Urban renaissance up close: A Society Hill pioneer remembered

Society Hill's revival: A memoir

6 minute read
What is the lasting impact of a gesture, comment or note? In a culture defined by production values and "must have" personal technology, possibly little. Who cares for a script when the computer geek can download the entire Mayan civilization with the push of a button?

Which brings us to a recent obituary of one Fred "Spike" Stapleford, a Philadelphia boy (Penn '41) who made it from English instructor at the University to the right-hand side of Walter Annenberg, as well as sundry other business and civic accomplishments.

In 1946, a shorthand written note from Spike to an aspiring journalist undergraduate hit me in the thinker, and some 13 years later, acquaintanceship and a casual invitation by Spike to join him at the races introduced me and my new bride (as we picked him up at his little 18th-Century house) to the beginnings of the rebirth of Society Hill— or should I say the diversely interesting invaders of the then-semi-deserted Hill?

That Society Hill worked and helped spark a new urban vitality in Philadelphia is, in my biased opinion, due in large measure to the 1950s chance-takers from three media institutions: Annenberg's Philadelphia Inquirer, Harry Batton's N.W. Ayer and a declining Saturday Evening Post.

One night at the Palestra

But I digress. In January 1946 the headline "A Soldier Stars" appeared over my byline as sports editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian. "They played the usual doubleheader last Saturday night," I wrote. "A listless Penn team beat a powerful Columbia combination in the first game. In the nightcap, Rhode Island did a lot of scoring to beat St Joseph's, but it was a not particularly thrilling match. However, the halftime and intermission warm-ups were more exciting than anything that had ever taken place in the Palestra."

A little hyperbole perhaps— a trademark of my scribbling to this day— but, boiled down to the emotional basics, a gut check for me and most of the 5,000 fans in attendance. It was the sight of severely wounded World War II veterans awarded wheelchair seating around the perimeter of the basketball court.

Initially, as warm-up shots bounced away from the players and within reach of the handicapped veterans, one or two took half-hearted shots at the basket, to no avail. But at halftime, the fooling around took on a different character.

A few of the one-armed and one-legged vets were actually asking for the loose balls. It was obvious that in spite of the hopping around, awkward attempts at balance that elicited friendly derision from their mates, some of these shot-up guys had played the game and were dead serious in trying to prove it.

The crowd saw what was going on— impromptu and heartbreaking— and soon there was silence except for the loud bounce of a near miss. The teams had stopped practicing to watch and root. Then one of the shots went in, and the crowd erupted.

That's what I wrote about in my sports column: not the game of basketball, but the game of life.

Fan mail

A week later I received my first and most treasured piece of fan mail.

"Dear Mr. Roberts," Spike wrote. "As a spectator to the incident about which you wrote in the issue of January 23rd, I wish to congratulate you on the insight which enabled you to produce an article that, in my opinion, shows a remarkable receptiveness in a man of undergraduate years. As a former editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian, I believe it displays a feeling for the standard which an undergraduate daily should strive for but often fails to reach."

Street that time forgot

Our paths seldom crossed again until that fateful day in 1960 when I ran into Spike in town. His position at the Inquirer included such perks as admission to local sports events. Advised of my recent marriage, Spike offered an afternoon at the Jersey Derby, then a highlight of the now-long-gone Garden State Race Track.

Spike lived in Center City with no need of a car, so I offered to pick him up. "Where?" I asked.

"The 200 block of Delancey," he replied.

Nobody I knew lived there. As a Philadelphian raised in Strawberry Mansion, with family dinners on Sundays at Lew Tendler's, Kugler's and Shoyer's— now all gone the same route as the Garden State Race track— I was familiar with the rancid summer aroma of the Delaware as well as the food distribution center nearby. But OK, Spike "“ Second and Delancey it was on Memorial Day.

Plenty of vacancies

I honked the horn a couple of times to clear a few indigenous youngsters playing on the street. No traffic problems here. Plenty of parking spaces in a block with more than half the properties vacant. We tooled past Benny Heskowitz, sitting outside his green painted brick front and happily plunking his banjo.

Spike was renting 216 Delancey Street, one of the oldest properties in the block. Leo Riordan lived mid-block. I had supplied schoolboy sports scores to the downtown newspapers, so I was duly impressed that the Inquirer's sports editor as well as Walter Annenberg's right-hand man lived on the same decrepit cobbled block.

At the time, my wife and I were living in an apartment near Rittenhouse Square and looking to become homeowners. I took one look and realized: This block seemed to possess the potential for all the elements of the neighborhood I had grown up in, except for stores. We've lived there ever since.

City planners' dream

The Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, which controlled the area, had determined that the rebirth of Society Hill would be exclusively residential. Rich old people would not need stores.

But as it turned out, with a few notable exceptions, it wasn't rich old folks who breathed life into Philadelphia's past. It was the young, naÓ¯ve enough to believe that the dreams of city planners could come true.

Spike, wherever you are, look what you've done. You helped condemn me to a life of words and observations— and, in the bargain, you made me one of the oldest survivors of the resettlers of Society Hill. For all of which, I thank you.

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