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!)

The penny charm collection from the year One.
Cousin It, and a troll doll
The very famous Rat Fink

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.”

85 comments

  • Iva Newman Voorhees

    Arlene, you nailed it perfectly. I took a walk down memory lane while reading your blog. Thank you!

  • Margaret Mary McRory- kukielkayvonne@gmail.com

    Thank you! Thank you!! So well written. Your writing took me up and down Familiar Streets, and Avenues!!! We were so blessed in that time!!! Your written words brought joy to my heart and tears to my eyes!!! I am 85 years old living in Cape May,…. Lived many years on Hegerman Street between Unruh and Magee. Enjoyed going in and out shops with you and your wonderful remenicing. Once again. “Thank You”. !

  • Enjoyed this immensely! Grew up bûstleton & tyson a few years before yiu, but still much the same experiences. I had been writing a memoir, but somehow got sidetracked (thanks, Covid) but this is giving me some motivation to get back to it.

    • So glad you enjoyed this. I think I have a memoir in me too – I have led a very interesting life as one can see from some of my past blog entries, jobs included.

  • Randi Wilkinsky Rothenberger

    I too have these memories, and today people who live in the outside of Philly can’t believe me about what a great place it was to grow up. I lived at Knorr and Bustleton. I too was always on the avenue with 3 pizza places 2 clothing stores, 3 great bakeries, a beauty store. 3 drug stores that had everything you would ever want, and Famous Deli. I also as a teen started to go to Castor Avenue and Cottman Avenue for the stores there. We were able to take a bus to anywhere and our parents didn’t Have a cell phone umbilical cord to us, they just expected us home fir Dinner with almost no questions asked, we were trusted to have good judgements and we always felt safe. It was a great time to live.

  • loved my charm collection. wish i still had it

  • Glenn Bernstein

    That was a great story absolutely great end it mirrored my own journeys on all the avenues however I do have a question I noticed you didn’t name specifically most of the places you visited I’m not sure why but maybe you can let me know

  • Marlene Jacoby Zinn

    Arlene, we share a lot of the same memories as I grew up on the 1200 block of Stirling Street. Thank you so much for the walk down memory lane. Nate’s Deli was our Deli of choice (even if he did not enjoy having children inside). We moved to Cheltenham in 62 and I have been in
    South Florida since 75……but I still consider myself a Philly girl and Oxford Circle as my hometown.

    • Thanks for stopping by. So many wonderful memories. We moved there in 59 when I was four years old and went to Kindergarten in 1960 at Carnell. Stayed until college. I have been in Houston for 39 years so I am quite nostalgic, but I get to go to Margate in the summers to bring out my inner Philly girl.

    • Oh, and neither of my parents liked Nate so we walked to the deli across from the Benner movies owned by Holocaust survivors. Wish I remembered their names.

  • Wonderful walk down memory lane, Arlene. In 2008, in honor of our Northeast HS 40th reunion I published a coming of age novel called The Other Side of Innocence that takes place in Northeast Philly circa 1967-68. You might enjoy it.

  • Rochelle (aka Shelley) Faden-Focht

    A Marvelous Recounting of Our Tenderly Sheltering and Safe beloved Oxford Circle.

    Your recollections are Exact, and Initiate deeply heartwarming visualizations of Bushrod Library, thevA& P and Penn Fruit supermarkets, the Benner, Castor and Tyson movie theatres, Max Myers & Tarken playgrounds, clothing stores, shoe stores, a furriers, kosher butcher, bakeries, delicatessens, a cheese shop a liquor store, a dance school, Linton’s and the Gingham House restaurants – all within walking distance from our look-alike row houses. Thank you so much for eliciting this many wonderful memories during my most formative youth!

  • Stuart Lakernick

    That was awesome. Miss the closeness we had back then.

  • Susan Markowitz

    Oh I feel you every bit of it. There just ain’t no Castor Avenue here in Houston, Texas. BTW you forgot Woolworths five and dime at Castor and Hellerman one block from my home where I bought my first eyeliner and lipstick!

