Our Philadelphia/Chapter 18
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Philadelphia after a Quarter of a Century
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CHAPTER XVIII: PHILADELPHIA AFTER A QUARTER OF A CENTURY
I CONFESS to a good deal of emotion as the train slowed up in the Pennsylvania Station, and I think I had a right to it. It is not every day one comes home after a quarter of a century's absence, and at the first glance everything was so bewilderingly home-like. Not that I had not had my misgivings as the train neared Philadelphia. From the car windows I had seen my old Convent at Torresdale transformed beyond recognition, many new stations with new names by the way, rows and rows of houses where I remembered fields, Philadelphia grown almost as big as London to get into, a new, strange, unbelievable sky-line to the town, the bridges multiplied across the Schuylkill—change after change where I should have liked to find everything, every house, field, tree, blade of grass even, just as I had left it. But what change there might be in the station kept itself, for the moment anyway, discreetly out of sight. For all the difference I saw, I might have been starting on the journey that had lasted over a quarter of a century instead of returning from it.
This made the shock the greater when, just outside in Market Street, I was met by a company of mounted policemen. It is true they were there to welcome not me, but the President of the United States who was due by the next train, and were supported by the City Troop, as indispensable a part of my Philadelphia as the sky over my head and the bricks under my feet; true also that, well-uniformed, well-mounted, well-groomed as they were, I felt they would be a credit to any town. But the shock was to find them there at all. Philadelphia in my day could not have run, or would not have wanted to run, to anything so officially imposing; that it could and did now was a warning there was no mistaking. Whatever Philadelphia might have developed, or deteriorated, into, it was not any longer the Philadelphia I had known and loved.
It was the same sort of warning all the way after that. Wherever I went, wherever I turned, I stumbled upon an equally impossible jumble of the familiar and the unfamiliar. At times, I positively ached with the joy of finding places so exactly as I remembered them that I caught myself saying, just here "this" happened, or "that," as I and my Youth met ourselves; at others I could have cried for the absurdity, the tragedy, of finding everything so different that never in a foreign land had I seemed more hopelessly a foreigner.I did not have to go farther than my hotel for a reminder that Philadelphia, to oblige me, had not stood altogether still during my quarter of a century's absence, but had been, and was, busy refashioning itself into something preposterously new. From one of my high windows
BROAD STREET STATION
I might look down to the Phihidelphia Library and the Episcopal Academy,—those two bulwarks of Philadelphia respectability—and beyond, stretching peacefully away to the peaceful curves of the Delaware, to a wide plain of flat red roofs and chimneys, broken by the green lines of the trees that follow the straight course of Philadelphia's streets and by the small green spaces of the trees that shade Philadelphia's back-yards: level and lines and spaces I knew as well as a lesson learnt by heart. But, from the midst of this red plain of roofs, huge high buildings, like towers, that I did not know, sprang up into the blue air, increasing in number as my eye wandered northward until, from the other window, I saw them gathered into one great, amazing, splendid group with William Penn, in full-skirted coat and broad-brimmed hat, springing still higher above them.
When I went down into the streets, I might walk for a minute or two between rows of the beloved old-fashioned red brick houses, with their white marble steps and their white shutters below and green above, and then, just as exultantly I began to believe them changeless as the Pyramids and the Sphinx, I would come with a jar upon a Gothic gable, an absurd turret, a Renaissance doorway, a façade disfigured by a hideous array of fire escapes, a sham Colonial house, or some other upstart that dated merely from yesterday or the day before. And here and there a sky-scraper of an apartment house swaggered in the midst of the little "homes" that were Philadelphia's pride—the last new one, to my dismay, rearing its countless stories above the once inviolate enclosure of Rittenhouse Square.
