On The Street Where We Lived

Children sitting on a stoop of a row house on Croskey Street in Philadelphia, PA.
Children sitting on a stoop of a row house on Croskey Street in Philadelphia, PA.

Article and photos contributed by Catherine Varano. Originally published October 2011.

I stood nervously in the vestibule of The Waterfall Room. It was a cold, November Sunday, but my temperature was rising. Why should I be anxious? This event was my idea or, at least, an idea that was suggested to me enough times that I had to take action. It was the reunion of the people from my childhood domain in South Philadelphia—the 1900 block of Croskey Street.

I hadn’t seen my neighbors in years and I had concerns. Would my memories of an idyllic upbringing in the enclave of small row houses be shattered by anyone who remembered me as an annoying brat? Would the terror on my face be evident when I saw what age had done to my old friends? Or, was it something else?

A year before, it had seemed impossible to gather so many people who now lived far from the old neighborhood. The reunion committee performed the arduous task of recalling the street’s occupants from the 1940s to the 1990s when all but a few older neighbors had moved away. Even when we remembered the names, the search for new addresses was daunting, but when the invitations were sent, the response was overwhelming. It was apparent the other Croskey Streeters had little fear of seeing their old pals.

In the beautifully decorated banquet room, tables overflowed with penny candy and pastel cardboard ’57 Thunderbirds that held plastic cups and tee shirts embossed with our logo – a pair of worn sneakers thrown over a street sign that beckoned, “Croskey Street.” Through the doors, entered the moms, dads, and kids with whom we once had lived side by side. Surprisingly, they were glad to see me. They looked the same except for some graying hair and a few added pounds, and their smiles immediately transported us to our former surroundings.

On mornings long ago, we headed to “swimmies” at Smith Playground, organized a game of halfball, dressed our Barbies for dates or made numerous trips to Val’s candy store to buy comic books. In the afternoons, we skated, jumped rope, and occupied several porches “playing house” or “playing school.” The only quiet point in the day came after our nightly baths when, pajama clad, we waited on our front steps for the most anticipated arrival of the evening—the Mister Softee ice cream truck.

The men of Croskey Street.
The men of Croskey Street.

At the party, I greeted each old friend and marveled at the unique camaraderie formed by living in such close quarters. Thankfully, our parents never equated square footage or privacy issues with the attainment of happiness. They were working class and had families who, occasionally, had sudden drops in already average incomes through layoffs or the deaths of primary wage earners. Our cramped accommodations begged diminished procreation, but many families had four or more children and made it work.

People helped people on Croskey Street. It was acceptable for your elders to discipline you, and punishment was your reward for disrespect. Our mothers discreetly brought food to families in need. Our tradesmen fathers gladly fixed a washer or rewired a house and were paid in sponge cakes or cases of beer. With over 70 children inhabiting the block, birthday parties were frequent, and cake, ice cream and potato chips prolonged our nirvana.

We danced at the serenades of couples who were soon to be married and slid on the catering hall floors on the days of their weddings, stopping only to eat roast beef sandwiches and drink cans of soda. At midnight on New Year’s, we marched up and down the street banging our pots and pans until our mothers called us in to bed. We brought meals to the homes of those who lost a loved one, and our moms cooked and served the funeral luncheons after the burials.

Women gathered in a row house on Croskey Street.
Women gathered in a row house on Croskey Street.

During the party, I observed my fellow Croskey Streeters. Parents and children danced, laughed, told stories, exchanged numbers and complimented each other on how they hadn’t changed a bit. That’s how it was on Croskey Street. No one remembered past disagreements, just as we had chosen to forget a glimpse, through a bedroom window, of a friend’s father staggering home from a nearby bar or the yelling of frustrated spouses carried through an open window on a sweltering August night. We preferred to recall the happy functions that required large groups of people – our mothers’ Pokeeno Club, cars lined up for picnics to Sunset Beach, New Jersey, fathers and sons stringing Christmas lights on porch roofs, a parade of giggling children following a family to church to baptize a baby. Even running through the alley to school required a crowd as did the many photo montages of us in our finery for May processions and Easter Sundays.

Ultimately, the Croskey Street Reunion was a success, quieting my apprehension to see the people I once loved so much. Although the experience of sharing party walls was likely a common occurrence in other neighborhoods of Philadelphia, on that cold November day, we were convinced that no others could have done it quite as well as we had.

Sometime after that celebration, my mother died. She lived in her little Croskey Street row house until she was 93. When my brother and I sold it, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. Shocked at my attachment to a house that I left 29 years before, I spent days there before the sale perusing my childhood in an old report card or a story I had written in grade school. Through the kitchen window, I envisioned our neighbor Mrs. Dieni hanging her laundry on the line. My father’s piano in the living room evoked the voices of neighbors calling their musical requests through the screen door. I stood on the small porch that echoed the laughter of mothers hosing down the cement on hot days and the screeching delight of teenage girls wafting through an open door the first time Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

A collage of childhood photos from residents of Croskey Street.
A collage of childhood photos from residents of Croskey Street.

I recalled the reunion and how time had been so good to us that day. It took us back to summer nights when we sat on our porches with trusted friends and dreamed our dreams. Perhaps my hesitation to revisit the past was the fear of losing the dreams that had meant so much to me. Perhaps I realized there was no dream greater than that blissful world where we were wrapped in the cocoon of our parents’ love and the protection of an army of people who cared.

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