The Barroom Brawl That Changed Chinatown

 

Corner of 9th and Winter Streets (looking south) in 1959. The building on the far right includes the Gem Hotel (closer) and the Green Lantern bar (with sign). | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

In 1973, Herb Rose petitioned to move the Green Lantern bar from 248 to 240 North 9th Street. The move was just a hop across Winter Street. Yet, blocking Rose’s way was a newly organized Chinatown determined to end a coexistence with Skid Row that dated back to the late 19th century.

The Green Lantern was a quintessential Skid Row bar that shared a four-story building with the Gem Hotel, a quintessential Skid Row flophouse. Together the Green Lantern and the Gem provided two staples of Skid Row life: tokay wine, available either by the glass or by the quart, and cheap accommodations in 110 cubicles that were barely big enough for the beds that were in them. A Philadelphia Inquirer reporter once stated that cubicle conditions at the Gem “probably would fail the sanitary standards for snake pits and pig sties.” Another reporter described the Green Lantern as a place where “the brightest item in the place is the owner’s liquor license.”

Philadelphia Skid Row, located just north of Center City, ranged east to west from 6th to 11th Streets and south to north from Race to Callowhill Streets. It was home for Philadelphia’s homeless, who, in the 1950s and 1960s, were mostly older, white men. These included the derelicts, winos, and bums that personified failure in mid-twentieth century America, as well as a more staid group of retired, disabled, and working men who maintained modest, independent lives in the area’s cheap hotels and rooming houses. While poverty was endemic to Skid Row, catering to these men was lucrative to an assortment of bars, hotels, restaurants, secondhand stores, and other businesses. This ecology fascinated social scientists, but to city planners Skid Row represented blight. Thus they brandished their most potent weapon of the day–urban renewal–against it.

821-831 Vine Street, 1964. From left, Jerry’s restaurant, the Francis Hotel, the Victory luncheonette, and (all the way at the end) the Galilee Mission. Photographer: Dr. Brian H. Davies | Image courtesy of Matt Davies

In 1973, the 200 block of North 9th Street was one of the last remaining Skid Row outposts and in the crosshairs of three urban renewal projects. The block lay on the western edge of the Independence Mall project, resulting in the demolition of the block’s entire eastern streetscape. The right-of-way for the Vine Street Expressway would lop off the north end of the block. Finally, 9th Street itself was slated to become an expressway exit ramp to facilitate access to the proposed Market East downtown shopping center. Eminent domain claimed the Gem Hotel in April 1973; the last flophouse among the five that were on the block 25 years earlier. Next to close was the Tri-City Barber School, which had trained several generations of Philadelphia barbers upon the heads of Skid Row residents, moving from 218 N. 9th Street to the far northern reaches of Broad Street.

This left the Green Lantern on borrowed time. Rose’s intent in moving the bar across Winter Street was to keep it just out of the clutches of eminent domain. Rose had been the bar’s sole owner since his partner was stabbed to death by a paramour in 1948. Over the decades he got into occasional scrapes with the law over stolen liquor, bootlegged lottery tickets, and serving intoxicated persons, but otherwise quietly tended bar and gained a knowledge of Skid Row alcoholics that likely surpassed that of any social scientist. Over the years he had picked up Skid Row’s brand of adaptive resistance towards its shrinking territory. “These guys just find other places around here,” Rose told reporter John Corr in 1972. “They ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

A Chinatown family tends to a community garden on an empty lot at 10th and Vine Streets, 1976. | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The Green Lantern’s prospective second act attracted the attention of its Chinatown neighbors. Philadelphia’s Skid Row and Chinatown districts, like their counterparts in many U.S. cities, emerged as unlikely neighbors from similar 19th century origins. Both were initially refuges for pariah groups of itinerant, male laborers in search of cheap accommodations, access to work, disreputable amenities, and a desire to be left alone. This block of 9th Street had several buildings that functioned as Chinese rooming houses, and other Chinese businesses—groceries, restaurants, gift shops, and laundries—sat among the Skid Row bars and flophouses. Also on the block was the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association, with roots in the ganglike tongs of an earlier era, and the Leon Lee chapter of the American Legion. Finally, this block linked Chinatown’s center, at 9th and Race Streets, with Holy Redeemer Church and School on Vine Street, a key Chinatown community fixture.

