Years ago, I departed my prosperous suburb for college in the big city. For the first time in my life I encountered the problems of urban decay and “inner city” crime. Why were there so many neighborhoods with boarded up houses, crumbling buildings, pervasive poverty, and shockingly high murder rates? And why was there such a sharp racial delineation, with the black neighborhoods having these problems, while a half-mile away there were much nicer white neighborhoods?
In college, I took a couple courses on urban decay. I also tried to get out in the city doing volunteering projects to see things with my own eyes. Since college, I have devoured every book or article that has offered the prospect of new information.
Recently I found a hidden gem – Philly War Zone: Growing Up in a Racial Battleground by Kevin Purcell. It is the memoir of one ordinary boy growing up in Southwest Philly during the height of “white flight” in the early 1970s. The books we read in college rarely included first-hand accounts, and especially not first-hand accounts from the white perspective. We were told that white people left because of block-busting, susidized mortgages and the appeal of the suburbs. But we never read unvarnished accounts told by the people who left. Kevin Purcell provides such an acccount, and his stories and perspectives are quite different than those taught in college (although it is congruous with other accounts I have read since college). His book is not going to win any awards for beautiful prose, but it comes across as honest and straightforward. From the Amazon reviews, most people find his story to be truthful, and I can’t think of any motivation he would have for making it up.
This post consists of lengthy excerpts from his book, which I think provide an important piece of the puzzle for understanding what happened to our cities. I feel a little guilty for excerpting so much (though I felt more guilty cutting pieces out and possibly making my selection of excerpts unfair), so even better than reading this post is if you buy the book and read the whole thing. It’s only 150 pages, and that way you can support the author (I have no connection to the author, I just want to see good work rewarded).
Kevin introduces his story:
When friends today ask me where I grew up, I tell them I grew up in a row home in Southwest Philly. Many then ask, “What was it like?” I tell them, “It was the greatest neighborhood a kid could grow up in, until I was 10. Then it began to turn into a racial battleground.”
Some then ask me to tell them more. To which I usually reply, “It’s a long story,” and leave it at that. Well, this is my long story.
Kevin starts his story by speaking from the perspective of when he was 10 years old:
Just a few years [prior to 1969], this was the greatest neighborhood a kid my age could grow up in. Like any neighborhood, ours had its share of kids who liked to start trouble. But I can’t imagine any neighborhood being more fun and safe to grow up in. Back then, on a warm June afternoon like today, I didn’t have a care in the world. Around this time of day, I’d be taking my time walking home with my friends from Most Blessed Sacrament School, or “MBS” as everyone called it. Once home, I’d quickly get out of my school clothes, put on my play clothes, and be on my way to my favorite place in the world, Myers playground.
Myers playground is just a half-block from our house, and it used to be the perfect place to hang out. Me and my brothers, Joe and Larry, were at Myers playground every day. Once I’d get to Myers playground, I’d get right into a game, any game, and keep on playing until dark. We played basketball, football, baseball, box-ball, sock-it-out, stick-ball, half-ball, wall-ball, and street hockey. We played one game after another all day long. At night, we’d watch the games in the playground’s summer basketball leagues. Every summer, a lot of the best high school and college players in Philly played in those leagues. A few nights each summer, the playground workers would set up a movie projector outside and show a movie against the wall of one of the playground’s three large, stone buildings. Lots of parents and kids would sit on blankets and lawn chairs to watch the movie. Every day, all day, there was something fun to do at Myers playground.
Most nights, we had to be back from the playground just after dark, but we didn’t have to go in yet. So we’d round up all the kids from the Cecil Street area and play games like “Ring-up” and “Hide-the-Belt” for at least another hour. No matter what game we were playing, the game came to an immediate stop the moment we heard the bell ringing from the water-ice truck. The truck was about the size of a bread truck, white with round edges. The truck would drive down Cecil Street and stop about halfway down the street, just past our house. All us kids and lots of parents would line up to buy water ice and soft pretzels. Then we’d all sit on the front steps and eat away. I liked to wait until my chocolate water ice began to melt, then I’d dip my soft pretzel into the melted, chocolate-flavored ice. I can still taste it just thinking about it.
I always felt so safe on Cecil Street. On warm summer nights, lots of adults would sit on soft cushions on the top step of the four concrete steps that led from the edge of our front porches down to the sidewalk. Neighbors would sit out for hours, talking with other neighbors, many of them enjoying a cold beer or some other cold drink. At least one neighbor would have the Phillies game blasting on their transistor radio. So we’d be able to keep track of the Phillies game while we were running up and down the street having fun. I knew everybody on Cecil Street, and they all knew me. In fact, I knew almost everybody in our section of the neighborhood. And I felt safe no matter where I went. All us kids knew that most parents around here looked out for all the kids, not just their own.
And there were kids everywhere. We lived in a mostly Irish-Catholic neighborhood that was packed with kids. There are five boys in our family, but we were considered a small family. Lots of families had eight, 10, 12 kids or more. Some of the really big families had to eat their meals in shifts because there wasn’t enough room in their row homes for everyone to sit down to eat at the same time.
So many kids lived in our neighborhood that MBS was one of the most crowded elementary schools in the country. When I started school at MBS in 1964, there were 101 kids in my first-grade classroom. There were 10 rows of 10 kids. The extra kid sat at a desk in a corner in the front of the classroom. To keep 101 kids under control, the rather large Catholic nun who was my first-grade teacher would walk up and down one row after another, tapping a wooden yardstick against her empty hand.
Before hipsters made moving to the city and going without a car cool, Kevin’s dad was doing the same thing:
The way I heard it: right after I was born, Dad simply didn’t renew his license, sold his big black Chevy, and never drove again.
Years later, when I asked Dad about it, he said, “Kev, I could take the “13” trolley on Chester Avenue to work. I could walk to the grocery store. I could walk to the bar. And I was tired of driving your mom and Nonna all over the city. What the hell did I need a car for?”
There was also a gorgeous park only a few blocks away:
COBBS CREEK PARK is a huge park that forms a big part of the border between Southwest Philly and the surrounding suburbs. The park was close to Myers playground, just a three-block walk from the playground entrance near 59th and Chester Avenue. Having the park so close by was really cool. Even though we lived in a crowded city, we could be in the middle of the woods in a matter of minutes. The park always seemed so peaceful compared to the busy city streets. So it was even more tragic when such a peaceful place became the scene of a gang fight that cost a kid his life.
Because Cobbs Creek Park was so close by, lots of people from our neighborhood would walk over to play ball, have picnics, walk the stepping-stones across the creek, explore the woods, that kind of stuff. In the winter, when temperatures dropped below freezing, a lot of people would ice skate on the frozen creek. The park also had some great hills for sledding.
And at least initially, Kevin did not notice obvious racial animus, although black people were not frequent at his local playground:
Sure enough, Dwight cut to the basket, my bounce-pass met him in stride, he made the lay-up, and we won the game. It was the first time me and Dwight had ever beaten my older brother, Joe, and Dwight’s older brother, Lonny, in a game of two-on-two. And we played them a lot. Dwight and Lonny were the only black kids who played basketball with us at Myers playground. Both of them were really good basketball players. About a year ago, they moved into a house right across the street from the playground. They were two of the nicest kids I’d ever met, white or black. We became friends from the get-go.
The only group of black people of any age who played basketball at the playground was a group of older guys who were in their twenties and thirties. Every Sunday morning, when the weather was nice enough to play, they’d pull up in three or four cars and park along the Kingsessing Avenue side of the playground. There were usually about 10 to 15 of them. Those older black guys were some of the best basketball players I’d ever seen. Lots of Sunday mornings, after going to early Mass at MBS Church, Dad would take us over to the playground to watch those older black guys play. Dad knew who some of them were. He told us some of them played in a semi-pro basketball league called the Eastern League.