    • Oh, no Castor Avenue blog would be complete without a mention of that. Read again and you will find it. I mostly spoke of the fish tanks and birds, but a lot of time was spent there. I am also in Houston!

  • Wonderful memories.
    Our grandparents had a store on bustleton. Stayed there a great deal of time and mom shopped on castor city man. Etc. remember being able to walk all over. To mostly locally owned stores Brings back soo many comfortable memories

  • This brought back so many memories for me! Beautifully written. Thanks so much for returning me to my childhood.

  • Nicely done! We need to do a “monopoly board” if the castor Ave stores

  • How about the Dee Shop. Never went there to shop because it was too expensive but the clothes were really nice.

  • Susan Wexler Weiner

    Enjoyed your “story”. I too lived between Castor and Bustleton, mostly at the playground where I hung out all day and into the evening each night. Simple, fun-filled days were the norm. Miss these days. Love your memories!

  • Debbie Fisher Kuhar

    Lived your blog! I grew up on Castor Ave as well and can relate to everything you said. Wouldn’t trade my childhood in Philly for anything. Thanks for the memories…

  • Joann Damato Kennedy

    Thanks for the memories. I too grew up in Oxford Circle. My family moved there when the area was just beginning. There was only a few blocks of stores. I attended all three of the schools. Went to all three movies, Castor, Tyson, Benner. There were not to many houses. We lived on Kerper Street. That was many many years ago, but I will never forget.

  • What wonderful memories in a much simpler & less complicated world! Thank u so much for sharing!

  • Great piece. Lunch on me at Toddle House next time I am in to visit from California.

  • Thank you for describing the wonderful place i grew up. The Great Northeast had everything we needed. Schools were good. You didn’t have to go to a specialty school like a Girls High or Central to get a to notch education. You could walk anywhere and be safe. You could walk to anything you needed and you always had a friend nearby. The streets were filled with kids. It was the perfect place to grow up

  • Roberta (aka Bobbie)

    My first seven years were spent off 6800 Bustleton at Disston, then we moved to 9800 Bustleton (Bowler Street) for another eight years. That bus was 59B which I used to go to GWHS daily ($0.85 per week pack of ten tokens, exact change- three quarters and a dime).. I shopped and frequented the large library branch on Cottman Avenue. Your piece rang several sentimental bells and I particularly could envision and remember the string and smells of the bakery. Thank you for sharing great memories. (Also Hi, Sandy Stern)

  • Stellar! What wonderful things to remember now! Thanks

  • Sandy Stern Jablon

    Arlene, thank you for that trip back in time…..a time I loved and talk about often to my kids and grandchildren. A time I miss and am so grateful to have experienced. I feel like I want to reach out and thank my parents for choosing to raise our family there. This group keeps those wonderful days gone by, current. It sometimes feels like we all lived in the same house as one another. The same furniture with plastic, same metal drinking glasses,, same kitchen sets and even wallpaper!
    The comaraderie between everyone feels more like a family. I want to hang on to every story, memory, and photo and never let them go. Thank you and let’s keep it going…there’s no shortage of funny stories to share!

  • Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories living in the amazing area of Oxford Circle. I too, grew up there loving all of the conveniences of walking on Castor Avenue and meeting my girlfriends at Woolworths and then for lunch at Lincoln’s. I loved looking in the windows of the Dee Shoppe, Lynn’s shoes, etc. Although they were way too expensive for me , I imagined one day I would be able to buy an outfit and gorgeous shoes to complete my imaginary outfit. Life was good, innocent and full of fun. The neighborhood Center on Bustleton And Magee Avenues was a true winner growing up in my teens. Going to the Center after I finished dinner and my homework, I was allowed to go until 9:00pm. Dancing with my friends and “older boys”’ just seemed like it could never be better. I could go on and on of my wonderful memories, and I sometimes I share this with my children and grandchildren. Life was good and family was paramount, and I sometimes wish our lives today had a little of the 50’s and 60’s.

  • Wonderful memories. Mine were the same except I was on the other side of the boulevard. We had all the same things just different street names. Thanks for sharing.

