Saying goodbye to Montrose Street, and its cast of characters

On Montrose Street: (from left) Allison Nicklin; Lucy Metzler, 9; David Richard, 7; Clark DeLeon; Gigi the dog and owner Ash Macri; and Jackie Newall.

I am leaving my block. But before I do, I had to stop by to talk to the Mayor of Montrose Street. Lillian Drozdowski has lived on that Queen Village street with her husband, Richard, since 1970, and within a five-block radius of it her whole life. I had to apologize to Lil, who is 77, for not writing about the stories she tells about the block sooner.

Montrose Street has never lacked for characters.

My wife and I moved in three years ago during a torrential rainstorm. When the sky cleared, our new neighbors trickled out with chairs and cocktails. It wasn’t a welcoming committee. Just a soggy night in April.  

That first night, we met some wonderful (and some wonderfully odd) people. The kind of people who make a city feel smaller – and who you hope remain your friends for a lifetime.

There’s the kind, if gruff, butcher at the Reading Terminal who works his heart out at the shop, wears a big beard, and glowers like Bluto, but feeds the block with masterful meals and is deceptively fast in a footrace. And the butcher’s lovely wife, a crazily talented designer and kind listener, who will defend her husband to death if you try to say he didn’t beat you in a footrace.

There’s the Marine who traveled the world teaching people the intricacies of helicopter systems, but favors Dead T-shirts and Star Wars sneakers. A literature teacher who cries when she talks about her Harrowgate students. The block mother who believes the Colonial-era alley behind her house is haunted – and who thought she had proof when PGW workers dug up a bone outside her house. It turned out to have belonged to a very old cow.

For a time, I was the only Inquirer columnist living on Montrose. Then, a few years ago, longtime Inky scribe Clark DeLeon and his better half, Sara, moved back into a house they owned on the block. Clark blew up my scene. One day soon after he reappeared, Clark, who offers historical tours when he’s not writing, trouped past in his Revolutionary garb.

There goes the neighborhood, I said.

That’s you in 30 years, said my buddy Nick, the butcher. 

We’re probably both right.

(I kid, Clark. The block is all yours.)

Lil remembers the characters who lived on Montrose Street long before my friends and I ever came with our lawn chairs and cocktails. Back then, the population was still heavily Polish. The Lithuanian National Hall at Montrose and Moyamensing, now condos, still hosted weddings. And a few stables, leftovers from days when everything was delivered by horse and carriage, lined the street. Around the corner, the 7-Eleven was still Stanley Schumsky’s Atlantic gas station. The Philadelphia Java Co. coffee shop was a penny candy store run by a woman known as Annie Bull.

Sometimes, cows would escape from the slaughter house on Front Street. The cops would shoot at them, Lil said. 

You could hear a big band at a block party.

“A full orchestra,” Lil says.

Then there were the people at the block parties.

There was Johnny the Bookie, whom Lil bought her home from. Johnny kept baskets of cash in the cellar. (“He went off to Mexico with a suitcase of money,” she said.) And Sammy, who owned the corner luncheonette. Sammy sold cheesesteaks at the counter and ran numbers in the back, Lil tells it. “The cops would raid the place and they would all jump the fence and run like hell,” Lil said.

Then there was Louie, who lived on Third Street and carried a machete. One afternoon Louie picked up his machete and chased the garbage men down Montrose for not picking up some of his trash. Louie hid in Lil’s backyard when the cops came.

“Louie you can’t do that anymore,” she told him. “They won’t pick up the trash.”  

Nobody chases garbage men down Montrose with machetes anymore. Not that I have seen anyway. And nobody is shooting  at cows.

But the same camaraderie that you could find on Montrose Street back then still exists. Good blocks are like that.

Woe is me. I am leaving my tree-lined street in Queen Village for a rehabbed rowhouse I’m buying in South Philadelphia. But after 15 years of renting apartments on a bunch of blocks, Montrose is where I first felt like a Philadelphian.

The street, and the people on it, are what made this transplant feel like he was finally home.

Good blocks will do that.