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The Streets of Philadelphia

My favorite Bruce Springsteen song is “The Streets of Philadelphia.” It gives me a lump in my throat every time I hear it. This haunting song reminds me of my youth growing up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. The song was not written to remind me of the golden years of my life, but when that drumbeat starts, my mind is flooded with memories.

As children, we felt that we owned the streets. After all, the streets were our playground, amusement park, educational vehicle, sports facility, and social gathering place. It was like a badge of honor when your mom said that you smelled like the streets and told you to take a bath. That wonderful black asphalt that smelled like tar in the summer and had a unique odor when it rained belonged to us. The contrasting gray concrete of the sidewalks, with the occasional moss growing in the cracks, was made just for us—or so we thought.

The wires above the street were our pals when we played wire ball. In June, they were also the place to store our worn gym sneakers. The red brick houses gave us walls to play “chink” and steps to play step ball and pinochle, hearts, and other card games. The corners at the intersections served as our bases for handball, and the alleyways and other nooks can crannies of the streets were our hiding places when we played Tin Can Eddie.

In the summer, we flooded the streets to create water parks, and in the winter, the hills were our ski slopes. We spread ashes from our coal-burning furnaces on the asphalt to make it less slippery and made a few quarters clearing the sidewalks. Snow, rain, and heat could not stop us from walking the streets to go to school or church.

We also learned many of our life lessons on the streets. We learned how to smoke and curse there, and, for most of us, it was where we first learned about the birds and bees. The streets offered us a variety of stores that sold fabulous things such as butter cake, 12-inch RCA televisions, nifty shoes, soft pretzels, hoagies, and steak sandwiches. We yearned for these things, which taught us that we had to work to get them, just as our parents and grandparents had.

Every Sunday, we traveled the streets to go to church or to go swimming at the community pool. We walked to weddings and funerals. The first time we drove a car, we did so on the streets of Philadelphia, and when we left to serve our country or to live in another city, the streets of Philadelphia bid us a safe journey and asked that we never forget them.

I have no doubt that we owned the streets of Philadelphia, especially Kensington. Neither time nor circumstance can take that from us. As long as we have our memories, we remain the princesses and princes of those streets.

 Originally posted on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni Group on Facebook.

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