When I went shopping in Chestnut Street my heart might rejoice at the sight of some of the well remembered names—Dreka, Darlington, Bailey, Caldwell, as indispensable in my memory as that of Penn himself—but it sank as quickly in the vain search for the many more that have disappeared, or indeed, for the whole topsy-turvy order of things that could open the big new department stores into Market Street and make it the rival of Chestnut as a shopping centre, or that could send other stores up to where stores had never ventured in my day: stores in Walnut Street as high as Eighteenth, a milliner's in Locust Street almost under the shadow of St. Mark's, a stock-broker at the corner of Fifteenth and Walnut, Hughes and Müller—I need tell no Philadelphian who Hughes and Müller are even if they have unkindly made two firms of the old one—within a stone's throw of Dr. Weir Mitchell's house; when I saw that I felt that sacrilege could go no further.For sentiment's sake, I might eat my plate of ice-cream at the old little marble-topped table in the old Locust Street gloom at Sautter's, or buy cake at Dexter's at the old corner in Spruce Street, but Mrs. Burns with her ice-cream, Jones with his fried oysters, had vanished, gone away in the Ewigkeit as irrevocably as Hans Breitmann's Barty or the snows of yester-year. And Wyeth's and
Hubbell's masqueraded under other names, and Shinn, from whom we used to buy our medicines, was dead, and the new firm sold cigars with their ice-cream sodas, and my Philadelphia was stuffed with saw-dust.
Not a theatre was as I had left it, new ones I had never heard of drawing the people who used to crowd the Chestnut, which has rung down its curtain on the last act of its last play even as I write; the Arch, given over now, alas! to the "Movies" and the "Movies" threaten the end of the drama not only at the Arch but at all theatres forever; well-patronized houses flourishing in North Broad Street; the staid Academy of Music thrown into the shadow by its giddy prosperous upstart of a rival up-town.
Vanished were old landmarks for which I confidently looked—the United States Mint from Chestnut Street; from Broad and Walnut the old yellow Dundas House with the garden and the magnolia for whose blossoming I had once eagerly watched with the coming of spring; from Thirteenth and Locust the old Paterson House, turned into the new, imposing, very much criticised building of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; from Eleventh and Spruce, that other garden overlooked by the windows of the house my Grandfather built and lived in, as my Father did after him, and, to me more cruel, the house itself passed into other hands, grown shabby with time, and the sign "For Sale" hanging on its neglected walls. Change, change, change—that was what I had come home for!
I am not sure, however, that I had not the worst shock of all when I wandered from the old home, further down Spruce Street, below the beautiful Eighteenth Century Hospital, dishonoured now and shut in on the Spruce Street side by I hardly know what in the way of new wings and wards. As I had left it, this lower part of Spruce and Pine and the neighbouring streets, had changed less perhaps than any other part of the town—has changed less to-day in mere bricks and mortar. It had preserved the appropriate background for its inheritance of history and traditions. Numerous Colonial houses remained and upon them those of later date were modelled. It had kept also the serenity and repose of the Quaker City's early days, the character, dignity, charm. Many old Philadelphia families had never moved away. It was clean as a little Dutch town with nothing to interrupt the quiet but the gentle jingling of the occasional leisurely horse-car.And what did I find it?—A slum, captured by the Russian Jew, the old houses dirty, down-at-the-heel; the once spotless marble steps unwashed, the white shutters hanging loose; the decorative old iron hinges and catches and insurance plaques or badges rusting, and nobody can say how much of the old woodwork inside burned for kindling; Yiddish signs in the windows, with here a Jewish Maternity Home, and there a Jewish newspaper office; at
ST. PETERS CHURCHYARD
every door, almost every window, and in groups in the street, men, women and children with Oriental faces, here and there a man actually in his caftan, bearded, with the little curls in front of his ears, and a woman with a handkerchief over her head, and all chattering in Yiddish and slatternly and dirty as I remembered them in South-Eastern Europe, from Carlsbad and Prague to those remote villages of Transylvania where dirt was the sign by which I always knew when the Jewish quarter was reached. A few patriotic Philadelphians have recently returned hoping to stem the current, and their houses shine with cleanliness. In Fourth Street the dignified Randolph House, which the family never deserted, seems to protest against the wholesale surrender to the foreign invasion. In Pine Street, St. Peter's, with its green graveyard, has survived untarnished the surrounding desecration. But I could only wonder how long the church and these few houses will be able to withstand the triumphing alien, and I abandoned hope when, at the very gate of St. Peter's, a woman with a handkerchief tied over her head stopped me to ask the way to "Zweit und Pine."
