City Life

On Love, Loss, and City Life During COVID-19

November 2, 2020 | by Mickey Herr

Back in mid-May 2020—about 10 weeks into our original Philadelphia pandemic lockdown—I submitted a version of this article to Hidden City for publication. I had spent the previous Spring 2019 researching the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as part of a team developing neighborhood tours to accompany the Mütter Museum’s stellar Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 in Philadelphia exhibition. Weeks of scouring death certificates and tracking down the personal stories of love and loss of the last pandemic put me in a unique headspace. A spreadsheet full of facts—name, address, date of birth, race, marital status, occupation, employer, birthplace of parents—was suddenly quite palpable. It was no longer a sampling of names of dead people. My heart ached as each story was revealed.

Suddenly, history was repeating itself in 2020. A novel virus—COVID 19—had arrived, and Philadelphians needed to decide if we had learned from past mistakes. Our city’s infamous Liberty Loan Parade was the original super-spreader event that catapulted the deadly flu through Philadelphia back in 1918. Its legacy was called out as city officials and the public debated the need to cancel our annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade as the corona virus began to take hold in the Mid-Atlantic region. Cooler heads prevailed and the parade was canceled. Perhaps we had learned.

Many of us, the lucky non-essential folks, were safely locked down in our houses. Our calendars had emptied along with the streets of our city. My quiet space allowed me to focus in on the fact that last year’s research had suddenly become this year’s reality. So, I sat in my Bella Vista home—one of the four neighborhoods chosen as a Mütter tour focus—and thought about the dead. And their survivors. And the newly dead. And their survivors. And I wondered how the experience of survival had changed in my neighborhood. Yet, before the first iteration of this article could be published the world around us shifted once again. On May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered while detained by Minneapolis police officers. The video went viral and our collective quiet moments were consumed by other voices. We weren’t being called to merely reflect on ailments of the body, but of the mind and spirit as well. The original version of this article fell to the bottom of the editorial pile. And rightly so. But now, as the second wave of COVID-19 rolls in like a menacing storm, I have been asked to revisit my initial “lockdown” thoughts in anticipation of the dark winter ahead. We are five months further down the line. Yet, hindsight is not 20/20 in the year 2020. So how can we believe it is possible to anticipate anything in the coming months? Still, I will share with you the streets of Bella Vista. My home. In a city full of neighborhoods and neighbors. And I will share with you my belief that honoring those who have survived these streets before us might be part of our survival strategy.

I recall walking down Fabric Row in Queen Village back in mid-May. During the 1918 pandemic this area was an integral part of the Jewish Quarter. In recent years it’s been transitioning into a trendy “makers” district. Some of the retail spaces were already empty, while others seemed to have locked their doors mid-February, leaving their window displays frozen in time. It was eerie. And then I came upon Baldwin Leather and Fabric. Their window display provided the latest in face mask fashion. A veritable array of haute couture-like masks made of knock-off fabrics from Chanel, Coach, Vuitton, Fendi, and Burberry. I remember thinking at the time how frivolous these masks seemed. I don’t think that anymore. After seven months of daily mask wearing, I still haven’t found the right mask. One that doesn’t fog my glasses or pull at my ears. And somedays you just want a pretty mask, right? I also came to realize something more about this specific location. The long-time owner Larnell Baldwin was a smart man. He was transitioning quickly into survival mode to keep his business going. And then, not long after I had walked by, in the midst of the ongoing George Floyd protests his store was looted. Sadly, it seems Mr. Baldwin may not reopen his venerated store.

Face mask window display at Baldwin Leather and Fabric in Queen Village before the looting in May. | Photo: Mickey Herr

As I look back on what I wrote in the earliest days of the pandemic lockdown, it is all shaded by what was to come. The social unrest and political protests. The daily text alerts from Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management announcing the updated COVID-19 death toll. Pandemic fatigue. The anxiety of not knowing how long this will last. And even today, as I write this, the unimaginable continues. On Monday Oct 26, William Wallace, Jr. was killed by Philadelphia police outside his home after his family pleaded for help amid Wallace’s apparent mental breakdown. The curfews and helicopters have returned. And while our city erupted in further rioting and protest, Dr. Thomas Farley, of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, announced Philadelphia may be entering the worst period of the entire pandemic. He suggested that all holiday related gatherings and family dinners be canceled. All of this makes it difficult to recall those first quiet weeks of pandemic lockdown. When the normally busy park and community center across from my home went dormant. No screaming children at play, no bright lights for nighttime soccer games, and suddenly the field of grass that always struggled turned verdant green. By mid-summer the park noises returned with picnicking families, children’s play groups, and a volleyball contingent. Pneumatic nail guns have suddenly started echoing through the streets as a large number of neighbors have taken on their “cornovations.” Each new additional sound makes me long to return back to those early days of empty streets. To the quiet that allowed me to travel back in thought to my home 100 years ago.

