The word “utopia”, coined by the 15th century English writer Thomas More, is based on the Greek words eu-toposwhich means a good place, and or-toposwhich means no room.
The term was meant to show the idealized, out-of-reach nature of a perfect place. Certainly, a place that seemed so flawless could not exist without a hiccup or a flaw.
Some of the former residents of East Oak Lane would disagree. Tight between North 11th and Camac streets on one side, and Marvine and 13th street on the other, the 6000 block of North 12th Street was home to about 50 mostly Jewish families in the 1940s and 1950s.
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Residents remember the neighborhood the same way: children addressed adults as “aunt” and “uncle”; no one has closed its doors; everyone had a part to play in the annual Chanukah performance; and the street on a hill was transformed into a tobogganing haven in winter, when the street fathers stood up and down to block incoming cars, and the children spent the last afternoons and weekends at walking through mounds of snow.
Eighty years after the cohort of residents moved to North 12th Street, the surviving “children”, now in their seventies and octogenarians, will gather for a reunion on September 10 at Rittenhouse. The theme of the meeting, “12th Street: myth or reality”, puts the neighborhood’s utopian status to the test.
“We all think everything wonderful happened on 12th Street,” said Joan Cohen, 79, a former 12th Street resident. “…Everything bad or negative that happened in our lives happened after 12th Street.”
The group of 30-40 surviving residents last met in the early 2000s, and the cohort believe the next gathering will be one of the last opportunities to meet and share stories of a unique upbringing. .
“We’re all overflowing with memories,” Cohen said.
Cohen and his sister Alice Fisher were both born and raised on 12th Street, the children of young parents seeking to settle down during a tumultuous time in US history. On the eve of World War II and after the Great Depression, many couples took refuge in the less developed section of East Oak Lane in North Philadelphia and had children around the same time.
“As the kids grew, the trees grew — that kind of thing,” Cohen said. “It was a new street, and I think they all wanted to be friends. Most of them had lived in different neighborhoods, whether it was South Philly or Kensington. They came from many different neighborhoods as single people. before getting married.
The neighbors, according to former 12th Street resident Steve Trachtenberg, were relatively homogeneous in age and religious and cultural background. The commonalities laid the groundwork for children and parents to grow closer.
“There was going to be interaction right from the start, from 2-year-old birthday parties to ‘X’ number years later bar mitzvahs,” Trachtenberg explained. “The result was that associations, for whatever sociological reasons, were formed, and they happened to be particularly close. Whether the war brought them together or not, the Jewish background brought them together, the common age brackets, the common socio-economic brackets – it ended up producing a series of people… who sought and obtained the company of the rest of the street.
Fisher remembers playing hopscotch and skipping rope with the other kids in the neighborhood. She remembers a neighborhood mother who was a musician and wrote an annual Chanukah show, giving every child a small role, and fondly remembers the annual Memorial Day picnic at what is now Breyer Woods. Cohen still remembers his performance in the neighborhood talent show of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” from the Broadway show “South Pacific.”
In their childhood naivete – as well as the street culture of not speaking ill of others – Cohen and Fisher were raised to believe that any difference between street kids was inconsequential.
“Growing up, in our house, we never talked about anyone,” Fisher said. “I didn’t know who was old, who was young. I didn’t know who was rich, who was poor. Everyone was the same. It was like a family. »
What surprised the surviving residents of 12th Street most about dealing with the neighborhood was that all the relatives got along, especially the men.
“The parents had an unusual association,” Trachtenberg said. “The men played cards every Friday evening, alternating between houses. The woman played their card game; they played once or twice a week. The street, as a whole, did things together.
The adults held a “60-12 Club” newsletter, which included weather forecasts, letters to the editor, and results, with photos, of the Halloween party and street costume contest. Men took their wives on vacation to Grossinger or Concord in the spring. On Shabbat, although families belonged to different synagogues, many traveled significant distances to attend services together.
During major holidays, the extended family would move in; neighbors would still have personal ties to others’ aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmothers, who would cook Rosh Hashanah meals for each household.
“The whole street smelled like beef brisket one time,” Fisher said.
Looking back, however, Fisher and Cohen noticed some financial differences between families that were unclear to them as children. While some households had a new Cadillac parked in their driveway, others had old cars.
“I’m safe to say no one knew or cared enough,” Trachtenberg said. “It was just like that.”
Although former residents of 12th Street unanimously remember their time in the neighborhood fondly despite the socioeconomic differences, they were not spared tragedy or unrest.
The 1952 polio epidemic plagued the summers of Cohen and Fisher, who attended summer camp in Kittatinny. One year, campers had to stay in the campgrounds for an additional 10 days; a 14-year-old girl from the neighborhood had died of the virus.
The sisters knew a couple in the neighborhood who were arguing. In one instance, Fisher and Cohen’s next door neighbor got mad at them one summer day when Cohen was 6 years old. With the windows and screens of all the homes open, the woman sprayed her hose into Fisher and Cohen’s living room window.
“It was like the worst thing I can remember,” Fisher said.
However, the children of the neighborhood, although their memories are softened by time, have endured real hardship.
Fisher and Cohen’s mother died young at age 50. Steve Trachtenberg and his brother Drew lost their father when Drew was 4 years old.
Although they remember the sadness of the losses, Fisher, Cohen and Trachtenberg also remember how the families supported each other in times of devastation.
“My mother was a very strong person inside. She had a strong sense of family,” Trachtenberg said. “Everyone recognized that she was as capable as anyone of dealing with the loss. The support she received from neighbors throughout this time was nothing short of amazing.
“Nobody was alone in their problems,” added Fisher.
Although tight-knit for about two decades, 12th Street’s heyday ended in the 1960s when neighborhood children left for college, though many ended up staying in the city and continued to keep in touch over the years. .
Parents, better off financially and with emptier homes, moved to the suburbs, with many families settling in Wyncote.
The conclusion of the cohort’s stay in the neighborhood seemed natural, with each parting ways, though time had left a lasting mark on the residents.
“I have never cried in any way or cried at all about the 12th Street crossing. I never did,” Cohen said. “I always felt it endowed me with tremendous strength and warmth, understanding, caring and right relationships that matured throughout my life…It was my foundation.”
These two decades on 12th Street remain even more anomalous because of the period in which they existed.
Today, Trachtenberg said, the residents’ grandchildren want to attend college outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.
“Nobody stays in the same place anymore,” he said.
As young people move more in search of economic opportunities, there is less chance that a group of people, especially those with a Jewish majority, will settle in a neighborhood and collectively raise their children there. Recreating the environment of 12th Street is nearly impossible, Trachtenberg believes.
For now, 12th Street from the 1940s and 1950s will likely go down as a memory for the few dozen who lived in the idyllic neighborhood. Although Sept. 10 is likely to be one of the last times a large group of former residents will meet in person, reunion attendees can take comfort in sharing stories, knowing they didn’t keep their education for granted.
“Even the 8- and 12-year-olds were aware, on some level, that not everyone was going to a Chanukah party at a restaurant that pretty much everyone on the street attended,” Trachtenberg said. . “And not everyone was going to have a street where all the parents went to the Poconos for a weekend during the summer.”
“We then had a sense of uniqueness which was a valuable part of memory,” he added.