Unfortunately, around June of 1969, the neighborhood started to change. The first incident Kevin relates happened when trying to buy sneakers:
When we walked past the supermarket, I saw a few black people mixed in with all the white people who were shopping. I never used to see black people in this area. But now the area near 54th Street was one of the first parts of our neighborhood where a lot of white families were moving out, and a lot of black families were moving in. Two of my friends from Most Blessed Sacrament School (MBS) who lived in this area moved out last year. Both of their families moved to the suburbs. And both of their houses were bought by black families.
Once in a while, I’d hear about fights breaking out in the 54th Street area between black kids and white kids. But all the stories I heard involved older teenagers. I figured kids our age had nothing to worry about. So as we made our way to Tip O’Leary’s, our only care in the world was hoping we could find John Smith sneaks in our size.
The second we set foot outside Tip O’Leary’s store, we were surrounded by six or seven black kids who were a lot bigger and older than we were. A couple of them looked about 13 or 14 years old.
The biggest kid said, “Hand over your sneaks, all y’all.”
I was stunned. We were actually being robbed. I had no idea what to do. I looked over at my brother Joe, who was definitely a lot crazier than me and Larry. Joe lifted his bag up toward the kids as if he was going to hand his sneaks over. Then he swung the bag toward the faces of two of the black kids and yelled, “Run!”
And run we did. The three of us sprinted down Chester Avenue toward 55th Street. As we were running, I could see there were still lots of people out shopping up ahead. If we can make it to 55th Street, I thought to myself, we’ll be safe. When we got to 55th Street, I looked back. Sure enough, the kids had stopped chasing us.
I decided right then and there I was not going back to the 54th Street area any time soon. When we got home, we told Mom what happened. She wanted to call the cops. We tried to convince her not to. She finally agreed, saying, “Okay, but you’re not going over to 54th Street again without me or Dad.”
A month later, in July of 1969, Kevin recounts an assault going the other way:
When I turned around from my seat on the bleachers, I saw six black kids I’d never seen before playing a game of three-on-three. They looked to be about three or four years older than me. I was 10. I guess they were around 13 or 14. It was the first time I’d ever seen a group of black kids that age playing basketball at Myers playground.
The only group of black people of any age who played basketball at the playground was a group of older guys who were in their twenties and thirties. Every Sunday morning, when the weather was nice enough to play, they’d pull up in three or four cars and park along the Kingsessing Avenue side of the playground. There were usually about 10 to 15 of them. Those older black guys were some of the best basketball players I’d ever seen. Lots of Sunday mornings, after going to early Mass at MBS Church, Dad would take us over to the playground to watch those older black guys play….
Anyway, this group of six young black kids that I’d never seen before played basketball for about an hour. Then they left the playground and headed toward 58th Street, where they turned right toward Greenway Avenue… I knew a lot of the black people who lived on that block because that block was part of the newspaper route where me and Joe delivered the Evening Bulletin every day. But I didn’t remember ever seeing any of those six black kids down there. They must have just moved in.
The next day, the same six black kids came back to Myers playground. They played basketball for about an hour, and then they left. After they left, I could tell some of the older white guys were getting pissed off that these black kids were playing basketball in Myers playground.
“Why the fuck they have to come here?” I overheard one of the older guys say.
Then another one said, “This is our playground. They got their own fucking playground down on 49th Street.”
He was talking about the playground on 49th and Kingsessing Avenue. I was never in that playground. But every time I’d ride by it on the “13” trolley, most of the people hanging out there were black. So I guess he was right, there was a playground for blacks at 49th Street. Still, it would be a long walk from 58th Street all the way to 49th Street just to play some basketball, especially when there were some empty courts during the day right here at Myers playground.
The following day, the same six black kids came back to Myers playground again….All of a sudden, I heard four or five bursts of glass shattering behind me in the basketball courts. I quickly turned around and saw about 10 older white kids chasing after the six black kids. At first, the black kids looked stunned. Then they took off running, jumped over the short fence, and continued out onto Kingsessing Avenue toward 58th Street. They even left their basketball behind.
After the black kids were out of sight, one of the older guys yelled, “This is our playground. We don’t want no fucking nig*ers around here.”
I didn’t like seeing those black kids getting chased away like that. Just three weeks earlier, at Tip O’Leary’s, it was me and my brothers who were outnumbered and being chased. I didn’t like that feeling. And I didn’t like seeing anybody, black or white, have to feel the same way.
I was glad none of the black kids got hurt. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t be coming back. And they didn’t come back the next day, or the next, or the next. Little did I know that, when they would return, they’d return with a vengeance.
A month later, in August of 1969, the black kids came back for retalliation:
Our team was playing the late game on the baseball field closest to 59th and Chester Avenue, farthest away from the basketball courts. Suddenly, I heard loud screams coming from the other baseball field, the one closest to the basketball courts. I looked up and saw about 20 black people, both teenagers and adults, swinging belts and broom handles and throwing bottles and rocks at the mostly white people who had been watching the game from the metal bleachers, but were now running for cover.
Within minutes, cop cars with sirens blaring raced into Myers playground through both the Kingsessing Avenue and Chester Avenue entrances. The black guys tried to get away, and most of them did. Two were caught and arrested. Later, when things had settled down, I overheard two older white kids talking:
“Some of those younger nig*ers looked like the kids we chased off the basketball courts last week,” one older white kid said.
“Yeah, I think it was them,” said the other, “they looked real familiar.”
After the fight, white families started moving out of the neighborhood at a much higher rate. “White flight” began in earnest:
Before that fight at Myers playground, there were already a lot of “For Sale” signs on most streets in the area. After the fight, it seemed like there were twice as many. I guess a lot of people decided they’d seen enough. They were moving out.
As soon as I walked through the alley to Alden Street, I couldn’t miss the huge moving van parked outside the Jordon’s house, completely blocking the narrow, When I walked to the Jordon’s house to say goodbye, both parents had a redness around their eyes. It looked like they’d both been crying. The Jordons were the third family in the Cecil Street area who’d moved out in the past couple of months. All three times, I noticed that the parents seemed to be upset about leaving. And their kids were usually even more upset. About a month earlier, I saw two of the McSorley brothers crying on the day they were moving out. They were about eight and nine years old, and they obviously didn’t want to move. No kid in his right mind would want to move out of this neighborhood. Each time I saw a family moving out, I thought to myself, If they’re that upset about moving out, then why are they moving in the first place? After all, things still weren’t too bad in our section of the neighborhood. I was glad we weren’t moving.
My parents never talked about moving, except when we’d get those phone calls from realtors at dinnertime. One time, I asked Mom why they call all the time.
Mom told me, “They keep tellin’ me we should sell our house now, before too many blacks move in.”
“Why do they say that?” I asked her.
“They say once the blacks move in, all the houses will be worth a lot less money.”
“Is it true?” I asked.
“I don’t know what to believe,” Mom said. “I just want them to stop callin’ me.”
My parents didn’t want to move. Besides, if they did move, they’d probably have to pay more for a new house than they were paying for our house now….I figured if my parents didn’t have enough money to pay all the bills now, there’s no way they had enough money to pay even more for a new house. And that was fine with me. I didn’t want to move. Even though we almost got robbed at Tip O’Leary’s, even though there’d been some trouble at Myers playground, I was still having way too much fun in our neighborhood to even think about living anywhere else.