The earliest evidence of my home comes from G. W. Bromley’s 1895 Atlas. I have yet to figure out who built it or why, but my best guess is it was developed as an investment property, and never owner-occupied until sometime after 1920. It was a veritable weigh-station of occupants. And while today, Bella Vista is known as the home to Italian immigrants, my home was refuge to both Italians and African Americans, sometimes at the same time. In 1900 there were four families residing here, three families (10 individuals) were Black and the other a young Italian widow with her two children. On the 1910 Federal Census there were three recently arrived Italian immigrant families: Moslm & Mary Divara (mid-40s, no children), Bangino & Annie Dolfonso (mid-20s, with one child), and Camelle & Virginia Delorenzo (mid-30s to mid-40s, two children ages three and 10). If you lost count, that’s nine individuals. The 1920 Federal Census indicates a significant change. The renters were Charles and Jenny Flanner, a Black couple born in Maryland and Virginia. They had a boarder named Rose Franklin, also from Maryland. By 1930, the house was owned and occupied by Frank Tocasio, an Italian immigrant who lived with his wife Jennie and their nine children. By the time J. M. Brewer published his appraisal map in 1934, my block was shown to be a mix of African Americans and Italians and rated “E” for decadent, the lowest rating possible.

While census reports capture moments in time, I cannot be sure who lived or died in my house during the Spanish flu pandemic. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to uncover any further information on the 1910 or 1920 occupants. But looking at the houses on either side during this time, all were occupied by large families with upwards of seven to 10 children. I would estimate that there were at least three to four times more souls occupying my block 100 years ago. Many transient ones. The occupants of my block would not be missing the sounds of young children, as they had many at home. Our popular neighborhood park, Palumbo Playground, was always quiet at that time because it was then Ronaldson’s Cemetery. Even with all the development through the years, there is still, magically, an open view of City Hall from the park. I like to imagine Mary Divara or Jenny Flanner walking to the end of our block and looking up over the then-cemetery to see William Penn traipsing across the sky, just as I do today.

The Institute for Colored Youth, at right, now condos, would have been visible across Ronaldson’s Cemetery, now Palumbo Playground. | Photo: Mickey Herr

I may be walking the same streets that Mary and Jenny did, but our neighborhood is nothing alike. While we have fancy real estate names like Bella Vista, Queen Village, and Hawthorne, they lived on streets broken down by electoral wards. Depending upon which street you stand in today’s Bella Vista you could easily be standing in Wards 4, 5, or 7—the present-day names having little correlation with the previous designations. These wards in general had yet to make it into the 20th-century promised by views of the burgeoning downtown skyline. The streets were densely packed with an ever-growing number of Jewish and Italian immigrants, who vied for living space along with the Great Migration of African Americans who had come north. All searching for new opportunities yet living in over-crowded row houses, which mostly lacked indoor plumbing and electricity and were often in a state of disrepair. Whatever vision you have in your head, I guarantee reality was worse. There was a big divide among the haves and the have-nots, and politically our city was known to be full of inefficiencies and graft. In his book Shame of the Cities, journalist Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia in the early 1900s as “the worst governed city in the country.” Like today, food markets remained open, while most other public places were closed, including schools, theaters, and churches. Subways and trolleys continued as normal. And as alcohol was a “recommended” treatment for the flu, saloons and liquor stores remained open. Although there is some speculation that this exception was political and had to do with a large supply of alcohol purchased by the City from a connected supplier.

I wonder if Mary or Jenny smelled bread baking or roasting garlic as I often do? Many of Bella Vista’s beloved businesses were established during the time of the 1918 pandemic. Dante and Luigi’s, Ralph’s, Isgro’s, Fante’s, Fiorella’s Sausage (now a pasta restaurant). Sarcone’s was in its infancy. When I read on social media that the Sarcone’s family had pondered closing during the first quarantine my heart sank. But the owners said it was the neighbors who made them rethink their decision, and so they have remained open. We purchase bread and cookies weekly. I don’t know what I would do if that smell went away.

