Pierce Street, 1950: They remember it well

Posted: January 19, 2013

Last week, The Inquirer published a photograph of a South Philadelphia street scene, taken by Evening Bulletin photographer Bruce Murray Jr. No one anticipated how much excitement the picture would generate. Call me crazy, but I believe we live in a city of nostalgia. Phone and e-mail messages came in from dozens of folks who were sure they knew the street, year, and people in the photo. Almost everyone got it right - except us.

It was a 1950 photograph - not 1943 as originally identified - showing the 2200 block of Pierce Street, between Mifflin and Tasker. Though many said this photo showed a July 4th celebration, callers reminded us that there was a Pierce Street block party every summer Friday night.

Our contacts described a neighborhood so tightly connected that most callers could name 10 people in the shot. It was easy for them since many came from the same families. Oh, Philadelphia! Home of the Gartons, Natalonis, Gattusos, Hanlons, Reagans, Baselices, DiGuiseppes, and many others. Inquirer readers helped us identify nearly 90 of the picture's 140 faces. Info keeps flowing in.

We had to laugh when we were told this was a "mixed neighborhood." In the 1950s, the term meant that Irish and Italian families shared a block. Mutual pride in their street brought mothers out to scrub the streets and sidewalks. Cleanliness was next to Godliness - and block parties demanded both.

Pierce Street children knew "it took a village" to raise them. Neighbors shared common demands for respect, and stayed committed to covering one another's backs. The notion of a "town watch" was irrelevant. Everyone watched.

The photo depicts carousels that came out each weekend to ride children around the neighborhood. Those kids, now in their 60s and 70s, said this was the thrill of the week. Victor Manuel, retired chief of cardiac surgery at Camden's Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, happened to be one of those kids. This neighborhood defied all stereotypes.

American flags were prominently on display in the photo, and callers explained how deeply they loved their block, city, parish - and country. These were first- and second-generation Americans. Nearly every family lost someone in World War II. Patriotism defined life on the 2200 block of Pierce.

Many callers wondered if The Inquirer would publish photos of other blocks. One West Oak Lane woman insisted I visit her house to see the 1950 photo at right, showing the 1300 block of Kater Street in South Philadelphia. We invite readers, again, to help us identify the people in front of the Crawley Wood Shop. Contact us by e-mailing info@historyofphilly.com or calling 267-324-5381. To view a zoomable version of the photo, click here .

If these photos of our recent ancestors show us anything, it is that these were times of true grit for our hard-nosed town. Learn more about the rich story of Philadelphia from the 1940s to the 1960s in "Promise for a Better City," the next installment of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, which will be broadcast at 7:30 p.m. Thursday on 6ABC.

If you have information about the South Philly photo, visit www.philly.com/1950photo, e-mail info@historyofphilly.com, or call 267-324-5381.

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