(Page 3 of 3)
Last Redoubt Of The Neck
By the 1950s, the surviving Neckers were concentrated in a squatter’s community called Stonehouse Lane, at Third Street and Oregon Avenue. From the exterior, Stonehouse Lane looked much like any other patch of 1950s suburbia: trees, car ports and white picket fences. The lane itself was paved with cobblestones and sunflowers grew wild in the fields beyond.
But the residents, who had built their own houses, didn’t own the land they lived on. “They were shanties, but they were clean,” said a former Necker. Many of the houses had electricity, though none were connected to the city’s water and sewer system. Residents took their water from the fire hydrant at 7th Street and Pattison Avenue.
Helen Lang was born in Stonehouse Lane, one of nine children. Her mother cooked and baked on a wood stove, and her father worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. “We went without all of the modern conveniences, of course,” she told me in a recent interview. “But we didn’t know what we didn’t have, because everyone had the same thing.”
Like generations of Neckers before them, her family raised pigs and sold them to the butchers on 9th street. They also had horses, goats, and chickens. In the winter, she recalls how the children would ice-skate on the frozen drainage ditches on either side of the lane. There was little crime. “We didn’t even lock our doors,” Lang said.
But the houses violated modern building codes. As a form of hazing, Philadelphia Police Department recruits were sent to Stonehouse Lane to look for housing violations. Invariably, they came back with a mountain of citations that was filed away and forgotten. One inspection in 1955 turned up over 800 ordinance violations. Still, before 1955, when City officials also began to condemn Eastwick, there was no real effort to evict the squatters.
Philadelphia’s republican mayors were unwilling to lose the support of the Neckers, so they had vetoed every bill to evict them. One resident of Stonehouse Lane told a newspaper reporter, “look, we’ve had inspectors here by the gross. Sometimes we talked to ‘em. Other times we chased ’em. Either way, we knew nothing would ever come of it.”
Enter The Bulldozers
In 1952, the city elected Joseph S. Clark, Jr. as Mayor, the first Democrat since 1872. He had no reason to curry favor with the staunchly Republican Neckers. Planners began eying Stonehouse Lane as plans were laid for the Schuylkill Expressway and the Walt Whitman Bridge. Then in 1955 a fire caused by a jury-rigged electrical system killed Necker Bertha Ibetson and her four children. In the uproar that followed, City Hall at last took action and drove the squatters out. That same year, a flood from a burst dike made many of the houses uninhabitable. Some former residents contend that the flooding was deliberate, to chase them out. The construction of the Walt Whitman Bridge added urgency to the demolition. One resident, a longshoreman, said “we always chased away those pests who tried to disposes us. But what can you do against a bulldozer?”
Helen Lang was only 15 when her family was forced to leave. Her neighbors, she said, were upset when they had to leave their “shanties.” “That was their life, that’s all they knew,” she said. Most of them moved just a few blocks north, to the 2600 block of South Third Street.
Throughout the decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the City continued filling the land in the neck, bringing it up to grade with the rest of the street grid. Most of Stonehouse Lane is now buried under the on-ramp that connects I-95 to the Walt Whitman Bridge. The canals that once drained the lush green landscape were filled between 1929 and 1942, replaced by modern sewers. By the 1960s, almost every trace of that lost world was buried under ten feet of fill.
Traces of Hollander’s Creek can be seen in FDR Park and the New Greenwich Light Baptist Church, attended by many Neckers, still stands at 121 W. Oregon Avenue. The west wall of the Oregon Diner at 302 W. Oregon Avenue slants at an odd angle, tracing the edge of the cobbled Stonehouse Lane.