I was born in November of 1964, the Beatles were on top of the US charts, US voters recently elected incumbent president Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater and our country was deeply involved in the conflict in Vietnam. I was eventually told that I was of German and Irish descent even though my grandmother on my mother’s side was from Croatia. Go figure! To my family, St. Patrick’s Day, Von Steuben Day, Pulaski Day or whatever day just meant another center city parade and nothing more. None of that mattered anyway as we never discussed descent or ancestry around my house. As a matter of fact, we really didn’t discuss much at all. I’m sure if he were ever asked; my dad would think a family tree is the thing that was growing in the backyard three houses away. No, where we came from that was actually known as the neighborhood tree.
We were certainly not outwardly ethnic by any account. We waived no flags, had no stories of immigration or Ellis Island, and cooked nothing exotic, including spaghetti, and no one spoke with an accent. At least not an accent that people would stop and wonder about like the candy store owner around the block, we all spoke the same and we all spoke Kensington. We didn’t have a clue that we had an accent living in Kensington, but the rest of the city certainly knew it. “These, Thems, and Thoses, became Deze, Dems and Dozes.” That was the first give away. Just like South Philly with its rich Italian heritage and its residents that all seemed to speak with an Italian accent so did we, but our accent was derived from a mixed bag of cultures, like a stray mutt walking the streets. That’s what Kensington was in the 1970’s, a mixed bag of cultures, a melting pot of row home dwellers with an attitude.
We were tight knit back then, both good and bad. We got in trouble then confessed our sins. We said our “Our Fathers” and went back for another round. Our world was small, just a couple of blocks around and to venture from it was an adventure. Everyone knew everyone. Days were easy to predict and so were nights. Life was a routine. Some people wanted out, others died trying. Some were just content and lived for the sake of living until they drew their dying breath close to home. There are still some, but few, who have remained there for generation after generation like it was in the past. Those are the real troopers who have seen it all and possibly want to forget the past and I can’t really blame them. But I choose to remember and revel in my experience. I was one of the last of a dying breed of “neighbors who knew neighbors.” I could tell you the names of all 24 families who lived on my block when I was a kid. Try that now, it’s probably nearly impossible to do, not withstanding the fact that there are only 16 houses left on my street
If you were a kid living in Kensington in the 1970’s, this is written for you. My story is not unique by any account. This story is not as much about me personally but about my experiences. Kensington had many schools with many schoolyards. We had many different corners to hang on and almost each had a corner store. We had many churches with many different religions. I hope some of my memories help stir up some of yours, that’s what this is all about. This is what I remember. Maybe our stories cross paths somewhere. If you grew up in Kensington there’s a good chance they do. Maybe we met at the Midway Theater; a Kensington Ramblers game or a church dance, possibly we even had a fistfight in the schoolyard, or checked out the same girl as she made her way up Kensington Ave. Who knows?
This story is dedicated to my mother who divorced my dad and got me out of Kensington at least part of the time, and this book is dedicated to my father who dropped dead at 79 in the backyard of the house where I grew up and helped to keep me grounded and in Kensington for life. I miss you both…
Row homes are not just found in Kensington, but there’s certainly something special about the ones there. The one I grew up in was in the middle of the block. We shared 4 white marble steps with our neighbors with that cool sliding board thing in between that was great to drop Hot Wheels from. I remember each week coming outside and “scrubbing the steps.” Kids didn’t do it as much as adults did, mostly older women, mostly heavy older women in house dresses, possibly a step scrubbing thing! You did that on the same day you swept up out front. I always loved the look of sparkling white steps, and as a kid I was proud to sit on them when the work was over and they dried off. When the work was done, I remember always loving to watch the bucket of cleanser filled dirty water being dumped at the side of the gutter and to watch it slowly follow the curb and make its way down the block to the end of the street to the culvert (pronounced “colbert” in Kensington) also know as the sewer. The water flow sometimes took what seemed to be at least a half an hour to reach its destination. That was unless it got hung up by a pile of dirt, a stray crushed tin can, or some other kid made dam. The stream of water always seemed to pick up kids along the half block trip to the corner. We all seemed to stare and watch in amazement in some kind of silly trance. Usually one of us would get a toy truck or a GI-Joe and let our imagination go wild in the rapids. That was until some adult yelled at us to “get out of that damn dirty water!’
You see, back then when I grew up it didn’t have to be your mom or dad who would yell at you. It could be basically just about anyone on your block. Everyone knew each other and everyone watched out for each other. It was almost a good thing at times that mom or dad didn’t catch you doing something and one of the neighbors did. Word eventually would get back to your parents, unless you were especially polite and well liked, but at least it gave a kid some time to prepare.
The outside of my house was red brick, just like the rest of the block except for the one house with the white stucco front. That was unheard of where I came from. Someone actually had the nerve to spend a few dollars and fix up the front of their house! Some jealous adults would mumble. “Where did they get the extra money from?” “ They must be selling drugs!” They even got new windows. It was the talk of the block for weeks. You either loved the improvements or hated them. My dad thought the house “looked like hell!” Some of the older folks who didn’t like change agreed with him. A white stucco front on a block filled with red bricks did stand out like a sore thumb but when it was new and freshly painted it looked great to me. There was a lot of grumblings about the stucco front family that seemed to always originate from the same crew of gossiping older overweight house dress wearing women, the ones that grew up and grew old together. That family’s neighborhood roots didn’t go back as far as most on our block. They even had something that was unheard of where I came from, a house down the shore! Wow, now they must he rich, and neighbors did little to veil their jealousy. Honestly, they never really did fit in with the rest of us. That family was the first that I remember to actually move off our block and out of the neighborhood. There was no need to worry about the new neighbors though; the house was quickly bought by the next door neighbor whose son recently got married and his new wife who just happened to grow up around the corner quickly moved in. You know, after going back to my block for a visit and looking at that stucco front house that hasn’t been repainted in nearly 40 years I have to finally agree with my dad’s first assessment, “It looks like hell”…