A West Philly Story

A grandson returns to the neighborhood his grandfather photographed a half-century ago. He finds changes- and likenesses.

George Ginsberg (left) and Jeffrey Slater (right) separated by 50 years 

This article was first published in
Philadelphia Magazine in June 1978
For the first 12 years of her life my mother lived at 60th and Catharine, which, in the recollections she retold for my brother and sister and me, emerged as a sort of urban Oz, somewhat in the style of The Wiz, but set in West Philadelphia during the 1930’s.

In her Oz, instead of a Tin Man there was the Pretzel Man, and the Yellow Brick Road was a Red Brick Row- of duplex apartments.

Among its wonders was Hassenfas’, an ice cream emporium, one of the Great Moments of Childhood. It didn’t have 28 flavors, but it did have Blanche, the most patient lady who ever waited for an indecisive child to part with a nickel for an ice cream cone. For a dime at Hassenfas’, you could sit on a wire backed chair at a spotless marble-topped table enjoying a huge scoop of ice cream out of a metal sundae dish lined with fluted paper- and you got to keep the paper!

Catharine Street in the 1930's and 1970's 

Next door was Riesenbach’s, the penny candy headquarters. There they sold the real stuff, the kind with dust on it, as well as a number of other novelty items. One day my mother had come racing home to announce, “Stanley Cherne has a nail through his finger and I want one too.” Riesenbach’s, it developed, was selling a nail and bandage arrangement that, when slipped on the finger made it look just exactly as if the finger had been transfixed by a nail. For some reason, my Shirley Temple-esque mother was enchanted with the idea of sporting a gruesomely mangled finger like Stanley’s.

There might have been a suspicion that my mother lived in some sort of MGM fantasy instead of a real neighborhood if it hadn’t been for the pictures my mother and her neighborhood friends locked forever in childhood. The pictures were taken by my grandfather, George Ginsberg, a commercial photographer, each year on my mother’s birthday, May 22.

Some things change but much is the same

The routine never varied. First the birthday girl would dash out- sometimes the length of the street-to greet each arriving present. Then my grandfather posed the kiddies on the lawn in front of 6049A Catharine and took the picture. The photographs-each child received a print as a memento-were as much a part of the birthday ritual as the games, prizes and the specially designed cake with pink ribbon bows and silver sprinkles from the Freihofer Co. (My Great Aunt Bess, who was in the confectionery trade, was believed to wield some mysterious influence over the pastry chefs at Freihofer’s, causing them to make a truly special effort on my mother’s cake.)

Annette and Bea- Sisters in 1930's. Two sisters living on the same
street in 1978
All of this was told to me, of course, where I grew up in northern New Jersey. I never saw 60th and Catharine until I came to Philadelphia to attend The University of Pennsylvania. I found that I was a quarter of a century too late to visit Hassenfas’ and Riensebach’s. As I strolled down Catharine Street to see what 6049A Catharine looked like, I expect great changes.

To my very pleasant surprise, the apartments looked remarkably similar to the way they had in the old pictures. A blight had struck the large leafy trees that made the street so attractive in the former days, and with the trees gone the neighborhood had a kind of undressed look. But much remained the same. The kids still played along the street and waited for the ice cream man to come, just as my mother and her friends had waited for the ice man. (He really did cometh then, and would give the kids pieces of ice to suck, though my mother as a child had been warned that consuming ice “chills the stomach”- a dangerous condition.)

The first page of the article from June 1978
Moreover, the houses were still homes for little girls who had birthday parties.
And, at about that time, particularly because I had become fascinated by the charm of my grandfather’s depiction of the neighborhood half a century ago, I decided to become a commercial photographer myself. And what better way to honor my grandfather’s influence on my career than to use his pictures as a guide, and to go out to try to capture the high-spiritedness of Catharine Street today.

Footnote to this story: 

This story was first published almost 32 years ago in Philadelphia Magazine in June of 1978.

Although I wrote much of this story and took all of the contemporary photographs, my Aunt Annette was my co-author, editor and inspiration for the writing in this work. My grandfather George Ginsberg was the inspiration for the photography. I am republishing this story on my blog to honor my mother Bea and the legendary tales she continues to tell me about Catharine Street in West Philadelphia and as a tribute to my beloved aunt Annette Lawrence and my grandfather George Ginsberg. To this day my mother, aunt and grandfather remain vitally important creative inspirations in my life. 

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