The Things That Happen on South Street
When your memory of a place is too close — and too far away.
Last weekend, 14 people were shot, and three killed, on Philadelphia’s South Street, once a legendary destination for cool. Yet another example of horrific gun violence, but this time on a street that held so much for me, as a Philadelphia kid.
It’s rare in life to have a moment where the younger you and the adult you come head to head, but here it was — nostalgia and perspective and horror all at once. In my memories, South Street is all psychedelic colors, punk rock, new age shops, obscure films and everything weird in one cruise-able strip. For this girl from the edges of suburban Philly, it represented everything that was possible. “The hippest street in town” (so goes the 1963 song about South Street by the Orlons), yes, but also a brave new world. A place to stretch your creative boundaries. A place to explore what grown-up life could look like.
Now, as in so many other cities in America, it’s a site with cordoned off police tape and multiple lives lost forever.
The South Street area was never exactly safe. Once, when I was home from college, I was mugged on Bainbridge, the street right off South. Five kids jumped my boyfriend and me; they threw him up against a car and rummaged through his back pockets while I played tug of war with a brand new leather tote I’d saved up for with summer job money. I only had 50 cents and my Walkman in that purse. I’ll never forget the cops driving us around to look for our assailants and then throwing several random Black kids up against the wall roughly, the scene lit by headlights. “That’s not them!” I want to think I yelled, but probably muttered. I was shocked by what the police did. Life lesson #63.
Back then, South Street was a source of cultural immersion for young, open minds. Walking up and down South Street was the real activity — you’d go to the end, Headhouse Square, and return back up to around 10th street. We’d catch a movie at the TLA (then called Theater of the Living Arts) — mostly obscure or foreign — or we’d shout along with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. As a 17-year-old I was transfixed by the film Christiane F. which played at the TLA — a German movie about a teen drug addict obsessed with David Bowie (like me… not the drug addict part) and an incredible Bowie soundtrack. We’d always check out Skinz or Zipperhead, the Day-Glo fabulous punk shops where the salespeople (including, at one time, our own TueNighter Crystal Durant!) had green mohawks and nose rings and nonchalantly wore bondage gear. We’d grab a greasily delicious slice at Lorenzo’s and giggle at the suited Krass Brothers “store of the stars” guy who had his own crass TV commercials.
In my 20s, I rented movies from the TLA video shop, shopped at Tower Records and the Record Exchange, and wandered the cat-filled Book Trader. I saw probably 100 concerts at the TLA and JC Dobbs (Nirvana!). My roommates and I lived in various apartments in nearby Bella Vista, never far off South Street. We spent nights eating Spanish fries at Copa, gyros at South Street Souvlaki or drinking at O’Neals Pub, Manny Browns, and later Tattooed Mom. We saw The Roots busking in front of Tower, watched Josh Wink and King Britt spin at a club whose name I can’t remember at all. So goes the memory.
My roommate liked a bartender at O’Neals, so we’d often hang out there. We were so broke. Always. We realized that we could actually flatten out toilet paper and slide it through the change machine to get quarters for the jukebox. Last weekend, the scene of O’Neals bartenders balling up wet napkins to help injured and bloodied people on the street was heartbreaking, but hopeful. Time was looping back on itself. I remembered that kid, laughing at her roommate making googly eyes at a bartender as we played some Pixies song, and then here in 2022 was a bartender pouring care into this horrible moment.
In the late ’90s, South Street inevitably gentrified, adding chain store after chain store: Tower became the Gap, a Whole Foods emerged, a Starbucks staked ground. I left for NYC in 2001 and haven’t had a good read on South Street in years. At one point, maybe I was a bit of an expert on all that, but now I get my Philly updates from places like Billy Penn, Philebrity, this perfect tweet from Tattooed Mom, or my friend Shelly who says, “We were just at Bob and Barbra’s for dinner. It’s so good! Outdoor bars and nice restaurants. Not crummy like the old days….”
Funny, I don’t remember it as crummy. But… we also liked crummy back then.
Crummy was cool. Crummy was character. It was testing your limits, getting your ears pierced at a junky jewelry shop, sitting on the sidewalk as the stench of cheesesteaks breezed by. Feeling a little scared by the crowds, by the weird old guy asking for your number.
Now, the depth of what we fear has changed — and it’s so much more than just dropping our naivete. We’re all afraid these days, and not in a way that feels like brave rebellion but in a way that feels existential and deeply horrific, like, what on earth is going on.
In my middle-aged mind, South Street remains fixed in time as a provocative playground, full of possibilities — and I wish, I wish, that’s where I could leave it.
The reality is, on June 5, three people lost their lives. While this street may hold important memories, none of this is to minimize these tragic deaths. We offer so much peace and comfort to their families and loved ones.