district had lost Rowell's and Allens department stores, Sears and Linton's. In 1984, J.C. Penney left, too.

``It was like a domino effect. Central Germantown was a veritable ghost town. So people were happy to see anyone come in, any kind of life here,'' says Michael Moore, of the Germantown Special-Services District, in which property owners pay a tax for extra civic improvements. ``The problem is people still aren't spending their dollars here.''

A survey at King of Prussia mall in October found Germantown residents among the mall's most frequent visitors.

Bit by bit, though, Vernon Park is coming back. People stop Sgrillo on the street to tell him so.

``It gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction,'' he says.

The park can be reclaimed and Germantown is still a good place to live, Sgrillo says. But parts of the avenue are too far gone - such as the 1900 block, where he grew up above his father's candy store.

``That was a wonderful neighborhood - German Jews, Russian Jews, Italians, blacks. All the factories,'' he says. ``Now it's deserted. The house I lived in has been torn down. Most of that block has been demolished. The houses got so neglected, they fell down.

``It's a beautiful avenue, the potential for it . . . it's heartbreaking.''

* Once, Philadelphia was the country's industrial powerhouse - producing everything from machinery to woolen goods to steel. From the mid-1800s through the early part of this century, its factories and giant mills were cutting edge, using the latest in management and assembly-line techniques. Its railways and rivers connected it to the wide world. And, because Philadelphia wasn't a one-product town, it could weather market fluctuations.

Germantown was famous for its mills. And just below it, at Wayne Junction, where the Philadelphia and Reading Railways and the Pennsylvania railways converged in the mid-1800s, factories sprang up everywhere. Midvale Steel. Burpee seeds. The Saquoit Silk Mills. The Glen Echo Mills.

``This is the type of place where a man could work at Midvale, his wife could work at Saquoit. They could get a pretty good lifestyle out of this, get a row house, go to the seashore for a few weeks in the summer,'' says George Thomas, an architectural historian at the University of Pennsylvania.

The other end of the avenue, down by the Delaware, was equally dense with factories, producing everything from railway parts to leather goods.

The John B. Stetson hat factory - which bordered Germantown Avenue at Montgomery Street - employed 3,500 people at its peak, in the 1920s.

But Philadelphia didn't stake out its claim to being the most modern manufacturing town. Early this century, the city got a little too confident in its success.

``It falls apart over about 80 years, beginning around 1910, when the children of industrialists, many of whose parents and grandparents had been engineers, start going to Princeton and Harvard to study art and literature. Philadelphia begins to lose its cutting edge,'' says Thomas. ``By 1950, we've lost two generations of engineers and our factories are still basically relying on 1910 and 1920 technology - which back then made them the most efficient factories in the world. Suddenly, after the war, Europe and Japan reindustrialize and we just can't keep up.''

* Stand on Germantown Avenue and Cumberland Street where next Sunday's cleanup will begin and go back about 80 years. Imagine that the four-story Breyers Ice Cream Factory that now sits empty is churning out ice cream - as much as 150,000 quarts a week. Horse-drawn wagons gather outside as delivery men load big metal cans of the cool treat onto piles of ice and salt. All around are new row houses, grocery stores, candy shops, clothing stores, churches.

Trolleys rumble up the avenue. You can hear trains about a block away. Workers are heading home. Everyone is moving.

Breyers left the neighborhood in 1926. Faded signs show a moving company came in later. Now the old plant is deserted, as are most of the industrial buildings around it.

In the shadow of the plant, in the triangle formed by Germantown Avenue, Ninth Street and Cumberland, Anderson A2Z Convenience Store, a concrete-block market and gas station, sits alone.

On a heavy steel door inside Anderson A2Z, a handwritten sign offers, ``Inflation Beater: Loose Eggs - 15 Cents Each.''

Behind the counter, behind the thick bulletproof glass that separates one side of the counter from the other, Phyllis Montgomery sighs.

``It's like selling loose cigarettes. I thought we got beyond that until I got here,'' says Montgomery, 47, as she perches on a high stool, old black-and-white spewing static at her elbow, candy racks lining the wall at her back.

The junk food's big with the junkies, who prowl with the prostitutes and drunks in the vampire hours of morning, Montgomery says. The store is open all the time, mostly to protect the shiny gas pumps.

If you want a loose egg or some candy, Montgomery will fetch it for you as she fetches everything - sliding it onto a Plexiglas carousel and spinning the open slot your way, just as soon as you put the money in on your side. The Plexiglas and the steel doors keep Montgomery inside, and the outside world where it should be - safely outside.

``Wooden doors, they can shoot right through,'' she explains.

Montgomery works for Joseph Anderson, a securities broker who grew up with her in the Richard Allen homes. Anderson says he grew up with few examples of people working. And a few years back, when he and friends began to list the other boys they'd grown up with, only a handful had survived the city streets. So he opened A2Z last April, hoping by his own example to plant a little possibility on these sad blocks.

He mortgaged his house, cashed in stocks, and bought a broken-down auto shop. He brought in heavy machinery to dig up rotting gas tanks. He put in four shiny gas islands.

Vandals pulled out his security fence. He had to seal off the shop's service bays with concrete. It wasn't easy. And in the end, it doesn't look like much.

He hardly notices. One day, he says, he might add a Laundromat and maybe a little community center - where he can give free seminars on financing and investing and pulling yourself up. A father of six, with one daughter at Penn State and another about to head to Spellman College, he wants people to see options in their lives. And he wants people around the city to see what he sees.

Long after the volunteers have left Germantown Avenue, the problems that brought them there will remain. Avenue residents will walk by new murals, play in a new playground, maybe see less graffiti along their well-worn blocks. But the bigger problems, the ones formed by city flight, dwindling jobs, crime and drugs, will stay rooted - and residents such as Joe Anderson will struggle against them daily.

``If you want to start an army, you have to start with a platoon of one,'' he says. ``So I say, `I'm one business. Come and join me. Come around me. See what I'm trying to do.' ''

Once, they called it the Great Road. Now, Anderson dreams.

Tomorrow: Religious faith nourishes a sense of community on a worn avenue.

PHILADELPHIA ONLINE * For a complete guide to the Presidents' Summit, visit The Inquirer's site on the Internet:

comments powered by Disqus