Utopia Revisited: Residents Reunite to Share Stories of 12th Street Childhood

In a black-and-white photo, several children are posing outside with a horse.
The children of 12th Street from 60-12 Club, the street’s newsletter | Courtesy of the Trachtenberg family

The word “utopia,” coined by 15th-century English writer Thomas More, is based on the Greek words eu-topos, which means a good place, and ou-topos, which means no place.

The term was meant to show the idealized, just-out-of-reach nature of a perfect place. Certainly, a place that appeared so faultless could not possibly exist without a catch or shortcoming.

Some of the former residents of East Oak Lane would beg to differ. Hugged between North 11th and Camac streets on one side, and Marvine and 13th streets on the other, the 6000 block of  North 12th Street was home to about 50 families, most of them Jewish, in the 1940s and ’50s. 

The residents remember the neighborhood the same way: Children addressed adults as “aunt” and “uncle;” no one locked their doors; everyone had a part in the annual Chanukah performance; and the street on a hill was transformed into a sledding haven in the winter, when the street’s fathers stood at the top and bottom to block off incoming cars, and the children spent the later afternoons and weekends treading through mounds of snow.

Eighty years after the cohort of residents moved to North 12th Street, the surviving “children,” now septuagenarians and octogenarians, will gather for a reunion on Sept. 10 in Rittenhouse. The meet-up’s theme, “12th Street: Myth or Reality,” puts the neighborhood’s utopic status to the test.

“All of us think that everything wonderful happened on 12th Street,” said Joan Cohen, 79, a former 12th Street resident. “… Anything bad or negative that happened in our lives happened after 12th Street.”

In their front yard, Drew Trachtenberg, a young boy in a fall jacket, is standing over his older brother Steve.
Drew (standing) and Steve Trachtenberg outside of the 12th Street home in 1959 | Courtesy of the Trachtenberg family

The group of 30-40 surviving residents last convened in the early 2000s, and the cohort believes that the upcoming gathering will be one of the last opportunities to meet and share stories of a unique upbringing.

“We are all brimming over with memories,” Cohen said.

Cohen and her sister Alice Fisher both were born and grew up on 12th Street, the children of young parents looking to settle down during a tumultuous time in United States history. On the eve of World War II and following the Great Depression, many couples found refuge in the less-developed East Oak Lane section of North Philadelphia and had children at around the same time.

A row home on a hill is accented with stone details and a grass front yard.
The 6000 block of North 12th Street today | Photo by Sasha Rogelberg

“As the children grew, the trees grew — that kind of thing,” Cohen said. “It was a new street, and I think they all wanted to be friends. Most of them had lived in different neighborhoods, whether it was South Philly or Kensington. They came from many different neighborhoods as single people prior to getting married.”

The neighbors, according to former 12th Street resident Steve Trachtenberg, were relatively homogeneous in age and religious and cultural backgrounds. The commonalities laid the groundwork for the kids and parents to grow close.

“There was going to be interaction from the beginning, from 2-year-old birthday parties up to bar mitzvahs ‘X’ number of years later,” Trachtenberg explained. “The result was that associations, for whatever sociological reasons, were formed, and they just happened to be particularly close. Whether or not the war brought them together, the Jewish background brought them together, the common age brackets, the common socioeconomic brackets — it wound up producing a series of people … who sought and got the company of the rest of the street.”

Fisher remembers playing hopscotch and jump rope with the other neighborhood children. She recalls a mother in the neighborhood who was musical and wrote an annual Chanukah show, giving each child a small part, and fondly remembers the annual Memorial Day picnic at what is now Breyer Woods. Cohen still remembers her neighborhood talent show performance of “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” from the Broadway show “South Pacific.”

In their childhood naivete — as well as in the street’s culture of not speaking ill of others — Cohen and Fisher were raised to believe that any differences among the street’s children were inconsequential.

“Growing up, in our house we never talked about anybody,” Fisher said. “I didn’t know who was old, who was young. I didn’t know who was rich, who was poor. Everybody was the same. It was like a family.”

What surprised the surviving 12th Street residents most about the neighborhood connections was that all the parents got along, particularly the men.

“The parents had an unusual association,” Trachtenberg said. “The men played cards every Friday night, alternating between the homes. The woman played their card game; they were playing once or twice a week. The street, as a whole, did things together.”

