Any story about Joel Spivak is necessarily a story about the stories he’s collected.
You can’t quite understand Spivak without knowing that he was involved in the South Street Renaissance, helping to stymie the city’s plans for the potentially South Street-killing Crosstown Expressway back in 1970.
Nor can Spivak really be understood without your knowing that even within the small world of non-academic archivists and historians of South Philadelphia, and specifically of Jewish South Philadelphia, he’s considered to be especially devoted to the cause of preservation. He’s written books — plural — about the trolley cars and subway system.
Above all, Spivak, 81, is a man whose excitement can be sparked and kept aflame by a horseradish grinding machine owned by a curbside vendor named Abie Kravitz, dead since 1976.
Spivak, founder of the not-quite-a-museum that is the South Street Museum, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the South Street Renaissance and the defeat of the Crosstown Expressway this month with a new project. Though he’d hoped to celebrate in person as he and his friends have done in the past, that was out of the question this year; instead, he’s embarked on a targeted project, collecting stories and ephemera belonging to the Jewish families and Jewish businesses that populated the South Street area in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
One day, he hopes to have a small storefront to display the old menus, business cards, photos and whatever else you might have in your attic, but for now, he’ll present what he can find on his website, alongside the stories he hopes to collect.
“There’s a whole lot of interest in the history of things,” Spivak said. “But I really wanted the personal stories from family members, because they could actually talk to me about the guy who owned the deli at the corner of Sixth and South in 1947.”
Spivak was an architect and builder around South Street for decades, which helped to develop his interest in digging deeper into the area’s history. And more than a spur to his spirit of inquiry, it was a way to collect the debris of yesterday, a practice he began almost immediately after he began building.
In the stores he renovated, he found a gold mine of photos, newspapers, phone books, business cards, playbills, advertisements and much more. As part of the South Street Renaissance, he had a lot invested in the idea that South Street was a place that needed to be preserved, in one way or another; in the ’70s, that spurred him to create the South Street Museum, “which is technically a museum I made up in my mind, that I’ve had in a few places,” Spivak explained. It’s been displayed in public intermittently over the years, and online for a while. Its papers are now owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Through the subsequent decades, Spivak never left South Street, as the fortunes and character of the street changed, changed and changed again. Since the beginning, Spivak has noted the neighborhood’s Jewish element, even after the Abie Kravitzes of the world went the way of the dinosaur. Thus, this new project was born, out of interest and necessity. If you’re interested in sharing your story, visit joelspivak.com.
David Mink, who knows Spivak through their mutual association with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia, said that it was clear from the first time he met Spivak that he was a “pretty singular guy.”
“He’s a lot older than you think he is,” Mink said, “and incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated to this town, dedicated to Philadelphia, and also to the old Jewish community.”
Mink himself is part of that old Jewish community; as the former owner of the Sansom Street Oyster House (now just The Oyster House), he’s the bridge between the original owner (his father Sam Mink) and the current owner (his son, also named Sam Mink).
Harry Boonin, a local retiree and author interested in many of the same subjects as Spivak, appreciates that Spivak has “boots on the ground,” talking to living, breathing people, and not just collecting objects.
“He really wants to preserve the area, and he’s doing it from the street,” Boonin said. “And instead of being appointed by the mayor or some committee to be on the committee and help out the committee and go to meeting rooms, he’s more of an outside guy.”
I worked on South Street. 1212 South at a pawn shop owned by two Jewish brothers and got my Bar Mitzva suit from Bermans. The attorney who saved South Street was a friend.
I lived in the 5th and Wharton area then around Mildred and Porter. I went to Weccacoe, Martha Washington, Fell and Thomas Junior High. Then I traveled up to Central. I did the 47, 9, 23, 50, the subway and jumped box cars for train rides on Washington Avenue. I saw the Baldwin Locomotive Works burn for seven days.
My parents helped form Young Peoples Shari Eli. I was a member of its Chazanim Club Quire. and during WW2, a junior Air Raid Warden. -A member of Levis’ 50 year club, am 90 and got lot’s of South Philly memories.