It is stories like this, and similar stories from other cities, that made me disbelieve the theory that it was cheap mortgages or the appeal of suburbia that caused white flight. And even blaming “block-busting” is sort of like blaming bad Yelp reviews for the failure of a restaurant (rather than blaming the bad food that caused the bad reviews). Pressure from the realtors only worked because the threat of violence was real.
A few months later in September, Kevin and his friends and brothers are walking to the football game, which required going through a neighborhood that had turned black:
As we began our half-mile walk down 58th Street to the game, I wondered how the black teenagers who were new to the neighborhood would feel about having all these white people walking through what was now their turf. I figured if there was going to be any trouble, it would happen near Greenway Avenue. And that’s where it happened. As soon as we got halfway between Greenway Avenue and Woodland Avenue, about 10 black teenagers came running up behind us from Greenway Avenue, throwing bottles and rocks. It looked like they were aiming for a group of our oldhead who were walking right behind us.
Us younger kids took off running down 58th Street toward the football field. We were running as fast as we could, along with some older adults and young couples with little kids who were also on their way to the football game. Our oldhead stayed to fight. The fighting drifted into the middle of 58th Street.
Some of the white guys snapped car antennas off parked cars and began swinging them at the black guys who were swinging back with broom handles and belts. It looked like a few guys, white and black, got hit and were bleeding.
A week later they were jumped with “bottles and rocks came flying at us from a car-repair lot that was on the same side of the street where we were walking. The black teenagers had been hiding in the car-repair lot, waiting for the right moment to attack.” Kevin’s group barely escaped by running across train tracks a moment before a freight train rumbled through.
These fights became routine and grew more serious:
LOTS OF FIGHTS were breaking out between black kids and white kids throughout the neighborhood. Some fights I saw. Others I heard about. In one fight, a few months earlier, near 55th and Chester Avenue, a 16-year-old white kid got stabbed in the head with a screwdriver. Doctors had to insert a metal plate in the kid’s head to save his life.
During the winter of 1970, Kevin spent a lot of time playing basketball in the Myers gym with the other whites, while often black kids hung out outside. Gradually a struggle for the turf began:
None of the black kids ever came into Myers gym. It just didn’t happen. But they definitely knew we were in there.
One day after school, I was sitting up on the gym’s radiator cover, my back resting against the wall of windows, watching the older guys play basketball. All of a sudden, I heard “POP… POP… POP… POP!”
The sounds were coming from the windows at the other end of the court. I looked over and saw what seemed like a hundred small pieces of glass raining down onto the court. Four windows had been shattered. The kids who were sitting on the radiator cover closest to the broken windows jumped down onto the court. Four of the players who were near the windows when they shattered ran to the other side of the court, their hands protecting their heads from the falling glass. There, lying in the middle of the court, were five rocks ranging from the size of a golf ball to the size of a baseball…. After that day, it wasn’t unusual to see two or three of the small windows near the basketball court boarded-up until the playground workers got a chance to replace the glass. And when they finally did replace the glass, it was usually just a matter of time before another bunch of rocks were thrown through another group of windows. By the end of that winter, we came to expect that the windows would get smashed, the same way we came to expect more and more fights that were breaking out all around us. Racial trouble was fast becoming part of day-to-day life.
As it turns to the spring of 1970, the outdoor basketball courts at Myers park became a battleground:
As soon as the weather got a little warmer, we were back on the outside courts, playing basketball. Only now, it wasn’t unusual anymore for groups of black kids to come into the playground to play basketball, too. And it wasn’t long before the outside basketball courts turned into a battleground. Sometimes when black kids were playing on the courts, white kids would attack with bottles and rocks. Sometimes when we were playing, black kids would attack us. So we were always on the lookout.
Now, whenever I was playing on the outside courts at Myers, I’d try to keep my head on an even bigger swivel, thinking, See your man, see the ball, and see if we’re about to get attacked.
The first time we got attacked on the outside courts, we were playing a half-court game of three-on-three. When the ball went out of bounds, I took a quick look around for any signs of trouble. Everything looked cool. The instant we started playing again, a bottle smashed just a few feet from where I was standing. Then four or five more bottles smashed all around us. I looked over and saw about a dozen black kids with belts and broom handles, running toward us. They were nowhere in sight just a few seconds before. They were probably hiding on the side porch on the Kingsessing Avenue side of Myers gym, which we couldn’t see from the basketball courts.
The outside basketball courts were now a disputed territory. The black kids now thought the courts were theirs. We thought the courts were still ours. Because the courts were now a battleground, we stopped hanging out in that part of the playground. Instead, we started hanging out near the Old House. We still played a lot of basketball, although many times we’d have to clear broken glass off the court before we could play. The difference was, as soon as we were done playing basketball, we’d go back to the Old House to hang out. Hanging out there gave us more time to get ready if a fight was coming and a lot more ammunition to use in those fights.
Kevin then talks about the rise of the Dirty Annies gang. The origins of the gang came from two years earlier:
..in 1968 and 1969, a lot more black people were living in the 58th and Willows Avenue area, compared to our part of the neighborhood. So a lot more fighting was going on up there. Some of the first street fights I’d ever seen were between the white kids who hung out at The Sunshine Inn and black kids from the neighborhood. A lot of those fights were right in front of the Evening Bulletin office. Me and Joe would watch the fights as we sat in our red [newspaper] wagon, waiting for the Bulletin truck to get there. Some of those white guys who hung out at The Sunshine Inn were really tough fighters.
In the years that followed, the number of white guys hanging out at The Sunshine Inn kept shrinking as the number of black kids hanging out in that area kept growing. So now the guys who used to hang out at The Sunshine Inn were hanging out in our section of the neighborhood, the only section that was still mostly white. There, in front of Dirty Annie’s store, it was as if all the older white guys in our entire neighborhood had merged into the last remaining white gang their age.
When I say “gang,” I don’t mean a formal gang like the Pagans and Warlocks motorcycle gangs. There were no initiations, no gang leaders, none of that stuff. In our neighborhood, a gang was just a group of guys who all hung out together. Because all these guys were now hanging out in front of Dirty Annie’s store, it wasn’t long before the gang itself was called the Dirty Annies.
Because I spent so much time near the Dirty Annies hangout, I saw those guys get into a lot of fights with black kids. I was always impressed at how all the Dirty Annies stuck together, always ready to fight for each other. They had that “all-for-one, one-for-all” attitude that seemed to give them a big advantage every time I saw them fight. And a lot of times, I saw them fight right out the front window of our house.
The following weekend, in another fight in front of our house, someone did get knocked down. In that fight, a black guy got hit in the ribs with a broom handle and went down right in the middle of the street. Because there were more white guys than black guys in the fight that night, the black guy who fell was surrounded by three or four Dirty Annies. He immediately got into a fetal position, the way football players do when they recover a fumble. Only he was using his arms to protect his head, not a football, against the kicks, broom handles, and belt buckles that continued to pummel him until the cops showed up and everyone, except him, took off running. I’d seen people get beat up that bad on TV, but I never saw anybody get beat up that bad in real life. It was animalistic, like a pack of wolves pouncing on a fallen prey.
Evidently, the kid wasn’t as hurt as I thought he might be. The cops helped him get up off the ground. Then they helped him into the back seat of the cop car and off they went.
The Dirty Annies got into lots of fights with black kids that spring, and they won a lot of those fights, which meant more black kids got hurt than Dirty Annies. Word started spreading throughout Southwest Philly about the Dirty Annies, all the fights they were in, and how tough they were. They were becoming the most talked-about gang in Southwest Philly.
The Dirty Annies would often throw stuff at busses of black kids as they were bussed in to a nearby school. The situation escalated until there were protests from the black parents and then a near race riot.
