I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent – 1957-1962
It was hard to talk or be heard because, for some reason, this night, there were at least thirty guys and girls outside of our favorite hangout. A friend’s family owned the hoagie shop at Westmoreland and Hope Street in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and shortly after they bought it, my friends and I adopted it as our own. The fact that it was across the street from the 25th District police station didn’t bother us. We were stupid teenagers, but we weren’t stupid enough to break the law so close to the police. After all, we had more secluded places where we could drink our beer and booze.
It was a great night until, suddenly, two police cars arrived, and several officers from the station rounded us up to determine what illegal activities we were committing. They found none other than we were hanging out. It wasn’t the first time the police broke up the gang for hanging out on a corner, but it was the first time they detained all of us. They didn’t need the paddy wagons because they just marched across the street and put the girls in one room and the guys in another. The police called every parent and made them come get us. It was my first visit to the 25th district station as a detainee for hanging out, but it wasn’t my last.
Beginning sometime in the 1950s, the city of Philadelphia decided that hanging out on corners was a precursor to committing crimes. Actually, just being a teenager in Kensington seemed to indicate you were a juvenile delinquent. “They listen to that devil's music, rock and roll,” older people often said. The city even established a particular time when kids had to be off the streets and fined parents if their kids broke curfew.
Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers even wrote a song called “I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent” (1956). I’m not saying we were angels or that there weren’t kids in Kensington who were juvenile delinquents, but we weren’t all that way. Many of us smoked, drank beer or booze, cursed, drove too fast, and made a lot of noise, so—okay, maybe we were juvenile semi-delinquents.
Even kids who did none of those things could find themselves pulled over and have their car searched for booze. The city had an elite police group dedicated to harassing kids hanging out on corners. They actually wore Jackboots and uniforms reminiscent of the German SS from World War 2. Most were very tall and intimidating, so when they arrived, we listened.
The 50s generation kids are responsible for the waning popularity of swing music and crooning and the beginning of the rock and roll era. The older generations did not welcome that change, and I guess that’s why the term “juvenile delinquent” became so popular. Bill Haley's song “Rock Around The Clock” (1954) probably inspired people to start using the term “rock and roll.” I am proud to be part of the generation that gave rise to the music careers of people like Elvis, Sam Cooke, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Queen, the Black Eye Peas, Taylor Swift, and so many others.
Like many of my peers, my days of hanging out on the corner with the guys, sneaking booze into the Iris movie theater, and yelling at girls walking down Kensington Avenue as I drove by stopped abruptly. At 18, I walked into 401 N. Broad Street induction center and took the oath to join the United States Air Force. After that, my teenage years and my days on the streets of Philly ended. If you want to grow up fast, join the military, especially during wartime.
I sometimes miss those years, but not because they were all sunshine and roses. The teen years can be pretty stressful. I miss them because I always felt like my juvenile semi-delinquent friends and I owned the streets of Philadelphia. I have lived in and visited many cities in the United States and abroad, but I have never felt as connected as I did when I lived in Kensington. I loved many of those places and enjoyed them very much, but I never felt that I completely belonged.
I will always belong to my era of Kensington, Philadelphia.