City Life

My Mom and Center City: A Love Story

January 26, 2021 | by Amy Cohen

Newborn Amy Cohen with her mother Nancy Nance at their Camac Street home in 1964. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

Although my mother grew up in suburban Melrose Park, she was always a city girl at heart. Accompanied by her mother or by friends, she frequently took the train to Reading Terminal to shop downtown. Sometimes they visited the Blum Store, Bonwit Teller, DeWees, or Strawbridge & Clothier. Most often, though, it was Wanamaker’s. A lunch of tea sandwiches and vegetable soup in the Crystal Tea Room was part of her routine when visiting Center City.

As a young teen, my mom would come in town on her own for appointments with Dr. Groth, her female orthodontist. My grandmother drew her a map indicating how to walk from Reading Terminal to the Medical Arts Building at 16th and Walnut Streets. 70 years hence, my mother’s dentist works in that same building.

The Medical Arts Building is one of several locations that form a leitmotif in my mother’s life. My mom, Nancy Herbach Nance, turns 85 on January 26, 2021. She has spent the majority of those years living in Center City.

Wanamaker’s appears frequently in her life story. It was her favorite place to shop for many years. One weekday she and her friend Barbara Korn decided it would be more fun to go to Wanamaker’s instead of Cheltenham High School. Trying on clothes, my mother needed something in a different size, so Barbara went looking only to return to the dressing room looking ashen. “Nancy,” she said, “Your mom’s out there.” The two of them hid in that dressing room for a very long time.

The Cyrstal Tea Room at Wannamaker’s in 1981. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

After her freshman year at Simmons College, Mom landed a summer job as a comparison shopper for Wanamaker’s. She was in heaven. Every morning she went to Gimbels, Lit Brothers, Strawbridge & Clothier, and Snellenburg’s to count the number of shoppers in each store’s basement. She returned to the Wanamaker’s cafeteria for lunch. After eating, she played pinochle with another college girl and two older men who lay carpet for the store.

Decades later, my mother spent 14 years as the head law librarian at Drinker, Biddle, & Reath, located, conveniently, right next to Wanamaker’s. I knew that she sometimes poked around the store during her lunch hour. She recently confessed, however, that she also visited her favorite sanctuary when she was supposed to be at work. Her library staff, she explained, was so strong that she didn’t need to be there all the time. At least by this point she didn’t fear running into her mother.

The Curtis Center on Washington Square is another North Star in my mother’s life. The summer after her junior year of college she worked in the personnel office of Curtis Publishing, then home to popular magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, Jack & Jill, and Holiday.

The highlight of that summer of 1957 was when my mother and her parents spent three days at the posh Drake Hotel on 15th and Spruce Streets while their house was being painted. My suburban mother was amazed to walk out the door and see people everywhere. My grandfather would go to his job at Philadelphia Rust-Proof Company, my grandmother would drive to Philmont Country Club to golf, but my mother fell absolutely in love with city living.

Amy Cohen and her mother in Washington Square in 1964. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

After graduation, my mom was hired by Curtis Publishing. This was the “Mad Men era,” so she recalls her boss frequently stumbling back to the office after a three-martini lunch.

While working at Curtis, she began dating a Penn Law student from Camden, my father Arnold Rosenberg. When they married my grandfather offered them $10,000 for a down payment on a house in the suburbs. They declined and instead took up residence two blocks from Washington Square at 920 Clinton Street.

In the early 1960s, my mother continued to work at Curtis Publishing while my dad finished law school. Money was tight. Mom frequented a shop on 10th Street that sold day-old food from Horn & Hardart. Creamed spinach, lima beans, stewed tomatoes, tapioca, rice pudding, and other favorites could be purchased at a deep discount.

Despite their constricted budget, my parents saw every show that came to major Philadelphia theaters. For $1.50 a pop, they went to the Walnut, the Forrest, and the Schubert several times a month. Plays often opened here, and my mother recalls seeing many big hits before they reached Broadway including A Raisin in the Sun, Gypsy, The Miracle Worker and Sweet Bird of Youth with Paul Newman. Fun fact: Paul Newman shared a birthday with my mom, although he was 11 years her senior. Odd fact: my gynecologist, Dr. Paul Neumann, was also a January 26 baby.

