I thought that you couldn’t go back again, but there it was.
Tuesday, April 4, 2010. Erwin Braker and I were pals from way back, even before the First Grade. He lived across the back alley from me and in those days (late 1930s) that’s where kids played, at least in Allentown PA.
That's us on the right, in 1945, in my back yard. I'm on the right.
Jump forward to April, 2010. I haven’t seen Erwin in, probably, 50 years, as he moved far away right after college, and of course I had since relocated to New York City, and we just lost touch. Now he was in Allentown for a day, visiting relatives, and since I now live in suburban Philadelphia it was an easy drive to meet up with him, his sister and his son. Our plan was to drive through town to all the old places and renew memories.
This was the route:
Erwin, his son Chris, his sister Ruth, and I squeezed into my tiny Chevy, leaving Ruth’s house in Mountainville, not far from my old cabin. We took Emaus Ave. to South 4th St (PA-145) in Allentown, heading north and bearing right on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, then left on South 3rd St., and left again on Hamilton St. This took us past the old Jersey Central train station, across the Jordan Creek, past the site of the grand old Lehigh Valley Railroad Station, from which I commuted to New York in the 1950s, and uphill past the historic old Court House, now a museum.
WE turned right on North 6th St., passing Symphony Hall. Back in the 1930s this was the Lyric Opera House, where as a 5-year old I used to sit in the prompter’s box watching my mother rehearsing parts on stage. Her big role was Elsa from Wagner’s masterpiece, Lohengrin. Sadly, by the late ‘40s this house had become a burlesque theater, but has since been renovated for use by the Allentown Symphony.
Sixth Street goes past the site of the former Stevens Elementary School, where Erwin and I spent the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. It is now just a playground.
Two more blocks and we turned right onto Cedar Street, where I lived from 1936 until 1952 at number 536. These were typical row houses — tiny lawn in front, a porch, three floors, and a decent back yard. Fair Street is an alley leading to another alley named Carrot Street. This is where we built our “forts” out of cardboard and played by doing such dubious activities as building a fire in the alley, making a ramp out of a few boards, racing our bicycles up it and through the flames. We also played something like baseball, and when we got taller, basketball by nailing a peach basket to a utility post.
A few doors down Carrot Street was Erwin’s father’s garage, where he kept his 1940 Oldsmobile. As a kid I was fascinated by this model car because it had the very first Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, so the driver no longer had to shift gears. Would wonders never cease? Like nearly everything else, the garage is still there and in 2010 looks almost exactly as it did in 1940!
Back in the day this neighborhood was mostly made up of people of German or central European ancestry. It, naturally, has changed with new arrivals of other ethnic groups, so I was expecting it to have gone downhill. Not so. It was as clean and spruced up as ever, and to our delight had not really much changed at all.
After a quick glance at the old Garfield Elementary School (photos, above and below), where both of us survived the First through Third grades, we turned south on 5th Street, then west on Washington. Erwin lived with his parents and two sisters at number 531 (recent photo on right) until moving to the Midwest, so we stopped for a look. By chance, at that very moment a new family was moving in, again infusing the neighborhood with renewed energy. My fondest memory of his house was of the basement where we sometimes played Monopoly while listening to the windup Victrola.
Photo below is of our Maypole Dance at the Garfield School
A right turn on 6th Street took us downhill past the old local grocery store and a basement luncheonette that we called “Hersheys” after the ice cream sign over its door. Many were the times when we ate our lunch there, devouring the hot dogs with steamed buns that cost 8¢ each, or two for 15¢, topped with “everything” no less.
At the bottom of the long hill was our favorite playground, Jordan Park. Amazingly, the old picnic pavilion was still there, but not the dam on the Jordan Creek that provided a large, natural place to swim. This was long ago replaced with a real swimming pool after it was feared that the stagnant waters behind the dam were a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty germs and viruses. But it was much more fun than any pool.
Photo above is of the old swimming hole in Jordan Park, with the woods we played in beyond. That's me with the toy boat, and off my back you can see the raft from which I first learned to swim.
There used to be a woods on the far side of the creek where we built our “forts” out of branches and rocks, a place for us to hide from adults and revel in the simple joys of boyhood. Now the place is filled with apartment buildings. That’s progress, I guess.