In August 1970 one of the Annies was shot a couple blocks from Kevin’s house as he was was walking home:
Some of the Dirty Annies wouldn’t let him go alone. They knew it might be dangerous, so they decided they’d walk him home and then walk back to Dirty Annie’s. Just two blocks into their walk up 58th Street, a fight broke out with a gang of black kids. One of the black kids pulled out a gun. The 18-year-old white kid got shot. The bullet entered his lung and exited through his back. With the help of a respirator, doctors were able to save the kid’s life. The next day, when I heard what happened, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe a kid actually got shot just a couple blocks from our house. The last thing this neighborhood needed was for guns to be involved.
Kevin also began to encounter more racial fighting at school:
EVEN THOUGH THERE’D been a lot of racial trouble in the neighborhood for some time now, the racial situation inside MBS School had remained pretty calm. For the most part, black kids and white kids in MBS got along with each other. But starting in seventh grade, the year I turned 12, I could sense racial tension growing in the school itself and in the streets around the school.
The big fights that were happening now were between the white kids from MBS and the black kids from Mitchell school… When the white kids from MBS walked back to school after lunch, many walked right past Mitchell schoolyard. At that time of day, a lot of the black kids from Mitchell School were hanging out in Mitchell schoolyard for recess. That was never a problem in years past. Now it was a problem. Both groups would yell racial stuff back and forth, and fights began to break out.
That same year, in seventh grade, I began to notice changes in my relationships with some of the black friends I’d made over the years. Some black kids at MBS that I’d known for years started to act like they didn’t even know me anymore. One day, I was walking down the hallway between classes when I saw Kenny walking toward me. Kenny was a black kid I’d known for about three years. We were never real close. But we always got along, and said “hi” to each other. Kenny was walking toward me with two other black kids who were new to MBS. I didn’t know the new kids at all.
“Hey Kenny,” I said as we passed each other in the hall.
Recently, I’d noticed that whenever Kenny was with these new kids, he was acting kind of cold toward me. This time, he just ignored me. When he heard me say his name, he turned toward me. Then he quickly snapped his head right back to make it look like he didn’t see me.
At first, I wasn’t sure why Kenny was trying to ignore me. Then I figured it might have something to do with all the new black kids in MBS. I had a feeling a lot of the new black kids were putting pressure on the black kids who’d been at MBS for a while. They didn’t want them to be so friendly with white kids anymore. I know I was feeling more and more pressure from some of the tougher white kids to stop being friendly with black kids. Nobody ever said anything to me about it. But sometimes, if I was talking to a black friend in school, I noticed some of the white kids would give me dirty looks. Still, it pissed me off that Kenny couldn’t even give me a nod or something. The next time I saw him, I totally ignored him, and I never said a word to him again.
It should be noted that Kevin’s friends also were the instigators in the fighting:
Some of the guys really liked to fight. We had a few guys who would wander away from MBS schoolyard, trying to find black kids to fight with, which wasn’t hard to do considering we were pretty much surrounded by them. One of those guys who liked to get fights started was Billy. Billy was a year older than me. He got bored just hanging out. He liked action.
One afternoon, five of us, Billy included, were hanging out on Chester Avenue near MBS schoolyard, eating ice cream and drinking sodas from the ice cream store across the street. While we were standing on the corner, we noticed that two black kids, about our age, were walking toward us. Both kids were strutting the way most black kids in the neighborhood strutted, both arms swinging, one at a time, from about a foot outside their hips to about a foot behind the back of their butt.
It was kind of ironic, but it looked to me like a lot of us white guys were starting to walk with struts, too. I know I started walking with a strut. I started doing it when I noticed the black kids who were strutting had an advantage during the shoulder-to-shoulder bumps when I’d pass them on the sidewalk. Whenever I bumped shoulders with a black kid who was strutting, I usually got the worst of it because he had some momentum in his swinging arms. So I decided that whenever I was walking toward a group of black kids, I was going to walk with a strut, too. I wanted to have some momentum of my own when we made contact. It definitely helped.
As these two black kids strutted closer and closer toward the five of us, I kept thinking to myself, I know Billy’s gonna say something. Even though there was a cop car parked just a half-block away, I knew Billy wouldn’t let a chance to stir the pot go to waste.
Sure enough, just as the two kids passed us, Billy says, “Cut the strut, nig*ers.”
The two black kids, seeing they were outnumbered, ignored Billy and kept walking. Billy didn’t go after the kids because of the cop car parked nearby. I often wondered what made guys like Billy want to start trouble. Did they just like to fight? Was there a lot of violence in their homes? One thing I will say about Billy: he wasn’t like some kids in the neighborhood who would start a fight hoping everybody else would finish the fight for them. Whenever Billy started a fight, he always stayed and fought until the end. And Billy was a tough fighter with a powerful punch.
No matter who started the fights, we all got involved.
In the summer of 1971 a murder rocked the neighborhood. Cobbs Creek had become a popular spot for teenage drinking. One night the Dirty Annies were on one side of Cobbs Creek, and across the creek was a group of black guys. They started yelling at each other. One of the black guys began walking across the creek. The Dirty Annies chased him away, a fight broke out, and one of the black guys was stabbed dead at the age of 20.
The murder in Cobbs Creek Park was all over the news. Before our neighborhood started getting dangerous, the only part of the newspaper I ever looked at was the sports section. Now, every day, I looked through every page of both the Bulletin and the Inquirer, searching for articles about what was going on in our neighborhood. And there was a lot going on.
Around the same time of the murder in the park, in a fight near 56th and Greenway Avenue, a 16-year-old white kid got stabbed in the chest by a black kid. Doctors said the white kid would have died if the cut were inches closer to his heart.
Also, around the same time, near 58th and Chester Avenue, a 14-year-old white kid got into a fight with a 14-year-old black kid. The white kid ended up hitting the black kid in the head with a broom handle. The black kid died.
A lot of kids carried broom handles. We used them as baseball bats when we played half-ball. Half-balls were air balls that had gone flat. We’d cut the flat air balls in half with a penknife and stack them together. The pitcher would toss the half-balls underhanded to the batter who tried to hit them with the broom handle. Some of the best half-ball players took the sport very seriously, customizing their broom handles by sawing one end for a perfect length and taping the other end for a better grip.
Most cops would let us carry our broom handles. They saw us playing half-ball a lot, so they knew we used them as baseball bats. I guess the cops figured that if they took our broom handles from us, it would be like they were taking a piece of sporting equipment from us. But broom handles were more than just a piece of sporting equipment once a fight broke out. They became a weapon, and a very good weapon. The kids who got hit with broom handles usually got hurt pretty bad. Unfortunately, that day, when the two 14-year-olds got into a fight, the broom handle became a fatal weapon.
The 14-year-old white kid was sentenced to a few years in a juvenile detention center. An article in the Bulletin said the 14-year-old black kid who got killed had just moved into our neighborhood from another dangerous area in South Philly, near 30th and Tasker, where white kids and black kids were fighting a lot. The article said the black kid’s family moved to our neighborhood because they thought it would be a safer place to live.
Our neighborhood was mentioned in the newspapers just about every day. And the biggest stories were about the Dirty Annies gang. One Sunday, the Inquirer ran a long feature story about the gang right on the front page of its local section. The reporter quoted a lot of the Dirty Annies who didn’t want their names in the paper. Almost all of them talked about having to fight to protect the only territory they had left in the neighborhood.
One Dirty Annie said, “If we don’t stick together, we’re going to get killed. It’s their [the blacks’] neighborhood now.”