In contrast to the disorganized passivity of Skid Row, the Chinatown community learned to mobilize effectively against urban renewal. 1973 was a pivotal year for these efforts, as the community successfully halted the planned demolition of Holy Redeemer and initiated delays that kept the expressway from being completed until 1991, doing away with the proposed 9th Street ramp entirely. According to historian Kathryn Wilson, this nascent activism led Chinatown’s identity to shift from that of “bachelor enclave to urban village.” In fighting for the community’s survival, a more assertive awareness emerged towards the neighborhood’s quality of life. Longtime resident John William Chin recalled in 2012 how, growing up, he took for granted “that Skid Row, modeling agencies, go-go bars, and the Trocadero, with its burlesque shows, were a part of normal life for all kids growing up.” That was now changing.

Corner of 9th and Winter Streets (looking south), 2017. | Photo by Steve Metraux

“Why is the Chinese-American community so badly neglected here, where disreputable, non-Chinese persons are allowed to congregate in bars of this kind?” was the anguished question posed by leaders of Philadelphia’s Chinese Benevolent Association in response to Rose’s attempt to move the Green Lantern. Here the CBA indicated that the days of coexistence were over. 9th Street, which once epitomized this coexistence, now were the grounds for its rupture. By 1973, Skid Row’s population, around 3,000 during the 1950s, had dwindled to a few hundred. Chinatown’s population, which had always numbered in the hundreds, was growing at the very time urban renewal was hemming it in.

Rose was denied his transfer in 1973 and lost his appeal in 1974. Chinatown rejoiced. An ode to Rose, written by the activist group Yellow Seeds, went, in part:

“Alas for Herbert all was not well,

For alcohol he couldn’t sell.

To get a license he begged and pleaded,

But the liquor board left Herb unheeded.

‘I’ll remodel! Redecorate!’

Sorry Herb, it’s much too late.

‘No more bums. No derelicts’

Sorry Herb, the answer sticks.”

About the author

Over his career, Steve Metraux has done extensive research on homelessness and related topics. He is currently a recovering professor and an analyst for the VA’s National Center for Homelessness Among Veterans. He has called West Philadelphia “home” since 1995, and has learned most of what he needs to know about Philadelphia from morning runs and twenty years of walks with his three children. More information about him is available at www.stephenmetraux.com



6 Comments


  1. Thank you for this terrific piece.

  2. The first picture states “in 1951,” that is a ’56 Ford in the foreground and behind it a 1955 Chevy. I was in the Green Lantern once. Very interesting article, thank you.

    • Comments like these is one of the reasons I love this site.

      You’re correct Jim. I went back to the PhillyHistory website and indeed, the date of the pic is listed as 10/21/1959.

      I’d love to hear more details about your memories of the Green Lantern…

      SM

  3. And now, where do these people go?

  4. Chinatown born and raised. Remember riding my bike down cobblestoned 9th St between Race and Vine, the last to be paved. Every Chinese New Years we would throw firecrackers inside Gem Hotel, as well as Chick’s 200, and Merry Go Round to scare the bums.

  5. Nice article…I am still waiting for someone to write a history of Philadelphia’s skid row and red light district. I had family that lived there back in the late 19th early 20th centuries, along Callowhill between 7th and 9th…several of them I suppose were some of the characters of the area. One guy, William Trinkler, a French-German immigrant, was arrested in the early 1890s for selling pornography, which turned out to be nude pictures of women. His defense was that he was a French artist and the photos were taken back home in Strasbourg. Another Eugene Lux, who married Trinkler’s sister Louise, was arrested for selling what he was calling “Butter” when in fact it didn’t meet the standards of what butter was supposed to be. It seemed like everybody down that way was involved in some sort of scam. My mother’s uncle, Frederick Paul, was also a character in that area during the Depression, although he lived up at Germantown & Girard. My mother’s brother (Martin Kaelin, an artist, now dead)used to tell me stories when he was a kid that his uncle (Frederick Paul)used to take him down along 10th Street and they’d visit the juke joints along 10th Street were Uncle Paul was a regular. They’d go into and places seeing if anyone needed work on their cars, trucks, whatever, and this was his way of finding a little work during the Depression. At the end of the day they’d make enough for a stick of salami and bread, or something….interesting times indeed. This experience was with stuck with my Uncle Martin later in life and why he got so interested in early jazz and painting jazz scenes in New Orleans…

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