I know that the same thing is going on in almost all the older parts of the United States, and the new parts too—I know that some small New England towns can support their two and three Polish newspapers, that New York swarms with people who talk any and every language under the sun except English, and can boast, if it is a thing to boast of, more Italians than Rome, more Jews than Jerusalem; that San Francisco has its Chinatown, that the Middle West abounds in German and Swedish settlements—in a word, I know that everywhere throughout the country, the native American is retreating before this invasion of the alien. But it is with a certain difference in Philadelphia. Have I not said that one of the absurdities of my native town—I can afford to call them absurdities because I love them—is that for the Philadelphian who looks upon himself as the real Philadelphian, Philadelphia lies between the Delaware and the Schuylkill, and is bounded on the north by Market Street, on the south by Lombard; that in the ancient rhyming list of its streets he recognizes only the line:
"Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, and Pine"?
CITY HALL FROM THE SCHUYLKILL
him post haste on to England and poor America, for even the Dutch Jew cannot stand the Russian Jew—and, from what I have heard, neither can the decent Pennsylvania Jew who has been with us almost from the beginning. Other aliens have been more modest and set up their slums where they interfere less with Philadelphia tradition. I cannot understand, and nobody has been able to explain to me, why the Russian Jew was allowed to push his way in. But the indolent never see the thin end of the wedge, and there are philanthropists whose philanthropy for the people they do not know increases in direct proportion to the harm it does to those they do know. I was told more than once to consider what Philadelphia was doing for the Russian Jew, to remember that he has paid America the compliment of accepting it as the Promised Land, that his race in America has produced Mary Antin, and to see for myself what good Americans were being made of his children. But though Philadelphia may one day blossom like the rose with Mary Antins, though there might have been an incipient patriot in every one of the small Russian Jews I met being taken in batches across Independence Square to Independence Hall to imbibe patriotism at the fount, I could not help considering rather what the Russian Jew is just now doing for Philadelphia. For it is as plain as a pipe stem to anybody with eyes to see that the Philadelphians to whom Philadelphia originally belonged are being pushed by the Russian Jew out of the only part of it they care to live in.I wondered at first why so many people had fled to the country, why so many signs "For Sale" or "For Rent" were to be seen about Spruce and Pine and Walnut Streets. Various reasons were given me:—with the Law Courts now in the centre of the town and the new Stock Exchange at Broad and Walnut, and stores everywhere, nobody could live in town; the noise of the trolleys is unbearable; the dirt of the city is unhealthy; soft coal has made Philadelphia grimier than London; the motor has destroyed distance;—excellent reasons, all of them. But it was not until I discovered the Russian Jew that I understood the most important. It is the Russian Jew who, with an army of aliens at his back—thousands upon thousands of Italians, Slavs, Lithuanians, a fresh emigration of negroes from the South, and statistics alone can say how many other varieties—is pushing and pushing Philadelphians out of the town—first up Spruce Street, nearer and nearer to the Schuylkill, then across the Schuylkill into the suburbs, eventually to be swept from the suburbs into the country, until who can say where there will be any room for them at all? With the Russian Jew's genius for adapting himself to American institutions, I could fancy him taking possession of, and adding indefinitely to, the little two-story houses that already stretch in well-nigh endless rows to the West and the North, Germantown and West Philadelphia built over beyond recognition. I remember when, one day in a trolley, I had gone for miles and miles between these
CHESTNUT STREET BRIDGE
rows—each little house with the same front yard, the same porch, the same awning, the same rocking-chairs—I had a horrible waking nightmare in which I saw them multiplying—as the alien himself multiplied beyond the most ardent dreams of Mr. Roosevelt,—and creeping out further and further, across the city limits, across the State, across the Middle West, across the prairies, across the Rockies, across the Sierras, until at last they joined East to West in one unbroken line—one great, unbroken, unlovely monument to the enterprise of the new American, and the philanthropy of the old: while only the Russian Jew at the door of the State House, like Macaulay's New Zealander under the shadow of St. Paul's, remained to muse and moralize on the havoc he had wrought.