“The white adults,” he said, “never used to like us; now a lot of them are behind us. Last night me and two other kids were standing on the corner when a group of blacks came by. A lady invited us on her porch as they went by. That never happened before. They used to let us fend for ourselves.”
An article in the Evening Bulletin told the black people’s side of the story. A black woman was quoted as saying, “This was once a predominantly white neighborhood and then the blacks moved in. The whites are against it. They’re so much against it, they’ll just do anything.”
Later in the story, a black man was quoted as saying, “These are the poor whites, with no place to go. They’re making their last stand to keep from being forced out and that’s what created this situation of bigotry and prejudice.”
In the months following the murder (June 1971) things continued to deteriorate:
[June 1971] EVER SINCE THE murder in Cobbs Creek Park, I could feel the racial tension throughout the neighborhood growing stronger and stronger. …A few days later, something like that happened to us when we were hanging out in the corner of Myers playground near 59th and Chester Avenue. I didn’t know if he had a gun or not, but a black guy in a slow-moving car leaned out of the front passenger window and, using both hands, pointed a metal object at us. A couple of my friends yelled, “Gun! Gun!” I dove to the ground, as did most of the guys I was with. Again, no shots were fired.
Our little corner of Myers playground, near 59th and Chester Avenue, was the only part of the playground where we could still hang out. Black kids were now hanging out on the basketball courts and every other part of the playground, even near the Old House. We were more outnumbered than ever before, especially now that more white kids than ever had gone down to the Jersey shore for the summer….And this year, a few of the guys, including my friend Chris, were sent away for the summer to live with relatives. Chris was spending the summer with his cousins down the shore. A lot of parents were trying to find any way possible to get their kids out of this neighborhood that was getting more and more dangerous by the day. Because so few of us were hanging out in our little corner of Myers playground, we would often get attacked by black kids throwing rocks and bottles. We’d fight back for a while. But we were usually so outnumbered we’d have to retreat down Chester Avenue toward 60th Street, which was still a mostly white area. It was easy to see that Myers playground was not going to be a safe place to hang out that summer.
During that summer, there were times I found myself thinking about our situation compared to what I used to think our lives would be like as 12-year-olds. I expected we’d all be playing in summer baseball and basketball leagues at Myers playground every night. I expected we’d all be hanging out in the playground with a big group of guys and girls, flirting with each other and doing other normal stuff most kids our age were doing. I never expected this. I never expected that all the baseball and basketball summer leagues at Myers playground would be cancelled because of all the racial trouble. I never expected that we’d have nowhere to even play basketball anymore. Every time we tried to play on the outside courts at Myers, we’d get attacked. So we didn’t even bother trying. Man, did I miss playing basketball.
As time went on, piece by piece, Kevin lost access to the gyms, playgrounds and streets of his own neighborhood. As of July of 1971 he reports:
The situation in our neighborhood had gotten so bad that me, Joe, and Larry couldn’t even go to the grocery store for Mom anymore without getting attacked….We started shopping at the grocery store near 57th and Kingsessing Avenue. The man who owned that grocery store was also a nice man. He had no problem with us running up a bill. Unfortunately, shopping at his store became a problem for a different reason.
One day after school, when I went to buy groceries for Mom, a group of about seven black kids about my age were hanging out right across the street from the grocery store, in front of the shoemaker’s store. I was hoping that this was just a one-day thing, that this wasn’t going to be their new hangout. But I was wrong. That group of black kids started hanging out on that corner every day. So just about every time me, Joe, or Larry went to that grocery store, we had trouble. We’d either get into fights, get chased home, or both. I never liked grocery shopping in the first place. I always thought it was a pain in the butt. Now having to go grocery shopping felt like a combat mission. Many times, when I’d get close to 57th Street, I’d see the black kids hanging out that I knew were going to mess with me. So I’d turn around and go back home. I’d watch TV for about an hour. Then I’d try to go to the grocery store again, hoping the coast would be clear.
And now that me, Joe, and Larry were getting attacked almost every time we tried to go shopping, we had a problem. Mom had to come up with another plan. So she began sending our two younger brothers to the store. Marty and Steven were nine and seven years old at the time. Mom figured that there was no way the black kids who were hanging out near the grocery store would mess with a nine- and seven-year-old.
For a couple weeks, Mom’s strategy worked. But it wasn’t long before the black kids, who knew Marty and Steven were our brothers, caught on that they were now going to the grocery store instead of us. One day, one of those black kids, a 13-year-old named Duane, chased Marty and Steven home from the store and warned them to never come back. That was the end of Marty and Steven’s shopping days, and it made me want to get even with Duane more than ever before.
Duane was a punk. He was one of the first black kids to move into our neighborhood. Me and my brothers would walk past Duane’s house on our way back and forth to school. When Duane first moved into our neighborhood, I remember seeing how well he was treated by all his white neighbors. They even used to throw birthday parties for him. I didn’t have a problem with any of that. At the time, Duane seemed like a nice kid. We were about the same age, and we’d say “hi” whenever we passed each other on the street.
My problem with Duane started when more and more black kids began moving into the neighborhood. As Duane started hanging out with a bigger and bigger group, he liked to mess with us whenever his group outnumbered ours. So when Marty and Steven told me it was Duane who chased them home, I was more determined than ever to get even with him when the time was right.
I felt bad for Marty and Steven. When I was their age, I was having the time of my life, spending all day, every day, playing game after game with lots of kids my age in Myers playground. The only time Marty and Steven could go out of the house was when Mom or Dad walked them over to a friend’s house. They couldn’t even go out for Halloween.
Now Halloween night was nothing like it used to be. The few people who took kids trick-or-treating would do it right after school, before dark. Used to be that we had to wait until after dark before we could even start trick-or-treating.
Marty and Steven were pretty much confined to our house. Whenever they wanted to go outside to play, the only place they could play was out in front of our house.
One Saturday afternoon, even a simple football catch turned into an adventure. I remember I was sitting in the house watching the Phillies on TV when Steven walked into the house. He didn’t look happy.
“Do we have another football?” he asked me.
“Dad just bought you guys a football,” I said.
“I know,” Steven said, “Me and Marty were having a catch with it. When the football hit the telephone pole, it bounced up the street. When it got near the alley, a black kid jumped out, grabbed the ball, and ran away with it.”
It didn’t seem fair that Marty and Steven had to experience this kind of stuff at an age when they should have been having the time of their lives, just enjoying being kids. But they never complained about it. It was the only life they knew. They had no idea what they were missing. And that was probably a good thing.
By September 1971, Kevin also had to sneak around pretty much everywhere he went:
But working on the newspaper led to another problem. Because we did all of our newspaper work after school, we all walked home at different times. That meant I often had to walk home from MBS alone, instead of with the group that walked home together right after school when a cop car was still parked on every corner. By the time I’d leave MBS, it was usually around 4:30, giving me just enough time to get home, get something to eat, and get ready for football practice at six. By that time, the cop cars had already left their posts, and black kids were usually hanging out on both Kingsessing Avenue and Chester Avenue, my only possible routes home. Most times I didn’t even know which route I’d take until I scouted things out. The nicer the weather, the more careful I had to be. I never turned a corner until I took a peek around it. Then, depending on what I’d see, I’d sneak in and out of alleys to get past the areas where the black kids were hanging out. As soon as I was in the clear, I’d run as fast as I could the rest of the way home. Somehow, I always managed to get home safely. I was usually out of breath, but I was safe.
He then lost access to the Myers gym:
That winter, I was so busy with basketball, the school newspaper, and homework that I didn’t have a lot of free time. So I hardly ever made it over to Myers gym. Which meant I didn’t see all the changes that were happening over there. But I heard about them. For most of the fall and into the holidays, the indoor gym at Myers was still being used by white kids, including a lot of the Dirty Annies who played basketball there almost every night. The black guys still wouldn’t go into the gym. Then, one night after the holidays, it all changed.
