November 27December 4, 1997
sidebar: Blasts from the past along Center City's back street.
Photos by Julia Lehman
It begins at the Vet and ends in suburbia. As much as any other street in the city, 13th Street tells the story of Philadelphia. Howard Altman tells 13 stories of life on Philadelphia's longest back street.
by Howard Altman
I have seen some strange things looking out the window of City Paper's 13th Street offices.
Back-alley brawls that put most heavyweight bouts to shame.
Crack dealers vending baggies like the hot dog lady hawks weenies.
Every night, a constant parade of transvestite hookers and panhandlers and bag ladies.
Every morning, a shift change as the junkies go home and the suits and hard hats go to work.
Had I been here at the time, I might have seen Mumia Abu-Jamal gun down police officer Danny Faulkner at the corner of 13th and Locust, which I can see from our windows.
In recent years, I've noticed some changes on 13th Street, too. The blocks between Pine and Chestnut have gone from utter blight to bright, thriving heart of gay culture and commerce.
The street, however, has lost none of its color.
And I wondered, with so much variety packed into just these few blocks, what about the rest of the street?
It begins at the Vet and ends in suburbia.
It shadows the Avenue of the Arts, runs past the Convention Center and travels through the ruins of North Philly.
It's a 12-mile stretch of road running north from Geary Street to 69th Avenue that traverses a diverse collection of ethnic neighborhoods, up-and-coming commercial zones and decimated wastelands.
As much as any other street in the city, 13th Street tells the story of Philadelphia.
Meet some of the people.
Read some of their stories.
Welcome to 13th Street.
In The Belly of the Bialy
The 3200 block, S. 13th
In a thick, halting Italian accent, Joseph Baldassarre says he can live with the occasional drunken Eagles fan who mistakes his street for a urinal. He says he doesn't fret about the loud roar from the cement bialy known as the Vet that he sees every morning when he leaves his home on the 3200 block of South 13th Street, the only street in the city that begins in the parking lot of the massive sports arena.
He'll get through 'em.
"I love it here," says Baldassarre of his neighborhood of tidy, three-story stone- and brick-faced rowhomes sandwiched between the stadium to the south and I-76 to the north.
The neighborhood is made up largely of Italian Americans and immigrants who have lived here since the houses were built back in the '50s. Despite the inconveniences it's a vast improvement over his native Italy, says the home remodeler, who on this blustery November morning is climbing into his van to head to work.
"I came here to get a better chance," he says. "I have been living for 28 years on this street."
For the most part, he says, the police do a pretty good job keeping out drivers who don't want to pay for event parking and the inebriates who cannot wait for a restroom.
The neighbors, fearing a constant invasion of troublemakers, originally fought hard to prevent construction of the Vet.
"We created a little ruckus," says 81-year-old Carmela Capelli, who moved into the 3100 block of South 13th Street back in 1954. "The homes were just built. It was my first new home. We were concerned about what would happen."
The rowdies are merely a nuisance. Capelli, like Baldassarre, deals.
"I wouldn't want to live anywhere else," she says. "I know everybody on the street."
2535 S. 13th
"Thirteenth Street is half and half," says Nick Cataldi, assistant manager of Cholly Dean's Place, which, depending on how you look at it, is either the first or last bar on 13th Street.
Cataldi doesn't specify which half is which, or even what he means by his observation, but, then again, he is a busy man. He has deliveries to take care of.
"It's a good date bar," says Cataldi. "We have good food specials and a DJ. People come from all over. Young people and older people. It's not that unusual."
Well, maybe it is unusual, just a little bit.
Put a quarter in the pistachio machine and watch out.
Those suckers come out piping hot.
Ron Kondran, Jr., cutlet king.
Photo: Julia Lehman
A Cutlet Above
13th & McKean
Ron Kondran Jr. smiles as he lugs a big hunk of meat up from the basement of R&K Fresh Meats Inc.
Kondran, a beefy man with wavy black hair and a fuzzy goatee, is in his element. Unlike his siblings, who became lawyers, Kondran grew up wanting to cut meat for a living.
He does that and then some.
Eight years ago, Kondran took over the 70-year-old business on the corner of 13th and McKean in the heart of South Philadelphia three-story rowhomeland. The shop now provides meat for more than 5,200 homes in the area. The place, he says, is more than just a butcher shop. It's an institution.