Amy Cohen and her mother in front of their Delancey Street townhouse in 1973. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

Once my sister and I came along 13 months apart, my mother continued to walk to Washington Square, her favorite outdoor gathering spot, on a regular basis. No longer the Curtis career gal, she pushed a double stroller to the square from our home on Camac Street to enjoy the companionship of other moms with young kids. They decided to form a pre-preschool group. Since none of the moms had any expertise in early childhood education, they consulted a local woman who did: Ruth Hilda Holmes, wife of Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon and mother to six children. (That, of course, is my six degrees of Kevin Bacon story.) They hired a teacher who met the criteria that Holmes suggested and reserved a Hopkinson House community room three mornings a week.

By the time I started kindergarten, we had moved to the Fitler Square neighborhood. My parents made my sister and I feel lucky to be raised in the city, and we both treasure memories of our Center City childhoods and our close-knit urban village.

In the mid-1970s my mother and three women on our block formed a communal cooking group. Each member was assigned a weeknight to cook for the other three families in the group so that each mom only cooked once a week. Genius!

During her 63 years in Center City, my mother has witnessed dramatic changes. She remembers when Bookbinder’s and Helen Segal Wilson’s were the only restaurants for a night out. When the first “restaurant renaissance” took place in the early 1970s, my parents frequented Astral Plane, Lickety Split, Frog, Friday Saturday Sunday, and the Black Banana. Although I’m now accustomed to being among the oldest patrons in any trendy restaurant, my mom and stepdad were, pre-pandemic, always discovering places before they became popular. The staff at Suraya knew them by name before most people had heard of the place.

Stepfather Dean Nance, Amy Cohen, and her mother Nancy at a Black Lives Matter march in January 2015. | Image courtesy of Amy Cohen

A year after I started college, my mom and stepdad moved to Independence Place at 6th and Locust Streets, a stone’s throw from the Curtis Center. They’ve lived there for nearly four decades. A silver lining during the time of COVID-19: my mother has seen Washington Square, her square, get much use by an array of people. It has become one of the city’s major outdoor gathering places. Walks around the square are my mom’s pandemic exercise, and she seems to know every dog that passes by. She and I have met in the square numerous times since March, masked, but happy to see each other in person.

One more Nancy Nance story. A year ago, I was chatting with my mom on the phone. I told her that on the upcoming Friday night I planned to take my younger daughter to a drag show in the Gayborhood featuring one of my former students. Mom told me she and my stepdad were having dinner at 13th and South Streets that night and would love to stop by afterwards. I did not take her seriously. As it turned out, my then 18-year-old daughter’s fake i.d. did not pass muster, so she took an Uber home. I was okay on my own in the crowd of much younger people across the gender identity spectrum. Soon, though, I received a text from my mom: “We’re next to the stage. Where are you?”

My mom was destined to live in Center City, the Mecca of her suburban adolescence. More than six decades of urban living explain why my beloved 85-year-old mother remains among the most stylish, hip, and youthful people I know.

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About the Author

Amy Cohen Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.

41 Comments:

  1. Elizabeth Solomon says:

    Thanks for posting this story. I lived a parallel life- Washington square in 1963, Then to Fitler square in1966. Love the city after growing up in Chester County. Moved to Germantown and still here.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks for commenting. I’m in NW as well.

      1. jeroo says:

        Happy belated birthday Nancy😍

    2. Faith Watson says:

      Hey, Amy, this is an eloquent, loving portrait of your marvelous ma! I’d love to catch up with you ALL. A pal in Washington state sent me the article, but I’m still here. Faith Watson
      Watsonfaith@gmail.com

  2. Anita Nicholson says:

    A wonderful story of life in Center City Philly. I loved it Amy!!

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks, Anita!

  3. Ward Greer says:

    Amy,
    Great story about you, your family and Center City Philadelphia. I really enjoyed it.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      So nice to hear from you, Ward! Hope you are doing well.

  4. Barbara Mirrison says:

    Oh amy what a beautiful tribute to your Mom. So so true… you captured her down to a T I loved every word

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks, Barbara!

      1. Isabel Melvin says:

        My mom would have been your mom’s age. God rest her soul. I grew up in UD. She grew up in southwest Phila and taught us to LOVE Wanamaker’s and the Crystal Tea Room. And all the 70’s restaurants your mom liked. So happy to remember your mom’s days and familiar places. Loved the story of your mom skipping school and hiding from her mom! And the beautiful photos of you and your mom. Lovely Phila story.

  5. I really am so inspired by this article and also that you taught my son Riley at Masterman! Looking for word to your talk at the Cos club

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks, Janice. I hope Riley is doing well!
      I think my upcoming talks are at Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion and Preservation Alliance. I spoke at Cos Club a few months ago.