The way I heard it, the night started out as a normal night at the gym. Lots of white kids, including a lot of the Dirty Annies, were hanging out and playing pick-up basketball. All of a sudden, about eight black kids from 58th and Greenway Avenue, the same kids who were always fighting with the Dirty Annies, walked into Myers gym and went right up to the basketball court.
The biggest black kid, a defensive tackle on the football team at Bartram High, yelled, “We got winners” loud enough for the kids who were playing to hear. Because nobody else had already called “winners,” the black kids had the right to play the winners of the game in progress.
When the game started, I heard things got rough in a hurry. Both teams were fouling each other so hard it wasn’t long before a full-scale brawl broke out on the basketball court. The playground workers rushed onto the court with arms extended, trying to separate the two groups. But they couldn’t stop the fight. Within minutes, cops rushed into the gym to get things under control. From that night on, there was always at least one cop stationed inside Myers gym. Now that there was always a cop in the gym, the black kids finally felt safe enough to hang out there. And before long, so many black kids were hanging in Myers gym that it was now the white kids who never went into the gym anymore. I never set foot in Myers gym again.
When Father McMurtry and our coaches from MBS found out that it wasn’t safe for us to hang out in Myers gym anymore, they decided to open MBS gym for us on weeknights to give us a place to hang out. So that’s where we went every night to get out of the cold, have some fun, and play some basketball. We had a great time every night, until it was time for everyone to walk home our separate ways. That’s when things got dangerous.
That next spring, in March of 1972, the violence hit closest to home:
Once I got home, I did my homework, had a quick dinner, and got ready to go over to MBS gym with my two brothers to hang out and play basketball.
I took the usual safety precautions. I wore my belt with the thick buckle. On the way out, I grabbed my car antenna from its hideout in our front garden and slid it up the sleeve of my spring coat. Because so many people were outdoors, I had a feeling it could be a dangerous night….Once inside MBS gym, we played pick-up basketball all night. The guys who weren’t playing sat around talking about sports, girls, and school, usually in that order. We had a lot of fun. And it wasn’t just white kids who came to MBS gym to play basketball. A few black kids from MBS parish usually played with us, including a tall, lanky kid who was the best player in the gym every night he showed up.
MBS gym usually closed around nine o’clock. Then came the hard part, getting home safe. And that night, as warm as it was, getting home safe figured to be even more difficult.
…on this warm night, as we got close to Cecil Street, nobody was around: no Dirty Annies, no black kids, no cops. Something didn’t feel right. Suddenly, at least a dozen black guys jumped out from behind five or six cars parked directly across Chester Avenue from where we were walking. They were coming after us, and they were coming fast.
Because we were already past Cahill’s, the six of us took off up Cecil Street, sprinting the 50 yards to our house as fast as we could. The black guys were right behind us. We made it into our house just in time. We were able to get inside and lock the front door just as the first black guy set foot on our front porch.
Usually, in the past, whenever we were being chased, the kids who were chasing us would go away once we ran into somebody’s house. This group didn’t go away. All of them came right up onto our small front porch and tried to force open the locked door.
Dad was bartending at Cahill’s that night. So Mom was home alone with my two youngest brothers. When we ran into our house and locked the door, Mom ran out from the kitchen. She was angry. Mom didn’t take any shit from anybody. I’m pretty sure my brother Joe inherited that trait from Mom. Even though all the black kids were still out on our front porch, Mom unlocked the front door and opened the storm door just wide enough to yell, “Get the hell out of here.”
As soon as those words left her mouth, I saw a fist burst through the slightly opened storm door and make contact with the right side of Mom’s face. Thank God the kid’s fist also hit part of the storm door, breaking the impact of the punch just enough so that Mom wasn’t seriously hurt. She was sore, but not nearly as sore as she would have been had the punch landed squarely. We got Mom out of the way, and the six of us kept pushing and pushing at the door until we finally got it shut and locked again.
I’d never felt such a terrible combination of anger and helplessness. Someone had just punched my mom in the face in our own house, and there was nothing I could do about it. The black kids on the porch were still trying to force their way in. If we had a gun in our house, I would have begun shooting out onto our front porch until I was out of bullets. As soon as the black kids heard police sirens getting closer, they took off running. The cops came to our house, wrote down information for their report, and drove John, Doug, and Tommy home.
The night Mom got hit in the face was a night I’ll never forget. But it wasn’t the worst thing that happened on our dangerous walks home after playing basketball at MBS. It wasn’t even close.
A few weeks later, when MBS gym closed at the same time Myers gym closed, six of us were headed home from MBS by way of Chester Avenue. Again, it was me, Joe, Larry, John, Doug, and Tommy. I remember looking ahead and seeing a group of about 15 black guys a block ahead of us, walking directly toward us.
As usual, our group thinned out along the route home. When me and my two brothers left our group at Cecil Street, only John, Doug, and Tommy remained. John would leave the group when they reached his house a block away. Then Doug and Tommy would continue on to the 60th Street area where they both lived.
About 10 minutes after me and my brothers got home, I remember hearing a lot of police sirens nearby. But I didn’t give it a second thought. Police sirens usually howled all hours of the night.
The next morning I heard the phone ringing in my parents’ bedroom unusually early, before we’d even gotten out of bed to get ready for school. Because me and Joe’s bedroom was right next to Mom and Dad’s room, I could easily hear Mom answer the phone. Then I heard Mom scream like I never heard her scream before. “No! No! No!” she yelled. Something was definitely wrong.
I jumped down from my top bunk and ran into my parents’ room. Mom was wiping tears from her eyes. After she got herself under control, Mom gathered the three of us older guys away from our younger brothers and told us what had happened. When Doug and Tommy continued walking home the previous night, they only made it as far as 59th Street. At 59th and Trinity Street, they where attacked by four black kids. Doug was stabbed to death.
The next day’s Evening Bulletin said that four black youths approached Doug and Tommy and asked them for a dime. When Tommy said he didn’t have any money, one of the black kids punched him in the face. At the same time, the Bulletin reported, another black kid pulled out a knife and stabbed Doug in the chest, killing him. The article also played up the fact that Doug was killed less than two blocks away from Police Commissioner O’Neil’s house, which was over by 61st Street, an area that was still mostly white.
What made Doug’s death even harder to accept was this: Doug and Tommy never hung out with us on weekends, or were part of our so-called “gang.” Doug worked a lot of hours at the beer distributor. I think Tommy had a job, too. They were just two nice kids who loved to play basketball with the boys in MBS gym. Nobody deserved to die that way. But Doug was probably the least deserving of all.
And I never saw Tommy again after the night Doug was killed. No one did. I heard his family moved him out of the neighborhood the very next day. In fact, after Doug’s death, there were four or five white kids from the neighborhood I never saw again.
My thoughts ranged from seeking revenge to a desire to get the hell out of this neighborhood. My anger grew deeper on the night of Doug’s viewing. His viewing was at a popular funeral home near 53rd and Chester Avenue. Nearly all the families living in that area now were black. Dozens of us lined the sidewalk outside the funeral home as we waited to say our final goodbyes.
All of a sudden, we heard the voices of a group of black kids from a half-block away. They were laughing and yelling at us.
One yelled, “Y’all goin’ to see the dead honky!”
A couple others kept chanting, “Dead honky! Dead honky!”
A bunch of us tried to go after them, but the cops held us back as the black kids scattered.