"This is the place where they invented the chicken cutlet," he says, proudly, punctuating his proclamation by slapping the heavy slab of beef on a countertop.
Back in the old days, he says, butchers killed chickens and sold them whole. Then, in 1955, owner Al Scalpato came up with the bright idea that increasingly busy customers would buy more chicken in pieces. And pay more per pound. So he began cutting up the fowl into legs and thighs and breasts and wings.
Business boomed and Scalpato changed the name of the business to Al's Cut-Up Poultry.
But a funny thing happened on the road to success.
The legs and thighs and wings were going. But for some reason, the customers were not buying breasts.
Scalpato was puzzled.
Until he went to a food show where he saw a chef demonstrate how to filet a chicken breast. And that, says Kondran, gave Scalpato another bright idea. Beef and veal cutlets were very popular. Why not chickens?
Picking a fresh breast out of the display case, Kondran demonstrates the quick technique Scalpato first employed in 1959 to revolutionize the poultry business. Deftly removing the bone and cartilage from a chicken breast in just seconds, Kondran then takes a piece of wax paper, covers the filet, whacks it a few times and voila, the chicken cutlet.
The concept took Greater Philadelphia, and then the nation, by storm. Chicken cutlets were soon flying out of the store. Scalpato was hiring a lot of neighborhood residents to help keep up with demand for the cutlets.
Including a tubby kid named Ernest Evans, who moved into the neighborhood from South Carolina.
Who's Ernest Evans?
A few years after starting a fledgling career as a cutlet cutter, Evans began singing. Dick Clark's wife noticed how much he resembled Fats Domino, gave him a new name and voila, Evans was Chubby Checker.
Jim Acconciamessa (center) and customers at Ippolito's.
Photo: Julia Lehman
13th & Dickinson
"If it swims, we got it," says Jim Acconciamessa, holding up a monkfish, one of nature's truly cruel practical jokes, from behind the counter at Ippolito's Seafood.
Like a lot of people in the neighborhood, Acconciamessa"the name means to fix the mass in Italian," he says proudlyis an acorn that did not fall too far from the tree.
He's working in the neighborhood where he grew up. His customers are the kids hea former altar boyplayed with and the adults who yelled at him when he was doing something he shouldn't have been.
While the neighbors have remained fairly constant, their eating habits have changed, he says.
For one thing, they are eating more fish.
For another, they are so busy these days, they are eating more prepared fish dishes.
But not every busy person is looking for ready-made.
"Fumo is one of my regulars," says Acconciamessa of the state senator, helicopter aficionado and mensa member. "Comes in once a week and orders a couple of pounds of red snapper."
Jesse Hamilton: A gentleman and his engines.
Photo: Julia Lehman
The 900 block, S. 13th
Jesse Hamilton leans up against his pick-up truck full of old car engines and gripes loudly about the state of things on the 900 block of South 13th Streetthe back end of the greatly touted High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA).
As Hamilton speaks, TV trucks park and big black cars full of very important people pull up around front.
It is opening day for the school and dignitaries like Ed Rendell and David Hornbeck are on hand to usher in the new era.
Hamilton, taking in the action from his vantage point behind the school, is unimpressed by the hoopla.
"The city should have cleaned up this park, you see how bad it is?" Hamilton asks rhetorically as he points to the broken fences, garbage, out-of-control weeds and old tree trunks scattered about Ridgway Park, on the corner of 13th and Carpenter. "But they won't clean it up."
When asked why, Hamilton is quick to fire off an answer.
"It's all black around here," he says. "The city doesn't care about this neighborhood."
Hamilton, who has lived in his house since the buck stopped at Harry Truman's desk, says he is fed up with being the only one who takes care of the problems on his block. A place where he raised 10 kids, the last one born nine years ago when he was 61.
"Every few months, I go out and cut the weeds down, because no one from the city comes out here," he says. "And those logs in the park? They've been here for years. Years. Same thing with the broken fence. You would think with all the money and energy going to fix up the school, somebody would do something about this mess."
The park, says Hamilton, is hardly the only mess in the neighborhood.
The people, he says, are in even worse shape.
Years and years of rampant drug use and the violent crime associated with it have turned the neighborhood into something out of a Mad Max movie, says Hamilton. The police, he says, turn a blind eye to what takes place on the street, letting the dealers and hoodlums rule.
