Back on Skid Row

About two months ago I blogged about a piece I had written that I called “Barroom Brawl” on how a dying Skid Row faced off with an up and coming Chinatown about relocating a bar on 9th Street in Philadelphia. The piece made it online via Hidden City Philadelphia last week, and has gotten positive feedback.

I’m still new enough to this to check in with the article regularly to look at the “likes” and “shares” and comments. The reinforcement of getting a piece published and seeing reader feedback also has me itching to go back for more. Thus, like an old alcoholic who just can’t stay away from old haunts, I find myself drawn to do one more piece.

I’ve started research on a look at about the only institution on Philadelphia Skid Row that has survived intact—the Sixth District police station on 11th and Winter streets. This cop shop was built in 1901 and remodeled in 1947. The timing of the latter is fortuitous, because that renovation coincided with the emergence of Skid Row and makes for a good starting point for an article. From then on the Sixth was the busiest precinct in the city, hauling in drunks and otherwise making earnest attempts at keeping order in an area that thrived on entropy.

I’m betting there are some colorful and lurid stories that I can milk in true crime fashion to give the article its color. The multifaceted interaction of police and winos makes for a structure to the story, so it is not just a serial telling of crimes, yet it will satisfy the reader who comes to the article looking for that kind of fix.

There are a few classic academic pieces on this, particularly Bittner’s “Police on Skid Row” and Spradley’s “You Owe Yourself a Drunk” that provide some framing. There is a piece by Leonard Blumberg, the foremost local Skid Row researcher of that era and some other local writing that gives some total arrest stats. And beyond that, much of the material that I’m hoping to find will come out of newspapers. And therein lies the uncertainty on whether I’ll find enough stuff. There are tons of references in the paper to the police station, but most of them are pretty mundane stories of muggings and the like. I need a couple of notorious or weird (preferably both) stories to make a story out of this. So we shall see.

After this, I want to move on to something a bit more hefty. There is enough data available to come up with a pretty good housing inventory of the area, which would enable me to link the loss, in the early 1970s, of the rooming house district surrounding Skid Row with the subsequent rise of contemporary homelessness. And there is the story of tuberculosis on Skid Row, and the mid-1950s outreach project that got quashed.

In my more grandiose moods, I start to take ownership of Skid Row, like it is my turf and also my refuge, where I can create my little world akin to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or at least a world like Nelson Algren creates in The Man with the Golden Arm, where Captain Record Head Bednar presides over endless lineups of two-bit hustlers. Interesting that I take two examples from fiction, as I have no intention of crossing over that line. But all of this assumes that I have control over this process.

I’m sure I’ll come back to this, report on my progress, perhaps even try out some of the more interesting stuff in future blog posts. In the meantime, check out my Barroom Brawl piece and, if you like it, let me know.

I coulda done a lot worse than sit
in Skid Row drinkin wine

To know that nothing matters after all
To know there's no real difference
between the rich and the poor
To know that eternity is neither drunk
nor sober, to know it young
and be a poet

Coulda gone into business and ranted
And believed that God was concerned

Instead I squatted in lonesome alleys
And no one saw me, just my bottle
and what they saw of it was empty

(Jack Kerouac) 


Stephen Metraux