After Doug’s death, Mom and Dad were more determined than ever to move us out of the neighborhood. But they still couldn’t sell our house. And if they couldn’t sell our house, we couldn’t move. It was that simple. In the seven months our house had been up for sale, no one had come to look at it. Mom was so frustrated. To make matters even worse, Mom told me the realtor gave her some bad news. The realtor told Mom that, even if he found a buyer, our house was now only worth about $3,500. Mom was hoping she could get $6,000, which was still less than the $7,000 Mom and Dad paid for the house back in 1956. right a few years earlier when they kept calling Mom, warning her that if she didn’t sell her house soon, she wouldn’t get much money for it later.
In the fall of 1973, Kevin started going to private high school, which required taking the Trolley every day. As he waited at the trolley during, the morning rush hour, he sometimes got threats:
Still, even with all the adults around,sometimes the black kids would threaten me. The first time it happened, two black kids crossed Chester Avenue and stood right next to me. I had no idea what they were going to do. Then one of the kids said something to me just loud enough so only I could hear him, “We’ll get you when you come home, when none of these people are around.” And then the two kids walked back across Chester Avenue to join their friends.
I didn’t see this coming. I had no idea going to The Prep was going to put me in this situation. One morning, they even threatened me when Dad was standing right next to me waiting for the trolley. Four black kids walked right across Chester Avenue, and came right up to me, right in front of Dad.
“Your daddy won’t be with you when you come home,” said Willie, the biggest of the black kids.
“We’ll get you then.” As I said, Dad’s usually as easy-going as can be. But on that morning, he almost lost his cool. Dad’s face turned beet red as he warned them, “You guys lay a hand on my son, and you’ll regret it.”
Every day coming home was an adventure in avoiding Willie’s gang:
On every trip home, as soon as my trolley passed MBS Church at 56th and Chester Avenue, I’d stand up, grab the balance bar, and start scanning both sides of Chester Avenue. I had to quickly decide whether I’d be safer getting off the trolley at 57th Street or staying on until 58th Street. I had to get off at one stop or the other. And I had to make my decision even faster if no one else was getting off at 57th Street. If no one else was getting off there, I had to be the one to pull the cord above the window to let the trolley driver know someone was getting off at the next light.
Even if I didn’t see Willie and his friends, I still had to assume they could be hiding out, waiting for me. It was like a game of cat and mouse. I had to guess where they might be waiting. They had to guess which street I’d get off at. Those times when the black kids guessed right, I either had to outrun them to my house or end up having to try to defend myself against the group of them until a cop or an adult in the area came over to help me out.
By January 1973, Kevin had settled into a regular pattern of drinking and fighting:
IT WAS THE same routine every Friday and Saturday night. We’d all meet up at MBS schoolyard around six o’clock. Because MBS gym wasn’t open on weekend nights, we couldn’t go into the gym to hang out and play basketball like we did during the week. We really had nothing to do on weekends except to hang out in the schoolyard. Only now, we started doing what our oldhead always did on weekend nights. We started drinking beer.
While we waited for our beer to arrive, we’d gather the night’s artillery. We were getting into street fights just about every weekend night. So we had to collect every bottle, rock, or any other potential weapon we could find. We’d usually hide our collection of weapons in a metal trashcan in a corner of the schoolyard next to Monsignor Dooley’s garage.
When our beer arrived, we’d usually drink about two quarts of beer each in a back alley or on the front porch of a nearby row home where nobody lived anymore. In the past couple years, more and more houses were becoming abandoned as so many people moved out and so few people moved in. Years ago, there was hardly an empty house in the entire neighborhood.
The beer definitely got us fired up for the fight that was likely to happen soon. As much as I enjoyed the buzz from the beer, I tried not to get too drunk. I knew I needed to have some of my wits about me when the fighting started. A lot of times, the guys who got really drunk got hurt the most.
Whatever the reason, one night Scott was really drunk when a fight broke out on Kingsessing Avenue. As soon as we heard some of the guys yelling that they were in a fight, we all headed for Monsignor’s garage and grabbed whatever weapons we had hidden in the trashcan. Then we ran to the fight. When we got there, it was easy to see that we were outnumbered. So we tried to just hold our ground until the cops showed up. Bottles and rocks were flying. Belt buckles, broom handles, and car antennas were swinging.
Scott was so drunk, he didn’t even realize how outnumbered we were. He just kept running straight ahead into the middle of all the black kids, swinging his belt in the air, yelling, “I’m gonna fuck you up!”
As soon as Scott said those words, one of the black kids whacked him across the ribs with a broom handle and down he went. We all tried to get to Scott’s side, knowing if we could surround him we could protect him until he was able to get back on his feet. But there were too many black kids. We couldn’t get past the first line of kids we were already fighting. Getting to Scott’s side was impossible. They surrounded him and beat him up bad.
It reminded me of the way that black kid got beat up a few years ago by the Dirty Annies in front of our house. It had that same animalistic feel to it, like wolves attacking a fallen prey. Scott got pummeled with belts, broom handles, and kicks for about 20 seconds.
A lot of us were getting hurt in fights. The most common injuries were hits to the head or chest, usually from a belt buckle or broom handle. The worst injury I got was the night I got smacked across the head with a broom handle.
That night, the fight started when about 10 black kids attacked us, running at us from the Kingsessing Avenue entrance to MBS schoolyard. There were about 10 of us, too, hanging out in our usual spot on the steps of the annex building. Within seconds, the fight was on right there in the schoolyard.
I was in the middle of the pack; guys were fighting on my left and right. Luckily, I had my car antenna with me that night. On my first swing, I hit the black kid I was fighting across his right shoulder. I could see that I got him good, as he grabbed his right shoulder with his left hand.
My first reaction was to look to my right to see if any of my friends needed help. No one was in trouble on my right. Then I quickly looked to my left. All of a sudden I saw a fast-moving shadow coming from my right. A split second later, I saw stars.
My head was throbbing. I could feel a lump the size of half a golf ball. Every time I pulled my hand away from my head, I expected to see blood. But I was lucky; it never bled. Unfortunately, my luck ended there.
“I got hit,” I said, pointing to the lump on my head, which felt like it was getting bigger by the second. “My head’s killing me.”
I was hoping the cop would have some sympathy. He didn’t.
“Get up and shut up,” the cop said. “A couple of your friends are waiting for you.”
After he handcuffed me, he opened the doors to the back of the paddy wagon. As soon as the doors opened, I saw that two of my friends, Billy and Ron, were already in there.
“Get in there with your friends,” the cop said as he pushed me into the back of the paddy wagon and slammed the door shut.
Billy was yelling at the cop, “Let me the fuck out of here. We didn’t do nothin’. I’m gonna sue your ass, McCluskey.”
Officer McCluskey yelled back, “Shut the fuck up, Billy.”
We knew all the cops’ names. And they knew a lot of our names, as well. They all knew Billy’s name. Ron didn’t say a word to the cops. Last time Ron gave a cop some lip, the cop smacked him hard across the left side of his head with his huge walkie-talkie. That happened about a month earlier. Ron was still having a hard time hearing out of that ear.
That was the second time I got locked up. The cop who was driving the paddy wagon did the same thing as the cop who was driving the first time I got locked up. He kept slamming on the brakes, sending the three of us banging against the unpadded metal sides of the paddy wagon. Because we were in handcuffs, we couldn’t even brace ourselves. The more we slammed into the sides of the paddy wagon, the louder the cops laughed.
The cops put the three of us into the same holding cell. Four other white kids we didn’t know were already in the cell. We knew we were only going to be in the cell for a few hours, but it was still a scary feeling when those thick, steel bars slammed shut in front of us. As we were sitting in the cell, the cops marched four of the black kids we were fighting right past our cell and into another holding cell right next to ours. The trash talking began.