Still, the 70-year-old auto mechanic, who has a couple of motors he is only happy to sell to anyone interested, does not live in fear.
"They want to break into my house, go ahead and let 'em," says Hamilton with a bellowing laugh. "I'll be the only one coming out."
800 S. 13th St.
The traffic in and out of Robert Latimore's cramped bodega is constant.
Little kids come in for candy and gum. Older kids come in for cigarettes. Men and women stop by for milk, eggs and other staples.
The bodega is just across the street from the Martin Luther King Plaza, a collection of high-rise and low-rise public housing often cited for being an anchor pulling the neighborhood down.
The Avenue of the Arts will never flourish, say many outside observers, unless the towers come down. The concentration of poor blacks will scare away the well-heeled arts crowd, they say in muffled whispers, careful not to have their candid comments associated with their names in public. Too much crime at the Plaza, they say. Too many problems.
Latimore, however, doesn't see it that way.
To him, the Plaza is a thriving community, just like it's been since the towers went up in the '60s. He knows the old people. He knows the young men who hang on the street.
Despite the drugs and the crime and the poverty, the 55-year-old Latimore has been in business since 1970longer than most mom-and-poppers in a city that has been hemorrhaging residents for years. He's not blind to the misery. He can see the dealing and hear the gunshots. His store has been broken into a couple of times. But he is also not blind to what he says is a community struggling to survive.
If anything, he says, the Plaza isn't a drain on plans for the Avenue of the Arts.
It is the grandiose redevelopment scheme bolstered by millions of dollars in state and local tax dollars that is a drag on the Plaza and the local businesses that depend on it.
"The Avenue of the Arts has hurt a lot of people," says Latimore. speaking on behalf of the few people who are able to eke out a living around the Plaza.
With Broad Street revitalized, new businesses there are sucking away what little available money there is to businesses on 13th Street, says Latimore. The increased property values on Broad Street do little for 13th other than increase taxes, he says.
And there is one more problem created by the Avenue of the Arts, he says.
"We can't get the banks to loan us money to expand our businesses," says Latimore. "It is very hard for small business owners like me to survive without help."
So it is up to the community, he says, to help itself. Which is why he has formed Future Harvest Inc., a non-profit organization to help get kids off the street and away from the temptations of drugs and fast money.
"We have to help ourselves," he says. "No one else will."
Photo: Julia Lehman
Frank's For The Memories
13th and Pine
It is 11 a.m. Opening Time at Dirty Frank's, the windowless, signless home of good times and cheap beer, and Mary Pozzeli has settled into her customary table with her customary spread; a bag of barbecue chips, a bag of plain chips, a cranberry muffin and a glass of Rolling Rock.
"Wanna blow job, hon?" asks the 75-year-old woman with scraggly blond hair who loves to get a rise out of people.
There are many stories about Mary Pozzeli.
Stories about broken marriages and hard living.
Stories that are as hard to grasp as the foamy head on her Rolling Rock.
Stories not all that unusual, says Frank's owner Jay McConnell, in a former speakeasy that re-opened as a legitimate, if bawdy bar a few days after Prohibition was lifted.
Stories that are part of the legend of one of the few places in the city where anyone from anywhere of any racial, ethnic or economic background can feel right at home right away.
So Jay, how do you keep the beer so cheap?
"I used to come here when I was in college and I remember what it is like not to have a lot of money," says McConnell, who has owned Frank's for 20 years. "We don't charge a lot. We make our money in volume."
Open mike night at Franny's Place.
Photo: Julia Lehman
God's Little Bagel
201 S. 13th St.
As usual, Tony Messina is embroiled in a humorously heated conversation not found in too many other places in the city.
"It's not a dick bagel, it's a penis bagel," says Messina, the hyperkinetic counterman at Franny's Place, the gay leather bagel shop in the heart of Philly's gay business district.
"Who invented that?" asks the puzzled young man in the leather jacket.
"God," says Messina, breaking into the cackling laugh that is his trademark no matter how early or late it might be.
As he talks, Terry Arnaldi, the drag blues queen of 13th Street, picks out a weepy version of "Stormy Monday" on her guitar. Unlike most Saturday nights, Arnaldi's audience is sparse. There are a few couples, sipping coffee and snacking on pastries, but Franny's is not as packed as usual, thanks to the heavy, wet flakes of snow that have kept the normally bustling crowds off the street.