The adults maintained a newsletter “60-12 Club,” which included weather forecasts, letters to the editor and results, with photos, of the street’s Halloween party and costume contest. Men took their wives on vacation to Grossinger’s or Concord in the spring. On Shabbat, though families belonged to different synagogues, many would walk substantial distances to attend services together.

On the High Holidays, extended family would move in; the neighbors would still have personal connections with others’ aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmothers, who would cook the Rosh Hashanah meals for each household.

“The whole street smelled like brisket one time,” Fisher said.

In hindsight, however, Fisher and Cohen did notice some financial differences among the families that were not clear to them when they were children. While some households had a new Cadillac parked in their driveways, others had old cars.

“I’m safe in saying that nobody knew or cared enough,” Trachtenberg said. “It just was the way it was.”

Though the former residents of 12th Street unanimously remember their time in the neighborhood fondly despite socioeconomic differences, they were not untouched by tragedy or troubles.

The polio epidemic of 1952 pervaded the summers of Cohen and Fisher, who attended sleepaway camp at Kittatinny. One year, the campers had to stay on the campgrounds for 10 extra days; a 14-year-old girl from the neighborhood had died of the virus.

In a black-and-white picture, Drew Trachtenberg stands next to his father, who is lounging in a chair outside.
Drew Trachtenberg and his father Edward outside of their 12th Street home in 1958 | Courtesy of the Trachtenberg family

The sisters knew of a couple in the neighborhood who would argue with one another. In one instance, Fisher and Cohen’s next-door neighbor became upset with them one summer day when Cohen was 6. With the windows and screens in all the homes open, the woman sprayed her hose into Fisher and Cohen’s living room window. 

“That was like the worst thing I ever remember,” Fisher said.

However, the neighborhood children, though their memories are self-admittedly softened by time, endured real hardship.

Fisher and Cohen’s mother died young at age 50. Steve Trachtenberg and his brother Drew lost their father when Drew was 4.

Though they remember the sadness of the losses, Fisher, Cohen and Trachtenberg also remember how the families lifted each other up in times of devastation.

“My mother was a very strong person internally. She had a strong sense of family,” Trachtenberg said. “Everybody recognized she was as capable as anybody would be at handling the loss. The amount of support that she got from the neighbors throughout that period of time was just extraordinary.”

“Nobody was alone in their troubles,” Fisher added.

Though tight-knit for about two decades, the golden era of 12th Street came to an end in the 1960s, when the children of the neighborhood left for college, though many ended up staying in the city and continued to keep in touch over the years.

The parents, more financially comfortable and with emptier houses, relocated to the suburbs, with many families moving to Wyncote.

The conclusion to the cohort’s time in the neighborhood felt natural, with everyone going their separate ways, though the time left a lasting mark on the residents.

“I never mourned in any way or grieved at all about the passage of 12th Street. I never did,” Cohen said. “I always felt that it had endowed me with tremendous strength and warmth and understanding and caring and just relationships that seasoned during my whole life … It was my foundation.” 

Those two decades on 12th Street remain even more anomalous because of the period in which they existed. 

Today, Trachtenberg said, the grandchildren of the residents want to attend college outside of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

“Nobody stays in one place anymore,” he said.

As young people move around more to seek out economic opportunity, there’s less of a chance of a group of people, especially majority Jewish, settling into a neighborhood and collectively raising their children there. Recreating the environment of 12th Street is near impossible, Trachtenberg believes.

The block of 12th Street is sunny and dotted with trees and a few cars parked on the street.
Photo by Sasha Rogelberg

For now, the 12th Street of the 1940s and 1950s will likely remain as a memory for the few dozen who lived in the idyllic neighborhood. Though Sept. 10 will likely be one of the last times a large group of former residents meets in person, the reunion attendees can take solace in sharing stories, knowing they didn’t take their upbringings for granted.

“Even the 8-year-olds and 12-year-olds were aware, at some level, of the fact that not everybody was going to a Chanukah party at some restaurant that was attended by virtually everybody on the street,” Trachtenberg said. “And not everybody was going to have a street where all the parents went to the Poconos for a weekend during the summer.”

“We had a sense of the uniqueness then that was a valuable part of the memory,” he added.



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