“Honky mother-fuckers, we’ll get y’all tomorrow night,” one of the black kids yelled.
To which Billy yelled back, “Fuck you, nig*er.”
The taunting continued back and forth until a cop walked past both holding cells, banging his nightstick against the jail bars and telling us all to “shut the fuck up.”
Because we were all under 18, we knew the cops would call our parents and tell them to come pick us up. The cops decided whose parents would be called in what order. So it was a good idea not to mouth off to the cops. The guys who gave the cops a lot of lip sometimes stayed in jail three or four hours longer than everybody else. Billy was the last one out of jail that night.
Mom had to call a neighbor to ask for a ride to get one of her boys out of jail. Dad was bartending. It made for an awkward ride home. I didn’t say a word. And neither did Mom. I knew she was upset. But she seemed to be getting used to this, now that me and my two brothers had already been locked up a total of six or seven times. When Mom would get the phone call from the cops, I actually think she was relieved when she found out we were in jail, not in the hospital, or worse.
Kevin’s dad was a part-time bartender down the street. An elderly woman named Agnes started making a habit of coming in alone, and she grew friendly with Kevin’s dad. This friendship ended up being the ticket out of the neighborhood:
I knew how much Dad wanted to move. I also knew we didn’t have the money to move unless we were able to sell our house. And that didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon. But I wasn’t going to tell Agnes we didn’t have the money to move. And I knew Dad had way too much pride to tell her. Evidently, Agnes figured it out for herself. One night, when Dad brought Agnes’ drink back to her table, she asked Dad if he had a minute to talk. Dad said he did, and he sat down with her. Agnes told Dad that she had some money saved, and that she wanted to lend him some to help us move out of the neighborhood.
I heard about it the next night. My parents were talking in the kitchen. I was eavesdropping, which was way too easy to do in our tiny row home. When Dad told Mom what Agnes said, Mom was thrilled.
“Joe, we have to do this,” I heard her say. “These kids are in danger.”
“Then let’s do it,” Dad said.
Right on, I thought to myself, we might be moving! By now, I was definitely ready to move. As much as I loved this neighborhood, it was nothing like it used to be. The danger now far outweighed the fun. Finally, I could allow myself to think that, someday soon, we might be moving to a safer place. I tried to never think about it in the past because I didn’t want to be disappointed. But now, at last, there was a good chance it was actually going to happen.
When Mom and Dad told me and my brothers that we might be moving, I never saw a group of happier kids.
By June of 1973, Kevin only had a few more days in the neighborhod:
“Just three more days,” I keep reminding myself, “and we’re moving out!” I take a slow, long look across the public church’s grounds over to Myers playground. I’ll definitely miss Myers playground. As bad as things got over there, the good times I had in that playground far outweigh the bad.
Then I take a look at all the houses up and down Cecil Street. I used to know everybody who lived on this street. And they all knew me. Now, I don’t know half the people who live here. Most of the new families are black. The few black neighbors that I’ve met seem nice. Most of the white people who still live here are trying to move out. There are six “For Sale” signs on our street, including ours. As I look at our “For Sale” sign sticking out of our tiny garden, I remember all the fun we had in that house when we were kids. But then my mind quickly flashes back to all the danger we faced living in that house in recent years. Every time I look at our front porch, I can still see Mom getting punched in the face through the screen door. No, I won’t miss that house at all.
Then I think to myself, “How did this neighborhood ever get so dangerous?” And I really don’t know the answer. It’s easy to say that when black people started moving in, the neighborhood started getting dangerous. So should I just jump to the conclusion that all the trouble was the black people’s fault? What about the fact that both the whites and the blacks started their share of trouble? What about all the black friends I made over the years at school in MBS, playing sports at Myers playground, and at The Prep? Once again, I’m reminded of Mom’s words, “There are good whites and good blacks. And there are bad whites and bad blacks.”
Then I wonder if other factors were involved, other than race. Why did the realtors keep calling white families to try to get them to move? Was it greed, so they could sell more houses and make more money no matter what impact it had on our neighborhood? Why did so many white families move out, even before a lot of the serious trouble started? Was it to protect their investments in their homes, or was it fear of what they thought living here would be like if they stayed? And why did so many black families move into our neighborhood? Was it part of some inner-city population shift? Obviously, I’ve got a lot more questions than answers.
One answer I do have is based on something I learned in my studies this year at The Prep: the struggle for territory nearly always leads to violence. In our neighborhood the past few years, there was definitely a struggle for territory. The battles in Myers playground, in Myers gym, in Cobbs Creek Park, in MBS schoolyard, throughout the whole neighborhood really, were just as much a struggle for territory as many of the battles in the wars I studied at The Prep. In a way, even the constant shoulder-to-shoulder bumps on the sidewalks were a struggle for territory, neither side willing to give up even one inch of ground. Hopefully, the longer I go to school, the more sense I’ll be able to make out of some of the stuff that happened around here.
Our house remained unsold for another two years after we moved. We never did find a buyer. Mom and Dad simply sold it to the realtor for $3,000 just to get it off their hands. During those two years when our house was empty, we still kept one bed in the house. Dad wanted to keep working his second job bartending at Cahill’s for as long as possible. On the nights Dad bartended, he’d sleep in our empty house. Then, in the morning, he’d take the “13” trolley back to his full-time job at Penn Central Railroad.
Considering how long it took us to finally sell our house, Agnes’ financial help was even more crucial. We would have been stuck, living in those dangerous conditions for at least a couple more years. Who knows what would have happened? I’m sure I would have had at least a few more chapters to write.
Years later, Kevin takes his children on a car ride through his old neighborhood:
The first words out of my six-year-old son’s mouth were, “Dad, didn’t you have any paper when you were growing up?” I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, so I asked him, “What do you mean?” He replied, “Why does everybody write on the walls? Don’t they have any paper?” I couldn’t help help but laugh at my six-year-old son’s reaction to all the graffiti spray-painted on virtually every inch of every wall everywhere we looked.
At Chester Avenue, I made a right turn toward MBS schoolyard. All the entrances leading into the schoolyard were padlocked shut. The chain-link fence surrounding the schoolyard was now topped with a layer of barbed wire. Near the schoolyard, many houses and storefronts were boarded up. Lots of cars were abandoned. And trash was piled up on empty lots where houses once stood. It was sad to see. When I left the schoolyard area, I decided to drive past Myers playground and head back home to West Chester.
As I slowly drove along the Chester Avenue side of Myers playground, I could see graffiti spray-painted on every wall. Also, the playground now had a big in-ground swimming pool, which was built shortly after we moved out of the neighborhood. Other than the graffiti and the pool, everything else in the playground looked pretty much the same as it looked back in the early seventies. Driving past Myers playground that day, I got choked up a bit as I thought about all the great times we had in that playground.
MBS School closed for good in 2002. At the time, MBS had only 150 students in the entire school. Remember, this is the same school that had nearly 3,500 kids back in the sixties. MBS Church remained open for another six years. Then, in 2008, after 117 years, MBS Church closed its doors for good. But this glorious structure still stands, the crucifixes on its palatial green domes still looking down over the entire neighborhood. The church in the basement is still in use, serving as a thrift shop. The inside of the upstairs church has been gutted. Many of the church’s magnificent artifacts and stained-glass windows have been removed and were incorporated into the renovation of a church in Holland, Pennsylvania, St. Bede the Venerable.
And that is the end of the story.
The $64,000 question here, is what could have been done differently? How could have this race war been prevented?