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THE OTHER KENSINGTON

Back when we had no air conditioning, there was one thing about Philly in the summer: Man, it could get hot! Once school was out, there was an exodus of people from Kensington and most other parts of Philly to the south Jersey shore that lasted until after Labor Day. Places such as Long Beach Island, Ocean City, Atlantic City, Cape May, Wildwood, and Wildwood Villas became a second Kensington.

I had fun in all those places, but Wildwood, Wildwood Villas, and Cape May were my stomping grounds until I moved to Atlanta for business. I really miss those beaches, especially the boardwalk. From the time I was a toddler, my mom always saved up so we could spend August in Wildwood. We stayed in places back near the bay because they were cheaper.

The place on Wildwood Avenue was just a block away from the bay. We rented the same house every year during my early childhood, and that bay was the source of a lot of fun. There was a small pier and a tiny, sandy beach. The water always smelled funny, and there were gasoline slicks everywhere, but it didn’t matter to us. To this day, I have no idea what was in that water, and I don’t want to know.

My brother, who is four years my senior, told me a story about when he caught whooping cough in Wildwood. Still sick, he snuck down to the bay and was standing on the peer when he lost his footing and fell in the water. He swears to this day that the bay water cured him.

Late in the day, we would go crabbing. You just put a fish head in a basket and waited. It always yielded crabs. I remember my mom’s Italian friend cooking them with all the spices. I was never a fan of seafood, and I’m kind of glad I never ate those crabs.

When I was about ten years old, the lady we rented from sold her house and moved to Maple Avenue. She had a small two-bedroom cottage behind her home, so that became our new go-to place. Maple Avenue is just a couple of blocks from our old hangout by the bay. The mosquitoes seemed to be bigger and more aggressive than at the other house, and in the evening, we often had to rush inside and brush them from our clothes.

There were two weapons in the war against mosquitoes. The first was the DDT the city sprayed on all the streets. I never liked the smell, so I never ran after the truck as some kids did. The other weapon was citronella sticks. The sticks had a large ball of citronella impregnated paper strips. They came in various colors, and they really did help. It was common to see people strolling the boardwalk with those sticks.

The boardwalk and the beaches were my favorite places. We walked a mile or so to the boardwalk during the day, and then onto the beautiful beach. I loved it there, though a tar-like substance sometimes came floating in with the water. We stayed away from that tar, as it was hard to get off. Later, I learned that the tar was actually the remains of fuel from ships sunk in the Atlantic during World War II.

Once, I got lost on the beach. I might have been about five, and my mother was frantic looking for me. Finally, they announced over the loud speaker that the lifeguards had found a young boy with red hair named Buddy. She rushed to the office and found me calmly eating French fries. I think she was disturbed that I didn’t seem as concerned as she was.  

I cannot give the Wildwood Boardwalk enough compliments. I walked or rode the tram on the boardwalk countless times. To this day, memories of that boardwalk pizza, succulent pork roll on a Kaiser roll, irresistible French fries with malt vinegar, coconut champagne, lime rickeys, and Hire’s root beer tantalize me. Oh—and the mile-long hot dogs! What a treat they were.

When we weren’t eating, we played miniature golf and arcade games or rode bumper cars and amusements on one of the piers. Even when it rained, we had fun. There were several great movie houses, and I remembered that the best one was on the boardwalk.

In 1962, I joined the United States Air Force, and when I returned in 1966, I learned that my parents, my sister, and her husband had bought a small house in the Wildwood Villas. Talk about another Kensington! It seemed like just about everyone there was from Kensington or North Philly. Wildwood Villas is situated near the Delaware Bay, not far from Cape May and a short ride to Wildwood. It was an ideal location.

I learned to love Cape May, with its quaint homes and small beaches. I also learned about horseshoe crabs, the Lewes Ferry, and especially the great people who lived in the Villas. My mom’s best friend and her family had moved to the Villas permanently, so we saw them every time we visited, and it was always fun. Those were some of my best years.

The greatest thing was that I got to introduce my kids and my wife to the wonders of Wildwood, Cape May, and the Villas and they also loved it. Some say the greater Northeast part of Philly is the other Kensington, but I prefer to think it was the Jersey shore.

Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.

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