A few miles to the northwest was the Trexler Game Preserve. We didn't visit it this time, but here's a snapshot of us there in 1945. That's me petting the beast:
Leaving the park, we turned north on MacArthur Road (PA-145), then right on Grape Street past the Lehigh Valley Mall and into Fullerton. A right on 5th Street led to a bridge over the Jordan and up 4th Street back in Allentown to Tilghman Street and the old Franklin Movie Theater, still operating after all those years. Back then a double-feature cost 12¢, so you know where we spent many a Saturday afternoon.
Pressed for time, we didn't stop at our Central Junior High School, where we spent the Seventh through Ninth Grades. Here's a picture of our Ninth Grade Class:
We continued out Tilghman all the way to 17th Street and made a left to the Allentown Fair Grounds (recent photo, above), home of the annual Great Allentown Fair held from late August to early September. Begun in 1852, it is among the oldest in the nation, and features both entertainment and agricultural shows. This is also still home to the Ritz Barbeque (recent photo, above), our favorite snack place when we were students at nearby Allentown High School. It appears not to have changed one bit in the intervening 60 years. Neither has the racetrack stadium or the farmers’ market. Across the street stands the Allentown Hospital, where I first saw the light of day on August 6, 1934. Erwin was born at his home on Washington Street.
Next stop: Allentown High School, now called William Allen High, from which we both graduated in 1952. It, too, looks almost exactly as it did back then, although it has since expanded into some newer buildings. A right turn on Linden Street took us past the rear side of the rather large sports arena, now known as J. Birney Crum Stadium. The photo above shows the home side seating at night. This first opened in, I believe, 1949 and was the scene of many victories over our football rivals from Bethlehem, Easton, and even Philadelphia. As a member of the Camera Club I often got to run up and down the sidelines with a Speed Graphic press camera taking action shots for the school newspaper, the Canary. Other schools named their papers after fierce animals, like tigers or lions. Ours was a wee tweety bird. Go figure. The picture below is one I snapped while covering a game in 1951:
The street now became Parkway Boulevard, running past Cedar Park and the spot where, at age 16 in 1951, I had my first summer job working in landscaping. At Cedar Crest Bloulevard we turned right, then right again onto Chew Street and into Allentown’s tony West End.
I think it was in Ninth Grade that Erwin and I started a little business catering to these rich folk. We would ride here on our bicycles, stopping at the more prosperous-looking homes to take photos of their lovely settings. These we then printed in my home darkroom onto a special paper that could be made into matchbook covers. A sample was shown to each prospective customer, and if they liked them they could order many more. Back then just about everyone smoked, so sales were not bad. Erwin did the selling, as he was much better at it, and I did the photography. At first, our biggest problem in developing this product was with the striking surface, but we found a solution for that in a book called Fortunes in Formulas. The matches themselves were purchased from a mail-order wholesaler, disassembled, and put back together with the new photo covers. Strangely, a man from that company was in Allentown and decided to visit the big business (us!) that was purchasing all these matches, so he stopped at the address they had been shipped to. That was Erwin’s house. His mother answered the door, and the man asked for Mr. Erwin Braker. “He’s at work now, unless you mean Erwin Jr.” Well that’s who he wanted, but he was at school now. The man was very confused and left.
Chew Street continues past Muhlenberg College, then we made a right onto 17th followed by a left on Hamilton. At the old, upscale Hotel Traylor we turned right, then left onto Walnut Street, right on 7th, left on Union, and finally a right on Lehigh Street (PA-145). This we followed just outside of Allentown to the small town of Emmaus, there making a sharp left under a railroad overpass onto Harrison Street. At this point I was on the lookout for Mountain Lane, which years ago was pretty isolated and led, eventually, as a dirt trail to my old cabin in the woods, which Erwin helped build back in 1953, as shown on the photo to the right of him digging the outhouse hole. Now the first part is a maze of apartment buildings and I was unable to find the rest of the trail, although I think it’s still there. The cabin itself burned down long ago, in the late 1960s.
After that we returned to Sue’s house in Mountainville via a loop around the reservoir, had a beer, and then went out for a fine dinner at the Bay Leaf in downtown Allentown.
Just to round things out, here's another photo of us on the Appalachian Trail in 1950:
In case you wondered what we look like now, here's us on April 4 2010, courtesy of Erwin's son Chris:
Copyright © 2010 Earl Steinbicker
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