  6. Francesca Olivares says:

    My son,Alex was one of Amy Cohen’s students at Masterman. He would comment on how much he learned from her and enjoyed her classes 😀

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thank you Fancesca. I hope Alex is doing well!

  7. Jim Clark says:

    Nice story, thank you for sharing. My mom loved center city also. Her favorite store was Gimbels. Take care.

  8. Paula K says:

    Good memories of the Wanamaker Tea Room with my mom too….Her favorite spot to sit and share her Center City stories, wish I remembered more. Her dad worked in the Witherspoon building and she went to Pierce Business School, ca. 1950. Every night it was back to Overbrook!

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Paula.

  9. Amy Cohen says:

    Thanks, Jim!

  10. Jason Lerner says:

    Love this. Thank you Amy. By the 3rd paragraph I had a feeling that this was you 😉
    So many parallels, including Camac Street (Fawn Street for me.) I’m sure that fathers knew each other at PennLaw. Thank you again for your help at Masterman while I was there (@2008-9)

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Jason! Nice to hear from you. Hope you are doing well.

  11. Evelyn eskin says:

    What a lovely article and loving tribute to your mom! Congratulations on your breezy writing style and also on the wonderful relstionship you have with your mom. That’s really something to celebrate!!🎂🍾🎁🥂🎊❤️🌈💜

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks for your kind words. And, yes, my mom and I have always been lucky to be as close as we are.I am grateful daily.

  12. Kday says:

    What a lovely story! A very heartfelt read.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks so much. Glad you enjoyed it.

  13. Nancy Levitt says:

    Amy,
    What a beautiful love story to your Mom & Philadelphia and a wonderful birthday presents.My mother Barbara Morrison, says your Mom is first of the girls to turn 85, you have set the gift giving bar very high.
    XO,
    Nancy

    1. Barbara Shearer says:

      Loved reading this! We met Nancy and Dean in New Zealand 4+ years ago. We have an Illinois connection with Dean. We shared a helicopter ride with them that was both wonderful and terrifying!

    2. Amy Cohen says:

      Hi Nancy! Nice to hear from you and thanks for your kind words. It was fun to write.

  14. JB says:

    A great tribute to your mom and Philly. I feel fortunate to know both of you. 🙂

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Not sure who you are, but thanks!

  15. Peggy Wachs says:

    Amy,
    Loved the story about your mom. Resonated with me although it took me much longer to move into town. Such a warm tribute to Nancy.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thanks so much, Peggy!

  16. Barbara Bernstein says:

    What a wonderful story of your Mother’s city life. I was part of her suburban life in junior and senior high school.in addition both of our parents were friends and part of a group who celebrated together for holidays
    and vacations in the Pocanos!
    Nancy and I often celebrated our birthdays together with neighborhood friends and loved finding funny and weird costumes! She will always be a special friend from my childhood
    I send birthday wishes and love to her and her wonderful family!
    Be well, Love, “Sickles” 😻😻❤️

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Happy birthday to you as well! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  17. Murray Savar says:

    I love all of your stories, Amy! Thank you!

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      Thank you!!!

  18. Roberta Binderman says:

    I loved this. It brought back such wonderful memories of life in Center City although you forgot to mention Leary’s Book Store. After lunch in Wanamaker’s Tea Room, I would hurry over to Leary’s before boarding the 61 bus back to Strawberry Mansion, while my mother went shopping.

    1. Amy Cohen says:

      My mother was and still is a voracious reader! But she never mentioned this establishment.

  19. MEL says:

    I don’t know you or your mom but l feel like I do after this story! We lived in Center City in the ‘90’s and I loved it; so much that I’m trying to convince my husband to move there again once we retire. He thinks I’m slightly mad for wanting to leave sunny CA but Philly captured my imagination. A little big city or a big little city,either way it feels like home. Thanks for sharing your mom’s incredible life.

  20. Margo Glasser Kutner says:

    Amy,

    I love your story. I grew up in the NE part of Philly and moved to California in ’71. But I loved growing up there. All the arts, culture,etc. I’m older than you,born in ’47,so I spent my young teenage years frequenting the downtown coffeehouses, and the older inexpensive places to eat. I loved Wanamakers and the meeting place was the Eagle.
    My mother, 99 and still independent, graduated from Moore College of Art and worked as a commercial photographer before she stopped to have a family. But my parents took us someplace every Saturday and Sunday as I and my siblings were growing up. Most places were free then and we all took full advantage. She knew a lot of the hidden historical/semi-privateplaces. So, again I loved growing up in Philly. Thank you for your terrific personal article.

  21. Monique says:

    Loved your Story Amy! very inspiring <3

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