This may seem a trifle fantastic, but I should find it hard to give an idea of how impossibly fantastic the prevailing presence of the alien in Philadelphia appeared to me. To be sure, we had our aliens a quarter of a century ago. But they were mostly Irish, Germans, Swedes. The Italian at his fruit-stall was as yet rather the picturesque exception, and I can remember how, not very long before I left home, the whole town went to stare at the first importation of Russian Jews, dumped down under I have forgotten what shelter, as if they were curiosities or freaks from Barnum's. But now the aliens are mostly Latins, Slavs, Orientals who do not fit so unobtrusively into our American scheme of things, and who come from the lowest classes in their own countries, so ignorant and degraded most of them that, what with their increasing numbers and our new negro population from the South, there are people in Pennsylvania who are trying to introduce an educational test at the polls—America having learned the evil of universal suffrage just as England is coquetting with it.
The rest of Philadelphia—the rest of America, for that matter—may be accustomed to this new emigration to my town as well as to all parts of the country. But I had not seen the latter-day alien coming in by every steamer, and gradually, almost imperceptibly, establishing himself. The advantage, or disadvantage, of staying away from home so long is that, on returning, one gets the net result of the change the days and the years bring with them. Those who stay at home are broken in to the change in its initial stages and can accept the result as a matter of course. I could not. To be honest, I did not like it. I did not like to find Philadelphia a foreign town.
I did not like to find Streets where the name on almost every store is Italian. I did not like to find the new types of negro, like savages straight from the heart of Africa some of them looked, who are disputing South Street and Lombard Street and that disgraceful bit of Locust Street with the decent, old-fashioned, self-respecting Philadelphia darkies. I did not like to find the people with foreign manners—for instance, to have my hand kissed for a tip in the hotel by a Lithuanian chambermaid, though I should add that in a month she had grown American enough to accept the same tip stoically with a bare "Thank You." I did not like to find the foreigner forcing his way not only into the Philadelphian's houses, the Philadelphian's schools, the Philadelphian's professions—professions that have been looked upon as the sacred right of certain Philadelphia families for almost a couple of centuries. I have heard all about his virtues, nobody need remind me of them; I know that he is carrying off everything at the University so that rich Jews begin to think they should in return make it a gift or bequest, as no rich Jew has yet, I believe. I know that the young Philadelphian must give up his sports and his gaieties if he can hope to compete with the young Russian Jew who never allows himself any recreation on the road to success—and perhaps this won't do the young Philadelphian any harm. I know that if the Russian Jew keeps on studying law, the Philadelphia lawyer will be before long as extinct as the dodo—a probability that if it wakes up the Philadelphia lawyer may have its uses. All this, and much besides, I know—also, incidentally, I might add the fact that the Russian Jew, who is not unintelligent, has mastered in a very short time the possibilities of arson and bankruptcy as investments. But if there were no other side to his virtues—and of course there is that other side too—I should not like to think of the new Philadelphian that is to come out of this incredible mixture of Russian Jews and countless other aliens as little like us in character and tradition.
The new Philadelphian may be a finer creature far than in my hopes for him, finer far than the old Philadelphian I have known—but then he will not be that old Philadelphian whom I do not want to lose and whom it would be a pity to lose in a country for which, ever since Penn pointed the way to the constitution of the United States, he has probably accomplished more than any other citizen.Personally, I might as well say that I do not believe he will be a finer creature. It seems to me that he is doing away with the old American idea of levelling up and is bent on the levelling down process that is going on all over Europe. And so foreign is he making us, that I would not think J. very far wrong in declaring himself the only real American left, if only he would include me with him.
THE NARROW STREET