Philadelphia Freedom

It’s odd to look back to my days growing up during the 1950s in Philadelphia’s Kensington section. Kensington today is different from the blue-collar neighborhood of my youth. It’s partially gentrified, partly forgotten by the government, and in some cases still the old neighborhood I remember.

We all may miss the way it was, but things change. It is the way of life. In 1950, the Philadelphia metro area had a population of about three million people. The current population is almost six million. There’s more traffic and more people. Twenty dollars in 1950 is equal to $209.40 in 2020, and some houses that sold for $3,000 in 1950 are selling for $400,000 today. The row home my parents bought in the 1940s (125 W. Wishart) and sold in the 1970s is now valued at $73,724 by Redfin.

Do you know what doesn’t change? Your memories. My fondest memory of growing up in 1950s Kensington, aside from my family and friends, is the freedom we had as kids. That freedom was a great teacher.

I’m not saying we didn’t have discipline. Any kid from back then can tell you we had rules, and if they were broken, we might see the end of a belt on our rears. It was expected that we didn’t talk back to our parents or elders, that we went to school, did homework—and the biggest expectation was that we would get jobs when we finished school. In a working-class neighborhood, there was a great emphasis on getting employment as fast as possible. Perhaps it was a throwback from the Depression, but once you got to a certain age, when you met elders you hadn’t seen in some time, they asked, “Are you working?”

I’m not saying I was an angel—far from it. But I learned from my mistakes and a slap across the face or on my behind. It was, as I remember, just the right amount of discipline and freedom to learn.

For example, when I was in grade school at William Cramp, I had to cross a large street (Allegheny Avenue) to go to school, come back to the house for lunch and go back to school. By the time I was about eight years old, I had done this myself. We all went to school without a parent’s supervision. We were sent to stores and expected to bring back the goods and the change that was leftover. I forgot to teach my kids that lesson 😊.

On weekends and during the summers, most kids were out on the streets from early morning to dinner, and then again till it was dark or even later. It was our responsibility to find things to do, so we invented our own. We sported coonskin caps, took part in street games, played cards while sitting under overhangs when it rained, and had fistfights while the girls skipped rope, played jacks and hopscotch. We all cooled down under the fireplug.

When Halloween came, we were out all night collecting candy. On those rare occasions when we had to stay in the house, we innovated and turned clothespins into soldiers, made cap bombs with old nuts and bolts, and rubber bands became makeshift slingshots. When it snowed, we would use anything we could find to sled down the Howard Street hill or in McPherson Park. Old box cardboard worked okay, and old trash can lids did an excellent job. Sleds were, of course, the best, but we didn’t all have them.
We did all this without parental supervision.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying how we raised our children or how our children raise their children is wrong. As I said, things change, and people must adapt. Your grandchildren will have their own memories that will give them solace when they’re older. You can help make those memories the best. Meanwhile, I’ll cherish my childhood memories of my Philadelphia freedom. I hope you do as well, wherever you grew up.

Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.

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