A Short History of South Street
South Street has had an identity as an entertainment and retail district for more than two hundred years. Until 1854, when the city and county consolidated, South Street was the municipal boundary between the city and the outlying districts. It was the border between two jurisdictions, and police from one side would seldom pursue suspects across the border into the other. This encouraged the street to become the home to illegal or “gray market” activities, such as gambling, prostitution, and illegal liquor sales.
Today, while the vice markets have long left the South Street, it still acts as the symbolic distinction between Center City proper and the expanse of South Philadelphia.
By the late nineteenth century, South Street had became a prominent shopping district. The eastern part of the street (what is now included in the SSHD) was the retail center for Jewish immigrants living in the City. These residents were originally drawn to this area because the rent was cheap, housing was near the garment-manufacturing shops, and the neighborhood was near the immigration station at the foot of Washington Avenue and the Delaware River. The influx of Jewish families moving into the area slowed when Congress cut off immigration from Eastern Europe in 1924, and this started the slowed decline of the area through the thirties and into the forties. Until the 1950s, South Street was known mainly as a garment district, with stores for men’s suits and other clothing, with the adjacent blocks of 4th Street becoming a Fabric Row of shops selling textiles to the garment makers.
By the late 1950s, a proposed Crosstown Expressway project had gained serious momentum. This was to be the southern twin to the Vine Street Expressway, connecting I-76 (the Schuylkill Expressway) and I-95 with a route that would have taken over most of the space between South and Lombard Street. While never implemented, it posed an imminent threat to the future of the street that served to stall new development for years. In 1965, property owners were told by the state highway department to refrain from making substantial investments in their properties, as the state threatened to use eminent domain to take control of the properties and develop the area.
As the number of vacancies rose, the costs to rent plummeted, as few wanted to invest in a space that could have been bulldozed at any time. While many of the older business owners retired or relocated, a new type of businessperson, lured by the cheap rent, started moving into the street.
These were the pioneers of the South Street we see today and they moved in and started their own stores, restaurants, galleries, and performance venues. This South Street Renaissance saw the birth of many business that are still on the street today: Julia and Isaiah Zagar’s Eye’s Gallery, the DeVecchis Custom Frame Shop & Gallery, the Tiffany City Lighting Company and the revitalized TLA Theatre.
In the 1960s and 1970s, South Street was filled with clubs and bars that fostered a live local music community. It was not uncommon for South Philadelphians to “bar-hop” across the clubs, listening to live bands along the way. This community of fans helped attract recording contracts for many artists, including Kenn Kweder, the “bard of South Street.” Philadelphia’s own Orlons sang the unofficial anthem of South Street, and told the world it was “the hippest street in town.”
The plans for the Crosstown Expressway would be officially withdrawn in 1974, but the mavericks that relocated to South Street during the late sixties and early seventies would continue to define the flavor of the area, and the countercultural identity for South Street would prevail until the present day.
In the 1980’s and 90’s South Street became a mecca for the punk rock and alternative music scenes with legendary music clubs like Grendel’s Lair and JC Dobbs hosting soon to be famous bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Green Day, George Thoroughgood, the Stray Cats and more. From the Dead Milkmen anthem, “Punk Rock Girl” to Boys II Mens’ “Motown Philly,” South Street has been ingrained into musical pop culture.
The South Street Headhouse District continues as the proud home to the City’s independent—and independently-minded—business community. The stretch of South Street between Front Street and Broad Street has been known over the years for its “bohemian,” “punk,” and generally “alternative” atmosphere and its diverse owners, residents and clientele.
Today, from the thriving mix of retail stores, restaurants, tattoo shops, galleries and live music venues that today call the area home, South Street has something for everyone.
History of the Headhouse Shambles
The Shambles is America’s oldest surviving Colonial-era marketplace, also known as “New Market.” Built before the Revolution in 1745, its design mimics the many market structures or rural England – characterized by two parallel rows of brick pillars supporting a gable roof that covers an arched and plastered ceiling. Farmers, merchants, traders, and craftsmen would back their wagons under the archway where Colonists would shop.
Attached to the Shambles is the Head House, America’s oldest surviving fire-engine house, which stored and provided firefighting equipment for a corps of volunteer firefighters. Built in 1805, this classic brick building is surmounted by a white cupola – topped by a weathervane – and containing a fire bell and clock.
During the 1950s, under Mayor Richardson Dilworth’s inspired leadership, revitalization of the “old” neighborhood began to occur. Head House and the Shambles, a city-owned structure, was restored, and in 1966 designated as a National Historic Landmark. However, within a period of only twenty years the landmark was seriously dilapidated due to the total lack of maintenance. By the late 1980s the entire structure was identified by the Secretary of the Interior as a “threatened and endangered landmark.”
