On the House | The street where you live, way back when

Posted: July 29, 2007

I've been previewing Ken Burns' 141/2-hour World War II documentary, The War, a little bit at a time over the last month or so because one of the towns it focuses on is my birthplace, Waterbury, Conn.

Frankly, though, from what I've seen, Burns spends more time on Mobile, Ala., Laverne, Minn., and Sacramento, Calif., than he does on Waterbury.

Most parts of the city shown in the film so far disappeared in the flood of 1955 or in the misguided urban-renewal efforts that followed for 50 years. Then again, most of what I see as I drive along Interstate 84 above the city these days is unfamiliar. Factories that employed my parents, relatives and neighbors are now shopping malls or vacant lots.

In one bow to the past, the huge Home Depot south of the highway is on the site of a lumberyard destroyed by a spectacular fire when I was about 7 years old.

So much has changed that Waterbury is only vaguely recognizable. Too bad Channel 12 isn't based in Waterbury, because there would be enough "things that aren't there anymore" to fill out the schedule around the Britcoms and Suze Orman for years.

The four towns on which Burns focuses in The War were chosen because nonnative viewers probably would have no preconceived notions about them.

That rule eliminated Philadelphia, of course, but we have Channel 12 here, so we shouldn't be too disappointed. Still, if you didn't grow up in these parts, it might be interesting to get an idea of how the neighborhood you live in now looked 50, 100 or 200 years ago.

I bought a couple of picture books of old Philadelphia when I lived in Queen Village in the 1980s, to get an idea of what the street looked like when my house was built in 1848.

There are only so many photos you can fit into a book, however, and photography in the early days was not what it is today, so you aren't likely to find what you're looking for anyway.

Sometimes, you do strike gold. For example, a former Waterburian has developed a Web site with photographs and postcards that offer plenty of views of the old factories, the downtown, and the neighborhoods.

And in Philadelphia, there are the city archives, where, at last count, 35,717 of more than two million photos of city life since the late 1800s are available for viewing at www.phillyhistory.org/

PhotoArchive/Home.aspx.

The photo archives are easily searchable by date, neighborhood, street address, and keyword. So if you were interested in what the 400 block of South Third Street looked like in 1911, you would key in those parameters and proceed.

In 1911, if you walked from Pine to Lombard on the west side of Third Street, you'd find the back of St. Peter's Church, the churchyard, an alley, the George M. Wharton Public School, a three-story rowhouse, and a four-story corner building with a store and apartments above it.

If you travel through time to 1935, the church and the school are there, but the two structures next to the school are not. (They and another rowhouse next to the corner building on Lombard Street were being razed in the 1911 photo).

In their place stands a playground filled with children. But five years later, the school was gone, and the space was a parking lot (as it is today) surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence.

Turn-of-the-20th-century photos of the Head House at Second Street between Pine and Lombard show an enclosed market filled with food purveyors.

An interior view, taken in 1947, shows an abandoned market filled with debris. Today, the Shambles, as the stalls behind the Head House were called when they were built in 1745, is home to a farmers' market on Sundays from July 1 to Thanksgiving.

There are plenty of other vintage photos of other neighborhoods, and more coming online every day.

Waterbury, they're not, but they're fascinating just the same.


"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

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