Avid readers of Hidden City know firsthand that history is never really hidden, but is often sitting in plain sight. If you know where to look there are some significant clues to life in Bella Vista during the original pandemic. Cianfrani Park holds a reminder that Philadelphia built bath houses to help alleviate the conditions around lack of indoor plumbing. In 1905 the Fante-Leon Pool at Montrose and Darien Streets was built, which in truth was merely an indoor swimming pool. This location was constructed to cater specifically to the Italian immigrant community, and no provisions were made for the African-American community. Torn down in 2012, the tympanum over the entryway came to rest in the middle of a Cianfrani Park flower garden. There is nothing that marks where this bit of doorway architecture came from or the importance of its original location. During the 1918 pandemic Cianfrani Park wasn’t even “green,” but the site of the James Campbell Public School. In general, there was a lot less green space. The idea of creating safe spaces for children’s play had already been hatched by progressives in the later years of the 1800s, just like providing bathhouses. If you were a lucky child you might go to Starr Garden at 6th and Lombard Streets, which was the first public recreational space built for kids in 1895. Although the children living on my block had no time for play as they tended to have jobs like banding cigars, assisting in a tailor shops, or running errands for shop owners.

During the 1918 pandemic, Philip and Mary Longo lived across Fitzwater Street from the Campbell School. Philip, a shoemaker, arrived in Philadelphia from Italy as Filastro Loungo in 1900. He found steady work and sent for his wife, Maria Rosa, and their four young children in 1904. Their home on Fitzwater Street would serve as a family refuge to their nine children and grandchildren for at least 40 years. This was the home their daughter Rose would return to after the pandemic took her 24-year old husband Giovanni (John) Caffaro. They had lived around the corner with John’s family on Clymer Street while he worked as a butcher. At 22, Rose was left a widow with a toddler and a baby on the way. Her second son, born six months later, would be named John after the father he never knew. Rose never remarried. She died in 1960 at the age of 63 and was reunited with her husband at Holy Cross Cemetery after 42 years. I am often tempted to knock on the door of their house to see if members of the Longo family still reside there.

One of the surprising hidden-in-plain-sight locations in Bella Vista is the Fabiani Hospital. It’s only when you step back and look at the block that you realize the entire building is still extant at 10th and Christian Streets, although missing some cool features, like the cupola.

Fabiani Italian Hospital at 10th and Christian Streets in 1904. | Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

What the former hospital looks like today. | Photo: Mickey Herr

As the infection rate climbed in the fall of 1918 hospitals were overrun, and the death rate averaged over 50 people a day. Ultimately about one-quarter of the city’s populous became ill. A place like the Fabiani Italian Hospital would be important to the surrounding community. Dr. Guiseppe Fabiani, who trained in Naples and Florence, opened his hospital in 1904 at this location. Later, he’d move to a bigger location at 10th and Carpenter Streets. That building was torn down and is now Bardascino Park, and a popular bocce court. As a private hospital, Fabiani would operate on a cash basis, but patients would likely rely on help from the local Italian fraternal organizations or mutual aid societies. The 1910 Federal Census shows that along with Dr. Fabiani, there were four boarders, a druggist, a medical student, three nurses, and 14 Italian-American patients in residence. A 1917 advertisement provides a long list of medical and surgical services available at this location–treatment of maladies of the nose, throat, and ears, of the uterus, eyes, and genito-urinary system (including syphilis), dental and mouth maladies, obstetric care, and a pharmacy. The office and pharmacy were open day and night. Imagine how busy this location was in 1918. At best, even Dr. Fabiani was unlikely to do much more than provide palliative care to the very sick.  

And if the hospitals were busy, the undertakers were overwhelmed. They ran out of coffins and bodies piled up in their garages and at the city morgue. The burial crisis was recorded as one of the most harrowing aspects of the Spanish flu pandemic. Just a block away from the Fabiani hospital on Catherine Street was an undertaker by the name of Francesco Travascio. In normal times, the undertaker would embalm and dress the body for a viewing at home. Then, there would be a procession to the church for the funeral service. Depending on how much money a family could spend, there might be a band leading the procession and even a hearse drawn by horses. By this time many of the Italian immigrants had been sending their dead to be buried outside the city at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon. Some of the bodies might have been placed in temporary trenches and reinterred when the proper graves could be dug. Francesco and his son Frank Jr. operated their undertaking business successfully through the mid-1940s. Passing by the building today one would never imagine such a chaotic scene on this quiet corner. I am also curious to know if the current owners have any idea of its former use. Would they want to know?