In response, a grassroots group of Society Hill and Queen Village neighbors formed the “Head House Conservancy” in 1990. This nonprofit organization raised nearly a million dollars, (including a generous state grant from Senator Vincent J. Fumo). The Conservancy volunteered their expertise to fully repair the structure, both inside and out. During the process of repairs and restoration, the Conservancy discovered remarkable “hidden” treasures, including confirming that the historic clock at Head House was built by master clockmaker, Isaiah Lukens, creator of the clock at Independence Hall.
Today the 211-year-old firehouse functions at the headquarters for the South Street Headhouse District, which manages the property and the 271-year-old Shambles has been returned to its original purpose as a gathering place for neighbors to congregate for festivals, weddings and special events and a weekly farmers’ market.
For more on the history of South Street and the SSHD, check out Jerome Hodos’ Whose Neighborhood is it Anyway?
For a first-hand account from someone who was there during the sixties renaissance, read Tom Bissinger’s The Fun House: Memories, Mayhem, and Magic.
SOUTH STREET HALL OF FAME
South Street Headhouse District is pleased to announce that after a 14 year absence, the return of the South Street Hall of Fame Honorees.
Initiated in 1993, (and last awarded in 2002), as a means to honor the pioneers of the District, the award is designed to recognize the business people who has been a stalwart part of the South Street neighborhood and have helped strengthen our community.
It is because of the dedicated individuals at these businesses that the South Street Headhouse District continues to grow and thrive.
Owner & Resident
Mrs. Rose Goldberg,
Horn Electrical Supply
J Brite Cleaners
Monti & Harris Eckstut,
Julia & Isaiah Zagar,
Eye’s Gallery &
First SSHD Executive Director
Rita & Bunky deVecchis,
Society Hill Playhouse
Mr. Harold Paul,
S. Paul & Sons Fabrics
Marvin & Marilyn Cohen,
resident and historian
Dumpster Divers, Rocketships & Accessories
South Street Souvlaki
Stanley & Tricia Fleishman
Harry & Sylvia Fleishman (in memoriam)
This year, we honor another South Street legend with the Bud Plumer Community Service Award.
Bud Plumer, a longtime resident, businessman, and South Street Hall of Famer was known for his tireless commitment to South Street and the entire city. We are pleased to announce that the first recipient of this honor is Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou of Philly AIDS Thrift.
In 2005, with co-founders Tom Brennan, Peter Hiler and Kevin Wilson, Christina opened the what would become the landmark store out of their experience in thrifting and focused toward combating HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia.
“We’re all long-time AIDS activists,” Christina says of PAT’s formulation, “We’re also all lovers of junk … so it just made sense to us to do this.”
The store was originally located on Bainbridge Street, about a block from its current location, but grew too big for the space and moved to their current location on at the intersection of Passyunk & 5th Streets in June 2011.
PAT regularly donates $20,000 a month to the AIDS Fund, another fundraising organization that is responsible for the annual AIDS Walk and monthly Gay Bingo. PAT also recently presented two special awards of $5,000 each to Siloam and the William Way LGBT Community Center. The AIDS Fund distributes PAT’s donations to 29 AIDS agencies in the 5-county Philadelphia region without taking any administrative costs. To date, PAT has donated a total $1,719,000 to the HIV/AIDS cause. In 2015, Philly AIDS Thrift opened a 300-square-foot Philly AIDS Thrift HIV Testing Center on the second floor of the retail store, the first of its kind in a retail business.
Selflessness can prove a hard sell in today’s tempting “me-first” climate, but count Christina Kallas-Saritsoglou among the ardent buyers of the belief that a life of service enriches one’s soul and promotes society’s evolution. “Yes, I am a business owner, but nobody here is in this for himself or herself,” Kallas offered in a recent interview. “We’re here to give and to encourage the philosophy that we’re all in this life together, regardless of sexual orientation, and that we need people in our corner no matter our social standing.” We are humbled to have Christina as a part of the South Street community and honored to present her with the very first Bud Plumer Community Service Award.
Bunky deVecchis Award for the Spirit of South Street – 2016
Bunky & Rita deVecchis came to South Street with the bohemians in the late 60’s and grew with the new arts scene on the street. Bunky loved photography, jazz and South Street. He passed away last spring and in his honor we created the Spirit of South Street Award for a person that embodies the sense of creativity, culture and uniqueness of Philadelphia’s most famous street.
We are proud to announce the inaugural recipient of this honor is
Robert Perry of Tattooed Mom.
Robert is an astute business man, whose bar is now in its second decade and a South Street landmark. Much more than serving drinks and cheap tacos, Mom’s has become a unique gathering space for artists and musicians (a lot of folks fall somewhere in between). Robert has been a patron of the arts and music, a true stalwart champion of South Street and is as good as a neighbor as anyone could ever ask for.