The Magical Wonderland of Castor Avenue
I grew up in a concrete laden maze of block after block, mile after mile of row homes in a section of Philadelphia that was catering to returning servicemen and their young families in a “new” area, inside of, but outside of the main hub, of the actual inner city. It was affordable, had a more suburban feel to it and was a solid lower to upper middle-class place for starter or permanent homes. My area of the city was called the “Great Northeast” and my neighborhood in that area was called the Oxford Circle.
It was in this area, and in this era frozen in time, that I grew up, surrounded by extended family, good schools, a library up the street from me, two playgrounds, and most importantly, an abundance of walking-distance shopping. We referred to it simply as “the avenue.”
In that time, many women were housewives, and families did not have a second vehicle. So where we lived, every convenience for the young modern family was within walking distance. It was a magical wonderland of a place where from my earliest memory I could walk to a movie theater, do quick errands for my mom, or window shop, all on my own. It was a safe area. It was called Castor Avenue and it was chock full of bustling businesses from hair salons, to appliance stores, to sandwich shops. We could walk exactly one to two blocks, and visit a bakery, a deli, a shoe repair place, a post office, and a few more blocks away, a big supermarket. There were drug stores, clothing boutiques, restaurants, and going south in the other direction, best of all, was a movie theater where it cost a quarter, and later 50 cents to see a Saturday matinee. Across from the movie theater was a penny candy store, filled with things I purchased that would later cause me pain and torture in advanced dental work.
I will never forget the first time of being allowed to cross my own little narrow street, Stirling Street, up at the top of the block on Castor Avenue where the library stood, and with money in my hand, being able cross to go to the Post Office or bakery for my mom which was just on that next walking block of the avenue. I must have been no older than six or seven. Going into the bakery was such a treat with its wonderful smells, and with the fascinating string machines hanging from the ceiling that the ladies working there were so adept at maneuvering onto a plain white box. It was at the same age when we were allowed to walk to the movie theater three blocks south, with friends on a Saturday with movie money and a few pennies for candy. I felt grown-up and independent, allowed to make my own way into a day of Saturday entertainment without an adult around.
It was a wonderland, because there was no item that could not be purchased or found within just a few blocks. Everything seemed to be at arm’s reach. My pediatrician was on Castor Avenue, my first pierced earrings were purchased at a Judaica and jewelry shop on the avenue, and later when I was finishing elementary school, there was even a beauty supply shop where I could purchase Yardley cosmetics that were all the mid to late 60’s rage. Those flavored lip glosses and chalk-white lipstick so we could look like Twiggy, were purchased at a bargain price at Beautyland. Archie comics could be purchased at Sun Ray drug store. It was a street that also held the yummiest hot dog place in the world, where everyone wanted to have their birthday party. There were THREE walking distance movie theaters!
There were stores to avoid, such as the corner deli owned by Nate, who did not like kids to come in without their parents, and the shoe store which smelled of leather and tar. But outside of Nate’s deli, there was a bubble gum machine, and I would visit it often, not to get gum, but to get the beautiful charms inside it for only a penny. Any time I had a penny to spare or spend, off I would run to a block away from my home, where that gum machine stood filled with treasures. Inside there were miniature troll dolls, rat finks, and teeny tiny joke books and miniatures of every imaginable item. I did not have a lot of toys or dolls or games growing up as we could not afford a lot, but I had my beautiful charms and my charm collection. To this day, I have my collection in a box frame that I hang in my office. It reminds me of where I came from – pictured here. I took a close up of the Cousin It (from Addam’s Family fame), the troll doll and the rat fink to bring back even more memories. (Memo to self: please clean and dust this a bit!)
After visiting the pediatrician, or just about any time, one of my favorite stores was Woolworth’s five and dime store – just two blocks away from my house. Sometimes I could wrangle a piece of candy or a toy if my mom felt sorry about my illness or vaccination shot. Sometimes I would just walk there by myself or with a friend to look at the fish tanks filled with colorful fish, and perhaps I am imagining it, but even parakeets for sale.
Sunday mornings on Castor Avenue were reserved for a walk with my dad to our favorite deli- one near the movie theater – where a Holocaust survivor with a limp arm, sliced our lox very thin. I always felt so sorry for her but never understood her plight until I took a Holocaust course in college. After we got the chubs and lox, we would stop for crumb cake at a bakery.
Later as I grew, Castor Avenue became the gateway to my first jobs, when I lied about my age to be employed very young: two as waitresses at sandwich shops on Castor Avenue, and then at a drug store as a cashier, and finally as a counter girl at the very first Dunkin Donuts to open up in that area. It became a gateway to take the 59 bus that ran north and south of Castor Avenue, to the elevated train, called the El, to travel to downtown Philly, a special honor I was allowed with friends through Jr. High School. It was a gateway going north on the 59 bus to get to the even more magical Cottman Street, where there were actual department stores, and even more restaurants and entertainment such as bowling. While in high school, I kind of ditched Castor Avenue in favor of Cottman Avenue which was just a mile away and could be walked easily if I did not have bus fare. There were several malls there, along with the big department stores, and an all-important record store. My first department store job took place on Cottman Avenue that I reached by taking the 59 bus up Castor Avenue.
I also ditched a bit of Castor Avenue while still in junior high when I discovered Bustleton Avenue, similar and parallel to Castor Avenue, and just a longer walk away for me as Castor Avenue began at the top of my street. There on Bustleton were all the teen clothing boutiques, and pizza shops and other stores that seemed much cooler than the utility stores for staples that Castor Avenue had along its blocks and blocks of shops.
Yet when I look back and remember all those years walking up and down Castor Avenue both with my mom, and dad, and with friends, I knew that avenue by heart – every store, every employee in every store, every length of walking distance and timing. I guess you might say that I knew it like the back of my hand. I knew how many blocks it was to get to the optical place that supplied my glasses because I was an unfortunate four-eyed child who was constantly going there for repairs because I was a tomboy who frequently broke them. I knew how long it would take me to get to the nearest phone booth when I was punished from using the family phone for tying it up with long conversations with my first steady boyfriend. That could last up to a week each time it happened, and I had to plot times to get there as he would call that number so I would not have to spend any money. i knew how long it would take to walk to the 59 bus that would take me to Cottman where my high school was located, so I would always be on time for school.
It was Castor Avenue though, that was the gateway to greater things that awaited me, and a place that made me feel that my neighborhood had everything and anything a person could want.
Surprisingly, It was an area that a close friend who also grew up there, would later call a ghetto (because it was so insular and self-contained) and a shtetl because it was mostly filled with Jewish people and had a synagogue at every third block.
I could never think of my area in those terms. It was always a magical place where I learned about commerce and business and the price of things, and how to count money and change, how to be employed, and how many needed things in the world could be at a very convenient store a block – to a few blocks away.
I have moved very far away for my entire adulthood, and have seen the great wide world beyond the confines of this convenient and wonderful place where I grew up. Still nostalgia lingers for what we were so lucky to have and that’s the reason for this blog. With apologies to current readership who might not be able to relate, and with love to all of my former “neighbors.”