“Looking for treasures and being boys” sums up how Christopher Stevens (b. 1964) and his friends spent their childhood in Society Hill. Born when his parents were completing construction of their house at 116 Delancey Street, they rode their bikes and walked everywhere.
In this way they explored Mariners’ Church, which was falling down, and the big highway, Interstate 95, which was under construction. In the family car with their parents, they visited grandparents in Allentown and Lancaster and went camping in Quakertown. With their neighbors, they played pickup ball games and had a community vegetable garden. Chris and his best friend shuttled between one another’s houses by climbing over a brick wall. There were lots of children in the neighborhood, and Chris knew them all. He recalls the babysitting co-op, which operated on a point system rather than cash and was tremendously popular with both parents and children.
Chris attended McCall’s School for a few years, and after the Philadelphia public school teachers’ strikes started, he attended Friends Central in the suburbs. Later, he attended a school in Wallingford. Most of the students in the school in Wallingford lived in the suburbs and “were wary of the city, were unsure, didn’t really have the confidence to … go to the city by themselves to check out all the museums and the Liberty Bell.” Chris showed them around the city, introducing them to some of the museums and sites. The boys enjoyed the experience. Chris says he was never afraid of being in the city. “I think it just made us smarter, as city people, because we knew to have eyes in the back of our head…. By living in the city, we learned a lot more defenses on how to protect ourselves as an individual, versus being somewhat sheltered.”
He relates an interesting, if somewhat harrowing, story of a time when he was going home from school by the subway and was mugged by a young black man; but with the help of a black couple was able to escape.
DS: This is an interview on December 15, 2008, with Christopher Stevens, my son, who lives in Carson City, Nevada, and my name is Dorothy Stevens.
Christopher, tell me about your beginnings.
CS: My parents rented a house at 240 Delancey Street while they were building the 116 Delancey Street house. I was born May of 1964, and we moved into the 116 Delancey Street house in the fall of 1965. I have two younger brothers. Gregory was born in 1966 and Jason was born in 1970. The family attended St. Peter’s Church at Third (1:00) and Pine [Streets]. [I] grew up playing in Three Bears Park at Third and Delancey [Streets] and at Starr Gardens at Sixth and Lombard [Streets]. [I] went to many museums as a child: the Natural Science museum, the Zoo, the Franklin Institute [and] to the main library for reading groups there. That was the beginning. As I grew older, I did a lot of exploring of the old, historical area of Society Hill in Mariners Church, which was at the corner of Front and Delancey Streets. It had old wells in the basement and old glass bottles and different treasures that you could find there. We played – (2:00)
DS: Was this before the church fell down?
CS: This was when the church was –
DS: Already had fallen?
CS: Halfway –
DS: Oh, halfway.
CS: It [the dilapidated church] continued on over the years. I believe they brought the walls down, so then it was just a hole in the ground. All you saw was the basement. They had fencing around it, and we would get past the fencing. We would go into the basement, which was not very safe, but we were looking for treasures and being boys.
DS: Where else did you do this kind of treasure hunting and digging? (3:00)
CS: Where I-95 is right now had been cleared for just a dirt lot. I guess there used to be old houses down there; you could dig down there and find some of the equipment and machines.
DS: Old tools?
CS: Old tools were there, but they had a lot of the heavy equipment that they had used, loaders and –
DS: Tractors and things, you mean, to clear the –
CS: Tractors and stuff like that to clear the area were still there, being stored, so we’d climb on those. Just kind of goofing around. We biked around the neighborhood quite a bit [and] walked all over the place, searching out different areas of the neighborhood. In the summer, we went to summer day camp at the synagogue, between Fourth and Fifth on Spruce. (4:00)
DS: Society Hill Synagogue?
CS: Society Hill Synagogue. Then as I got older, [my] parents had a car, so we had the capability of going outside of town. We went over to New Jersey to the Pine Barrens and did canoeing day trips over there. We’d go biking in Ridley Creek in parks there that had steep hills and streams and rivers and wooded areas. It was kind of fun to get out there in the parks. Then I-95 started to be constructed; it was (5:00) going through the very end of our block on Delancey Street. We could take our bikes out on it and ride as far as the –
DS: Navy yard?