  • Adrienne Magness

    Such a great article. It sounds so familiar to me because I remember being able to do all the same things. I also remember when going to the movies buying popcorn from the machines. We had 3 movies to go to Benner, Castor or Tyson. It was a thrill to be able to walk there from Bustleton and Magee Ave.

  • Barry Rosenblatt

    Great article… my life exactly sans the make up!

  • You captured the neighborhood almost exactly as I remember it. I left Philly nearly 30 years ago but still have good memories and will admit that it is embedded in my life even this far down the road

  • Great synopsis of our amazing childhood. How lucky we were.

  • Also tried on my first pair of eyeglasses – in about 6th grade – at an optometrist on Castor Ave, and the first thing I saw reflected in the mirror was “The Workshop” store across the street with amazing clarity.

  • My uncle probably ran those vending machines. He lived on Stevens St. We lived on Creston between Castor and Large. My first job was on Castor Ave too… dishwasher at the luncheonette next to the Tyson Movies… after we had moved from Creston St further up Castor (but staying on the same side of it) to Kindred St betw Tyson and Princeton.

  • Joanne Ginn Glassoff

    Such amazing memories…Cottman Av., Castor, Bustleton, Roosevelt Mall, the Library… Good times for sure.

  • I also grew up in this neighborhood and enjoyed the story very much. It was a great place to grow up, the best!

  • So true. I felt like I was reading about my life.
    1302 Hellerman

  • Beverly E Gruensfelder(nee Golden)

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories. I remember fondly Castor Avenue. I grew up on the “wrong side” in the Greater Northeast. Off of Welsh and the Blvd. I was able to walk to EJ Korvettes, but needed to take the bus to go to S. Klein. I remember walking down to Bustleton and Cottman and the stores in the Roosevelt mall. I also remember the “white lipstick, troll dolls, and the Judaica store on Castor Ave(there were two about two blocks apart, got my bible there for my wedding bouquet).

  • My memories echoed in yours. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

  • Hi Arlene,

    I remember it all like it was yesterday. I lived across the street from Fels Junior High and would walk up to Castor Avenue with friends all the time. Then later it was Cottman Avenue when the “mall” was built. And Woolworth’s did indeed sell parakeets. I bought my first one there (named him G.P. JR after George, Paul, John and Ringo) and he was the sweetest, most talkative pet you could ever want.

  • Your piece captured the place and time really well. I remember it very much this way. I also remember when Cottman Ave. was being built up and I would walk up to the regional library up there every week or so, sometimes stopping for a movie at the Orleans theater.
    I used to go into Nate’s Deli every week to buy things for my parents. But I didn’t like to because Nate pinched my cheeks so hard every time!
    Here’s a recent poem of mine about the area that was published in the journal Live Encounters:

    First Job
    When I was 15, my father spread the newspaper out
    wide on the table, and called me over, pointing
    to the help wanted listings. “It’s time you took
    a job,” he said. “You’ve been a child too long.”
    By my age, he’d held many jobs. His favorite
    had been wiping down the horses at the track,
    filling feedbags, eying the jockeys, short
    and muscular like him, wearing their shiny
    silks. Later, he built radios in the room he
    shared with his three brothers. All I did
    was read and draw, talk on the phone,
    and shop for shoes I didn’t need.
    My parents never urged me to do chores,
    insisting I couldn’t do them well enough
    to be a help. They didn’t expect much,
    didn’t think me able or intelligent.
    The closest job was at a bakery
    in Oxford Circle, where the trollies
    took a turn. I imagined I could learn
    to bake, though at the time, I’d never
    baked a thing. Yet they hired me,
    gave me an apron, taught me to fold
    cake boxes, the pink of Pepto Bismol,
    how to bind them with black string.
    It helped I knew the names of every
    pastry in the case: eclairs, glazed
    with ganache and oozing cream, crullers,
    rugalach, and my favorite apple turnover
    that shattered into shards each time
    I took a bite. I folded each one in a square
    of tissue paper, careful not to squeeze too hard,
    smiled politely as I took the money from the first
    customer, her quarters slick with summer sweat,
    her wilted bills, stood on tiptoe to hand the box
    across the counter. But the bow I’d tied didn’t hold.
    A dozen Danish rolled like hubcaps across the neatly
    swept linoleum. Next customer, a box unfolded,
    the chocolate layer cake falling, frosting first,
    at her shocked feet. That was the first time
    I had worked for pay, the first time
    I was fired too. But not the last.