"If it exists, it walks down 13th Street," says Franny Price, the zaftig blond owner of Franny's Place. "If it doesn't exist, it walks down 13th Street."
Franny's Place, which evolved out of the old Both Ways leather shop, has become a haven for a diverse blend of java drinkers.
In the daytime, notes Price, it is the suit-and-tie crowd. At night, it is the tie-me-up crowd, the gay-recovering-alcoholics who don't want to hang in bars and, after 2 a.m., the stragglers from across the street at Woody's, the city's biggest gay bar, who aren't quite ready to call it a night.
Except for a gang of truly scary creeps who show up on the street around 5 a.m., the 200 block of South 13th Street is vastly improved, says Price, who has been here for more than 20 years and has seen it rise from a hooker haven to become the bustling bastion of gay nightlife.
"I remember back in 1976, hookers were coming in from all over the country to work the crowds," says Price, leaning on the counter where the penis bagels are stored.
The first real change, she says, came when the Hershey Hotel (now the DoubleTree) was opened in the late '70s.
"They had to start cleaning the street up because the city knew that people wouldn't want to come to a high-priced hotel in such a crummy neighborhood."
The next big step was when Bill Wood, owner of Woody's, petitioned the city to have on-street parking end at 9 p.m.
"The pimps used to line up their big cars and just hang there all night," says Price. "They don't do that anymore."
The art of window display at Doc Johnson's.
Photo: Julia Lehman
Sex Doesn't Sell
13th & Arch
You would think that the Convention Center, with its influx of wild-eyed yahoos from the hinterlands, would bring in the big bucks to a place like Doc Johnson's, where you can see peep shows for two bucks.
But you would be wrong.
At least according to Sonny Garofalo, DJ's owner, whose face was the model for the Doc Johnson's sign that doesn't feature neon nudes dancing.
"It hasn't done anything for business in Center City except the hotels, maybe," says Garofalo, offering an opinion that flies in the face of the city's statistics that show the center has indeed been good for business.
Doc Johnson's has benefited not in the least, says Garofalo.
"We are still trying to catch up from all the years we were closed when they built this thing," he says. "We lost 70 to 80 percent of our business."
That, says Garofalo, is one reason he instituted the much-hyped change of DJ's Arch Street facade, removing the dancing nudes and opening up a newsstand.
As he speaks, a man comes in and looks at the row of newspapers and magazines. A couple more emerge from the lower level, where they've spent God knows how long spending God knows how much money on the peep shows below.
Garofalo leans on the new glass humidor and grudgingly admits that, while the Convention Center hasn't caused business to boom, at least the neighborhood looks nicer.
"They've cleaned it up real good," he says. "This used to be the blood pit of Philadelphia, especially when the bus terminal was across the street. You still have muggings, but it is a lot safer."
The pickpockets, says Garofalo, are mostly long gone.
And you might get a car break-in every once in a while, but not nearly like the old days, before the Center, when you'd get five or six a day.
Jackie Miller, gumshoe.
Photo: Julia Lehman
Cheaters Never Prosper
309 N. 13th St.
"No Loans," reads the sign on the glass window inside the Miller Detective Agency. "Employee Polygraph Protection Act," reads one on the wall.
The agency, located amid rehab facilities and large, abandoned factory buildings, is pure Sam Spade.
It specializes in security work and cheating spouses, says Jackie Miller, the white-haired woman who has run the place since her husband, who founded it, died eight years ago. A cautious woman who wouldn't divulge a secret if you shoved bamboo slivers under her fingernails, Miller won't dish any dirt on her clients.
What she will say is that a good part of her business comes from men and women who want to know if their significant others are sneaking behind their backs.
"We do a lot of polygraph tests," says Miller. "A couple will come in and one of my polygraph technicians will conduct a lie detector test. To see if there are any fidelity problems."
Seeing couples reach that point, says Miller, is "devastating."
But it helps pay the bills.
So too does surveillance work, like the recent case in which one of her men recently shot footage of an out-of-state man having a tryst at some swank local hotel she wouldn't name.
Oh, that "No Loans" sign?
"We get a lot of people from the rehab centers coming in to look for detective jobs," says Miller.
Walter Thomas outside his dream house
Photo: Julia Lehman
House of Dreams
813 N. 13th St.
Maybe it's the huge mural of a Civil War-era farm in Virginia that you can see from blocks away.