CS: The Navy yard. Then it [I-95] was where the bridge is now. They hadn’t finished that part, so we’d have to turn around and come back. It was fun to be on this big, four-lane highway riding our bikes with no vehicles on it. We used to love doing that. We went camping in Quakertown on farmland. We did a lot of visiting of my grandparents in Lancaster County and also in Allentown. When I was older, I went to summer camps in the state of Maine. We had no organized sports like they do today. We (6:00) just kind of threw together games with all the kids in the neighborhood, like street hockey in back parking lots, up at the Society Hill Towers. We played some touch football on some empty lots where Newmarket is now and also where I-95 was being built. We used to go up to the grass at Society Hill Towers and play on their grass until the security guards would ask us to leave, because they didn’t want us messing up their green grass. We went to the community center and played basketball and some shoot-around games there. (7:00)
DS: Where was the community center?
CS: That [Old Pine Community Center] was at Fourth and Lombard. [It] was a new thing to do. My dad organized some soccer games, kind of playing around on Saturday at the northeast corner of Fourth and Lombard. We had community vegetable gardens, also at Fourth and Lombard [northwest corner], where we used to grow vegetables and enjoy that. There were plenty of kids in the neighborhood. My best friend was over the back wall of our house. He lived on Pine Street. (8:00)
DS: Danny Dodd?
CS: Danny Dodd. We used to jump the back brick wall to go to each other’s houses without having to walk around the block. He and I would venture all over town.
There were plenty of other kids in the neighborhood. There seemed to be quite a few kids. I originally got to know all of them through play groups. A couple of different families in the neighborhood that had kids would take turns doing play – pre-kindergarten – groups where we got together. We played in groups and did crafts and the things they do with younger kids to keep them occupied. I don’t (9:00) know if we did math games, but we did hand-eye coordination – probably toys and stuff like that. We got to know a lot of the other kids through that interaction with these other families and being at other families’ houses.
Then there was a baby-sitting co-op that used a point system, where if my parents needed time off, they’d take us to [another family’s] house. It was never a money thing. It just worked out point-wise as to who needed to do the next stint or something; [it] gave my mom and dad some free time to get other things done around the neighborhood.
Then we get to the schooling. I went from kindergarten to second grade at (10:00) McCall School, which is on Sixth Street, between Pine and Spruce [Streets]. In 1969 to ’71, McCall’s went through quite a [few] teachers’ strikes and so we were out of school quite a bit, not getting the education that we needed. A lot of the neighborhood parents decided that they could not do that anymore. That’s when a lot of my friends started going to schools outside Philadelphia, into the suburbs. I went to Friends Central out on [City Avenue in Wynnewood] which –
DS: How did you get there?
CS: – [was] a Quaker school. I got there by bus – school bus, which picked (11:00) up in our neighborhood. I had to walk like two blocks to get to the bus. Then junior and high school, I [went to] junior and high school in the suburbs also, in Wallingford.
DS: How did you get there?
CS: I got there by train.
DS: This was junior high school and high school?
DS: You went out to the suburbs by train.
CS: School bus and then mass transportation train to the suburbs. A lot of the kids in my neighborhood went to different places. We didn’t get broken up as a group (12:00) knowing each other. We just went to different schools, because of all the strikes and inconsistency of the schooling at that time.
DS: During these strikes, I might add, parents who were able would take a group of children and do activities, like we would go to museums. We would plan the week’s events with the children and take a group with us. Several of the mothers did this and organized little mini schools. The kids weren’t idle, but it was a difficult time.
CS: But we didn’t know the difference.
DS: No, the children didn’t know what was going on.
CS: It was all fine by us. Some of the stories about growing up in the city: When I was…. (13:00)
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
CS: When I was in high school, since I was out in the suburbs, a lot of my friends at high school were kind of wary of the city, were unsure, didn’t really have the confidence to feel like they could go to the city by themselves to check out all the museums and the Liberty Bell and stuff like that. Because I was from the city and born and raised there, we would make day trips or weekend trips to the city, and I would show my high school friends around Philadelphia. We’d go over to South Street and, like I said, see the Liberty Bell or go to some of the museums, Franklin Institute. Jim’s Steaks (14:00) for lunch. [We’d] usually come back to the house where we could go swimming, you know, anything that they kind of wanted to do, because they wouldn’t really want to come in [to the city] by themselves.
DS: Were their parents thinking that this was a good thing or surprised? The kids, did they like it?
CS: The kids enjoyed it quite a bit, I think. Their parents were fine with it, because they knew my parents were there and that, you know, everything would be fine.
DS: But they were a bit fearful?
CS: I think they were a bit fearful, because they didn’t really know the city themselves. To have their kids go check it out probably [made them] a little bit nervous and a little bit excited for [their kids], because it wasn’t something that they did, as parents.
DS: This brings up the subject of crime. Were you ever afraid growing up (15:00) in the city?