  • Thanks for this. It perfectly captures the Castor Ave. I remember from my early youth. I also remember when Cottman was just being built up, and I would walk up the avenue. It seemed like such a long way. As more stores began to open, it didn’t seem as long anymore.
    I also remember going into Nate’s Deli every week. I didn’t like going there because he would pinch my cheek really hard every time I did!
    Here’s a poem I published recently in the journal Live Encounters about my first job, at a bakery in Oxford Circle. I took the 59 trolley to get there.
    First Job
    When I was 15, my father spread the newspaper out
    wide on the table, and called me over, pointing
    to the help wanted listings. “It’s time you took
    a job,” he said. “You’ve been a child too long.”
    By my age, he’d held many jobs. His favorite
    had been wiping down the horses at the track,
    filling feedbags, eying the jockeys, short
    and muscular like him, wearing their shiny
    silks. Later, he built radios in the room he
    shared with his three brothers. All I did
    was read and draw, talk on the phone,
    and shop for shoes I didn’t need.
    My parents never urged me to do chores,
    insisting I couldn’t do them well enough
    to be a help. They didn’t expect much,
    didn’t think me able or intelligent.
    The closest job was at a bakery
    in Oxford Circle, where the trollies
    took a turn. I imagined I could learn
    to bake, though at the time, I’d never
    baked a thing. Yet they hired me,
    gave me an apron, taught me to fold
    cake boxes, the pink of Pepto Bismol,
    how to bind them with black string.
    It helped I knew the names of every
    pastry in the case: eclairs, glazed
    with ganache and oozing cream, crullers,
    rugalach, and my favorite apple turnover
    that shattered into shards each time
    I took a bite. I folded each one in a square
    of tissue paper, careful not to squeeze too hard,
    smiled politely as I took the money from the first
    customer, her quarters slick with summer sweat,
    her wilted bills, stood on tiptoe to hand the box
    across the counter. But the bow I’d tied didn’t hold.
    A dozen Danish rolled like hubcaps across the neatly
    swept linoleum. Next customer, a box unfolded,
    the chocolate layer cake falling, frosting first,
    at her shocked feet. That was the first time
    I had worked for pay, the first time
    I was fired too. But not the last.

  • So true. It was wonderful. I lived on Greeby street from 1951 till 1971

  • Harriet Davidson

    I lived on Alma St. which backed up to Castor Ave. Such a wonderful childhood spent walking up the ave to Woolworth, Benner movie theater, and all the great shops and eating establishments. Very fond memories indeed.

    • Then you must be THE Harriet Davidson, a year older than me who I remember as one of the prettiest girls at Carnell and or Fels. NEHS class of 72 for me.

  • We must of been neighbors I could of written this story to a T. I live at 6229 trotter street.

  • Judi Jenofsky Gittelman

    Although we moved from Logan to further up into Bustleton Somerton, I attended NE High, so all of your memories of Castor Ave, Cottman, and all the rest are near and dear to me. My friends would walk down Cottman instead of waiting for the Y bus, and get a delicious hot fudge sundae at the 5 and 10, and walk through Gimbels after it was built. Yes, it was a secure place, but not without the bullies on the 59B who did not appreciate anyone who wasn’t a smoothie!! But I loved the area and experienced many of the same pleasures as you. Thanks for your well written memories.

  • Dianne Jaffe Beleiff

    I enjoyed your blog. I certainly could not have said it any better. I to grew up on Castor and Bustleton Aves. I loved those times and would not have traded them for anything. I to have moved far away from home, I still call Philly home, have most of my childhood friends and love going back. I look forward to anything else being said about Philly.
    Thanks again for your memories.

  • Thank you for the memories. I too grew up in Oxford Circle. My brother even worked at Dunkin Donuts as well. It was a wonderful place to grow up at the time

  • That was written just beautifully. I share those times and memories. Thank you very much!

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