Maybe it's the strange fountain that burbles every minute of every hour of every day.
Maybe it's the fleet of beat-up cars parked every which way in the massive yard.
Whatever the reason, Walter Thomas' dream house stands out among the vacant factories and weed-filled lots like the Taj Mahal.
"I saw this place and fell in love with it," says Thomas, who is walking out of the basement with a wrench in his hand.
Across the street, two men exchange drugs for money in the overgrown foliage growing next to a burned-out building. Every few minutes, men wheel shopping carts full of all kinds of junk up and down the street.
Unlike most people, who get the hell out of places like North Philly when they can, Thomas actually moved in here with his wife from Wynnefield back in 1990. (His wife, he adds, divorced him a few years ago. He insists that it had nothing to do with the house.)
"I came here to show people that you can take these older places and fix them up," says the 70-year-old general contractor who specializes in tearing things down and building things up.
And fix the place up he did.
Aside from commissioning the painting and installing the fountain, Thomas began buying up surrounding vacant lots from the city, seven in all, eventually accumulating one of the biggest private spreads in all of Philadelphia.
Despite all of Thomas' labors, there is still much to be done. The building, a former hardware store, is a work-in-progress.
Inside, it looks like the Museum of Modern Junk. Thomas, an inveterate collector, squirrels away stuff he finds in the buildings he tears down.
In one corner, there is a mirrored bar, with dusty old airline bottles that look like they were originally aboard the Spirit of St. Louis.
Across from that is a large and somewhat cheesy rendition of The Last Supper.
Over here are huge bird cages. Over there, brass plates.
The place is so amazing that a University of Pennsylvania professor is studying it, he says.
Amazingly enough, Thomas can't remember his name.
13th and Montgomery
Khalil Collins has an important piece of wisdom he likes to share with anyone who asks.
"Stay away from the little trucks," he says, pointing to a small lunch cart at the end of a long row of food wagons parked on 13th Street by Temple University.
The big trucks, says Collins, a junior studying psychology, are a much better bet for hungry students looking for a quick and cheap meal.
"The little trucks have no facilities for washing hands," he says. "The bigger the truck, the more I trust the food."
Collins, who wants to teach special needs kindergartners after he graduates, says he prefers the Greek truck.
"Anything but this," he says, pointing to a hot dog vendor.
Marcus Pearson has a KIA for you.
Photo: Julia Lehman
On A KIA Day (You Can See To The End of 13th Street)
13th and 69th Ave.
Marcus Pearson is not nearly as stiff as the KIA Sportage that I am test driving.
Pearson, a salesman for Team KIA on Old York Road, tells me he is the wrong guy for the job at hand.
"I've only been on the job for six weeks," he says.
I drive the silver sports ute out of the parking lot to the back of the dealership on the northern apex of 13th Street, which ends at 69th Avenue, smack at the Bromley Apartments.
It is clear, despite his disclaimer, that Pearson is the perfect man for this mission.
"This used to be an old Jewish neighborhood," says Pearson, a gregarious man who is quick with a smile or a belly laugh, as I slam my foot down on the brakes at a stop sign. Clearly, the brakes are not this $17,000 machine's strong point.
"How do you know that?" I ask.
"I live around here," he says, pointing out that in the last 10 years, middle-class Jews have moved out of the neighborhood of tidy stone and middle-class blacks have moved in.
Other than the fact that the people are darker, you would never know the difference, he says of a neighborhood that is much more like tony nearby Cheltenham than the devastation just a mile or so south of here.
Turning around in the parking lot of the University Eye Center, I step on the gas and try to gun the KIA up the hill. My foot to the floor, the car lurches forward, its feeble two-liter four-cylinder providing little in the way of pep.
Heading up the hill toward the apartments, Pearson, who is black, tells me he used to live in what was then an all-Jewish residence.
"Funny, you don't look Jewish," I joke.
In the rear view mirror, I see him reach into his sweater and under his shirt and pull out a Jewish star.
"See this? It was given to me by a neighbor and blessed by a rabbi," he says.
Pearson goes on to say that he and his ex-wife were the first blacks to move into the building.
"It was great, I loved it," he says. "People were very, very nice to us."
The only reason he moved out, he says, is because he wanted his own home, which is just around the corner from 13th Street.
"You can't find a better neighborhood in Philadelphia," he says.