CS: I don’t think I was ever afraid. Sure, there were a couple of instances, but I never really knew any different. I didn’t know what the suburbs was like crime-wise versus the city. I think it just made us smarter, as city people, because we knew to have eyes in the back of our head. We knew not to stop for anybody, not to make serious eye contact with anybody, because that meant we had a problem with them or something like that. By living in the city, we learned a lot more defenses on how to protect ourselves as an individual, versus being somewhat sheltered.
DS: Chris, tell me the story when you were about eight or nine years old and your new bike. You had just saved up your money and bought yourself a new bike. (16:00)
CS: Yes, I’d gotten a new bicycle. I’d saved my money from doing chores around the neighborhood, and I was out riding it on Second Street between Delancey and Lombard, and two kids went by me going in the other direction. I was by myself, and they were two kids on one bicycle. They went past me, said something. I just kept going, picked up my pace, knowing that this didn’t seem right. I kept going while they turned around and came back and pulled me off my (17:00) bike and told me they wanted my bike. I needed to give it to them. I was reluctant. They then pulled a knife on me and said they were going to take the bike. I’d always been taught you never argue about anything. You just give them what they want, so they took the bike. I went across the street to one of the neighbors that I knew, because nobody was on the street to recognize what was going on, and banged on their door. They answered the door and I said I needed the cops, the police officers. They said, “What happened?” I said, “Well, my bike was just stolen.” They called the cops and the cops came a little while later. By then it was too late. The family I (18:00) went to asked if they needed to come with me or call my mom. I said, “No, I’ll just go fill out this report with the police officer.” I got in the car and I assumed we were going to fill out the police report, but we went out to the precinct, which was out on Spring Garden Street.
DS: Eleventh and Winter.
CS: Eleventh and Winter. I don’t really remember much, except that he dictated a report, what was stolen, what the kids looked like and everything like that. We got back in the police car and the car took me down to 116 Delancey. The car pulled up in front of the house, and my mom and dad were coming out like, “Why’s there a police car in front of the house and why is my son getting out of it?” They were a (19:00) little surprised that all this had gone down without them being notified that [I] had [been] taken all the way to the precinct. It was kind of interesting.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
CS: We had a pool in the back of our house that was built when our house was built. A lot of the [neighboring] houses hadn’t been completed, or they were old historic houses that were part-way dilapidated, or people were working on them. Anyway, there were a couple of empty lots; one in particular was right off of Lombard.
DS: Pine. (20:00)
CS: Off of Pine, sorry. When I was about three or four years old, probably closer to four, some kids were wandering the neighborhood – some black kids – [in the] heat of the summer, hot, looking for stuff to do. [They must have] heard a lot of giggling, carrying on, laughing, kind of like a party, and splashing water. They came through the empty lot and jumped up on our back brick wall. They were watching our parents and friends and us kids swimming in the pool. They just continued to sit up there and watch us. My mom, being aware of all this and not wanting to have her friends have to accommodate a situation, went out there and made a deal with them: if they left at this particular [time] and came back on Monday night, they could swim in the pool on Monday nights. (21:00) That was something that went on for quite a while, where they left us alone and came and swam on Monday nights. Remember that some of the black kids couldn’t swim, so we were a little nervous. We had to keep our eye on them and make sure they didn’t drown. It basically worked out that they were appeased and happy about the situation.
DS: Were respectful of us.
CS: Were respectful of us and didn’t have any problems.
DS: Tell the story of the pear tree in the back yard of a house behind us. There was a pear tree and one of the children climbed up on the wall to pick a pear out of the tree. (22:00)
CS: The neighbor who lived in that house was elderly and had a gun, so I guess he shot at the boy trying to pick the pear, because he didn’t want his pears stolen or taken or eaten. That bullet went into the second story sliding glass window of the room where my middle brother, Greg, was sleeping. It went in through the window and got lodged in a curtain. We called the police. They came out and took his (23:00) gun away; we didn’t press any charges, because the officers said he was old and a little senile. That ended that, but it could have been worse.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
CS: When I was in junior high school, like seventh or eighth grade, I had a teacher that would take us from the school in the suburbs to the train station. I would ride the train in to Sixteenth Street in Philadelphia, where City Hall is. Usually you could pop up above ground and walk over to Chestnut Street, which was a couple of blocks. Well, in and around City Hall, a lot of subways make connections there, and you could walk almost (24:00) three or four blocks underground following these subways and the on and off walks. They had fast-food restaurants down there and all kinds of stuff. A lot of people walked down there, especially in the winter, because it was a little bit warmer than being up on the street. Well, one day, coming home from school, I was walking this way [underground] and was about to pop up on Sixteenth Street or Fifteenth Street, and a black man – a black kid – came up to me and wanted all my money. He was basically holding me up. He didn’t physically touch me. He was just using his age and his height and ability to scare me to give him all the money I had. He obviously needed it. (25:00)
DS: Did you?