The former site of Travascio Undertakers, now a quiet, private residence. | Photo: Mickey Herr

Surveying our streets through a 100-year lens is useful. Yet, reflecting on the change between now and eight months ago is just as apt. It highlights why it is impossible to look back on the 2020 pandemic without acknowledging just how inextricably linked it is to our burgeoning awareness of social justice issues. One only needs to walk to the corner of 9th and Montrose Streets in the heart of the Italian Market to witness this change. Now referred to as the Piazza DiBruno and still home to the famous greased pole, this spot has transformed in ways unimaginable at the beginning of this year. This past weekend I met a friend for drinks in the piazza which now features tables for social distancing surrounded by lush fall foliage, with nary a Frank Rizzo in sight.

The former Rizzo Mural parking lot on 9th Street is now known as Piazza DiBruno. | Photos: Mickey Herr

Afterward we walked south on 9th Street, just over Washington Avenue, where the street was blocked to car traffic. The artist and Bella Vista native Michelle Angela Ortiz, who helped spearhead the local group that fought for the removal of the infamous Rizzo mural, was premiering a second installation of her Our Market public art project. Ortiz created this community-centered, multi-year project in April of 2019 to support the immigrant vendors, business owners, and neighbors who work and reside in the 9th Street Market. Her goal is to create community strategies to tackle the issues of gentrification, racism, displacement, and erasure. The program, featuring live music by Orchestra 2001, was entitled “Honoring Our Ancestors” with performances focused on life, loss, transitions, enlightenment, and memory.

The crowd was 100 percent masked and carefully spaced as we sat in the middle of the street. At one point the movie screen behind the orchestra showed a 1937 vintage film of a busy 9th Street. The actual Giordano’s market sat empty just beyond the edge of the screen, as the faces of the over-crowded black-and-white footage moved across the breeze-whipped screen. The faces of the shoppers looked straight into the camera, staring out at us. Through time. Outside of time. Listening to music was enthralling. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed live music. Nhung Nguyen, a longtime resident, sang in her native Vietnamese. One of the most moving moments came from the artist’s father, Miguel Angel Ortiz, originally from Puerto Rico, as he sang a Spanish version of Ennio Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso.” I am not fluent in Spanish, but his voice beautifully conveyed the message of love and loss. While immigrant populations have learned to mourn loved ones a border or an ocean away, this pandemic has become an equalizer as we all mourn remotely.

A reminder at St. Paul’s Catholic Church that a mask is the key to remaining safe. | Photo: Mickey Herr

The truth is we don’t know what the dark winter may have in store. But this opportunity to sit with my neighbors on a chilly Fall night was quite inspiring. Truly a moment to celebrate our small victories in a tumultuous year. To remember those we have lost. And to honor the struggles of our ancestors—whether they are blood relations or those who lived their lives on the streets we now call home. Despite the pain, we must take these moments to celebrate in their honor.

Michelle Angela Ortiz had one last strategy for surviving whatever we must face in the months ahead. She encouraged us to always “keep our smiles under our masks.”

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About the Author

Mickey Herr Mickey Herr lived in many places until her heart settled in Philadelphia. She has led the development and communications efforts for several significant non-profit cultural institutions in Philadelphia. Current interests involve elevating the hidden-histories of women. She is at work on a novel, and gives tours for Hidden City Philadelphia, both of which are allowing her to research incredible untold stories of women. She believes in ghosts, synchronicity, and taking chances. Read her writing on Philadelphia, history and geneology at mickeyherr.com.

7 Comments:

  1. Heidi says:

    Great story and beautifully written.

    1. Mickey Herr says:

      thank you Heidi

  2. Tony says:

    An excellent piece of story telling bridging the hundred years between Philadelphia, Then and Now!Despite light years of social and technological changes between the two eras the article reminds us of the timelessness of human nature and how it manages to deal with extremely trying challenges both physical and emotional!

    1. Mickey Herr says:

      thanks Tony

  3. Tenley says:

    Mickey, I always love reading your thoughtful writing — thank you for sharing these stories of our streets, our neighbors, and ourselves.

    1. Mickey Herr says:

      thanks for reading and commenting Tenley!

  4. Mickey, I’m very grateful to you for researching and writing this deeply beautiful and informative piece. My own ancestors lived and worked in these exact streets, and though I know many of their stories, you’ve provided a new, important lens I’ve largely overlooked until now. Thank you.

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