Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago, Columbia Avenue erupted in a race riot. “The mobs swarmed into stores and clutched everything they could carry away,” reported Bulletin writer William Naulty. That heart of North Philadelphia never really recovered, as Jeff Gamage notes in his Inquirer report from Sunday. “Today, 50 years later, the riot zone is at once desolate and prosperous, home to ruined storefronts and comfortable pubs, to abandoned buildings and new, lower-income housing,” writes Gamage. But in nearly every sense the pre-riot Columbia Avenue, a prosaic shopping street that was also the home to Philadelphia’s liveliest jazz clubs, is gone. In this point of view article, Hidden City contributor Ethan Wallace recalls being enticed by damage the riot left behind.
“Ruminating On Lost Columbia Avenue” is the third installment of a three-part series.
I’m walking west down Cecil B. Moore heading towards 18th street. It is chaos around me as hundreds of Temple students with their families try to find parking for U-Haul trucks and over stuffed family cars. It is move in and the neighborhood is swarming with students arriving for fall semester. Around me are bars and eateries catering to the campus crowd, signs of new construction and many vacant lots. It’s a far cry from the neighborhood I saw as a Temple freshman in 1985.
Back then this was still Columbia Avenue, and students barely even ventured to the west side of Broad Street. There were no pubs, only dive bars. You did not see groups of white teenage girls in mini dresses heading to parties; no frat house stood west of Broad. We were told to stay on campus and even discouraged from using the Susquehanna-Dauphin subway stop. If anyone did venture west on Columbia it was to go a block to hit Tina’s bar for a six pack–to go. Today, Columbia Avenue is Cecil B. Moore Avenue, named for the stalwart Civil Rights leader of the 1960s, and about all that remains from my days is the Columbia Ave pawn shop.
I have always been obsessed with seeing what is on the wrong side of the keep out sign, so when we were told to stay out of the hood, I just had to go look around. What I saw were blocks of rundown apartment buildings, dingy dive bars, boarded up row houses, and, overgrown lots strewn with garbage. And I was fascinated. So many other students dismissed the whole area as a “slum.” It was out of bounds and they did not care, or at most viewed it with disdain. After all, they were only here temporarily so what did they care about this place and its history.
Walking around, I could see the fancy stone work on some of the buildings and get a rare glimpse at the mahogany staircases or fancy plaster work that told me the houses were not only once nice and well maintained, but that they had been homes of the city’s elite.
Years later I would find myself exploring more and more of this neighborhood, both as a Temple parent and as a photographer and writer, and I began to research the history of the area. The dingy old bars of the 80s had once been the heart of the Philly jazz scene. The soot stained brownstones had been the mansions of the leading families of the city. Store front churches occupied former theaters and synagogues. And now those structures are disappearing rapidly. But what happened to cause the decline of this neighborhood? And why bring it up now?
I bring it up now because of what is happening in Ferguson, Mo. and because yesterday, August 28th, 2014, marked the 50th anniversary of the Columbia Avenue race riot, which served as exclamation point on the long spiral of deindustrialization and racialized poverty that came to define North Philadelphia, even then, at the height of the City’s ambitious Urban Renewal program
The riot began when the car being driven by a black woman named Odessa Bradford stalled at 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue. Two policemen, one black and one white, ordered the driver to move her car, which she was unable to do. An argument ensued between Bradford and the police and the officers attempted to pull her from her car. A black man passing by came to her defense and was arrested along with Bradford. As the story was quickly retold it and embellished, word spread that the cops had beaten a pregnant woman. And that was it. Windows were smashed and stores were looted. The police surrounded the area opting to try to contain it rather than meet the rioters head on.
After three days, the riot was quelled, and while only one death was reported, 341 people were injured, 225 stores were vandalized and looted and 774 people were arrested. Whites who still lived in the area quickly moved away, and many of the businesses were never reopened. The area continued to decline over the next few decades. Little did freshman me know that much of the abandonment and decay I was seeing in 1985 could be traced back to an event 21 years before. We had no idea that a riot had occurred so close to our campus. Nor did we know that the blight we were seeing could be traced back to that event.
The riot became the platform upon which Frank Rizzo ran for mayor. He pledged to bring law and order to the city. While he is much loved by many today, his administration was also plagued by incidents of racism and police brutality.
When they renamed Cecil B. Moore while I was still a student, none of us knew who he was. It was only years later that I learned about his role in attempting to quell the riot and restore peace to the neighborhood.
Recently, I was looking at old photos from the Philadelphia Bulletin, of the rioters looting shops and the police trying to stop the riot from spreading. I copied down addresses of the buildings shown and later went in search of those buildings today. Almost every single one is gone. A market at Columbia and Ridge is a day care today. Needles Pharmacy still stands empty and crumbling, but a few faded signs still bear the Needles name. For the most part, all traces of the Columbia Avenue that existed in 1964 have vanished, making it even easier to forget what happened on those streets. Now we see Ferguson erupting and we hear more and more tales of police brutality and abuse of power. And everyone runs to the Internet and voices their opinion and fuels the controversy. If the story of a woman being arrested could be distorted by word of mouth to the police beating a pregnant mother, imagine the havoc that can be achieved passing a similar story online.
The old saying that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it has been shown to be valid time and time again. Philadelphia, Detroit, Watts, and Harlem all have a cautionary tale to tell, but if we erase every trace of what went on, and what went wrong, who will get that message?