CS: I did, eventually. He used a tactic where they have stairways that go down to other subway [platforms] and then across from that [there] is another stairway where the people exit the subway car and [go] up the stairs. He forced me to go down the exit and stand alongside of the subway train tracks. There was no train down there; there were no people down there. He kind of cornered me against the train tracks, which are below the ground, off of the platform. That’s where he was trying to tell me, “I don’t believe you. I don’t think you’ve given me everything you have.” All I, as a kid, (26:00) would carry was the token that I needed to get on the bus to go down Chestnut Street to go back to my neighborhood. I never carried anything more than a token and my train ticket. He had gotten everything I had, but he didn’t believe that all I had was a token. He was using scare tactics, forcing me down there. I was scared enough that I thought he was going to push me on the tracks, because nobody was there.
I lucked out: the subway car came along, and people were getting off. I was trying to make eye contact with all these people exiting because it just looked like we were standing there as friends. I was giving everybody the eye, trying to get them to look at me. (27:00) This black couple came off, and they noticed that I was standing with this black kid. The guy came up to me and said, “Well, I’ll hold this kid here until you can get away. Go ahead and go.” I took off running and went up to the street and got to Chestnut Street, where I was going to pick up the bus. The kid caught up to me and started drilling me, and this time I was kind of just a little P.O.’d; I kept (28:00) telling him, “You have everything.” I was pulling my pockets inside out to show him. I was like, “Dude, it’s like some thirty-five, forty blocks [actually it’s fifteen blocks] to get home.” He finally gave up and took off. That’s when I just walked home that day on the streets.
[Tape is turned off, then on again]
CS: Some of the jobs I had in Society Hill were, obviously, house sitting for friends and family. Watering plants, taking care of yards, shoveling their sidewalks. Stuff like that.
DS: You did some landscaping work in Blackwell Court at one point. (29:00)
CS: Yes, I did some –
DS: Mowing grass.
CS: Yes, mowing grass and cutting ivy back in their planting boxes. I worked quite a bit for St. Peter’s Church, mowing the lawn around the gravestones and weeding and raking leaves.
DS: You helped Wayne Simms, who is the sexton there.
CS: Wayne Simms, right, [I] worked with him. We raked a lot of leaves, because there are big old trees in the churchyard, and stuff like that.
DS: You did some work in the bell tower, cleaning the bell tower.
CS: [I] worked in the bell tower along with learning how to ring the bells. We were up there in the bell tower dusting and cleaning, because it’s very old and open to the outside in some spots. I worked as a bar-back at a restaurant in Newmarket, where I had to (30:00) climb the stairs with cases of soda and beer and ice and everything, because the freezers and refrigerators were all in the basement. There was a lot of stair climbing there, keeping the restaurant and bar stocked. I worked at Dickens Inn in the bakery. The baker would come in in the morning and make all the different pastries and Danishes, and I worked the counter and sold them in the early part of the day. That was my first experience running a cash register and being responsible for money in the till and what I lost. After work, (31:00) I had to count my register, and so it taught me about money and how to work with customers.
DS: How did you feel about growing up in the city?
CS: I loved growing up in the city. To this day I still enjoy that experience. I look back on it as very enriching experience for knowing how to take care of yourself or how to take care of your family, what situations not to get into in the city, how to be always watching your back, those kinds of things. The joy of being able to be free and not have to use a car or find your way around with a car, then finding parking, and then worrying about paying for parking. You can use mass transportation for everything, and if you don’t have the money, you use your feet. That’s good exercise. (32:00) Living so many years in the suburbs, I feel the dependence on having a vehicle.
DS: You mean now.
CS: Yes, it’s not a good thing. I’d rather walk.
DS: Any other childhood stories or memories that you have that you want to share?
CS: No, I think that’s about it. I thoroughly enjoy the city. I could easily move back if I was single or starting a family that wouldn’t know the difference between the suburbs and the city. I think once you’re born and raised in a situation like the city, you can move on to other things. I think it’s hard to begin in the suburbs and then move to the city (33:00) and try to acclimate with younger kids.
DS: With your children?
CS: Right. I think if they don’t know the difference, because they were born and raised there, it’s easier to move to the suburbs.
DS: Well, thank you, Christopher, for all your good memories and helping us with this project.
CS: You’re quite welcome. (34:00)
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