A long, strange trip for Milton Street

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Before entering mainstream politics, John (left) and Milton Street were grassroots activistsin the city, beginning in the mid-1970s. Here, John addresses a crowd waiting for housing.

Finally, Milton Street will have a permanent address.

After decades as Philly's foremost flibbertigibbet - always on the move, always on the make - Street is going to settle down. In jail.

The arc of his life has been that of a bottle rocket: erratic, full of sparks, and quick to fizzle. He has been a campus food vendor, a community activist, a state legislator, a candidate for nearly every elective office short of president. He has been a Democrat, a Republican, an independent.

Flamboyant and theatrical, he was the court jester of Philadelphia politics for 30 years.

He once pitched a tent on the state Capitol lawn to protest his lack of office space inside. He brought a coffin to City Hall as a prop in his aborted run for mayor in 2007.

He was arrested for his role in a brawl in City Council chambers in 1981. He was arrested in 2007 in Moorestown for skipping out on traffic tickets.

In between, he was constantly in financial trouble, leaving a long list of creditors and unhappy business associates. He was dogged by tax liens and sheriff's sales and bankruptcy.

T. Milton Street Sr. burst upon the scene in the mid-1970s as the leader of the city's black street vendors, after years of selling hot dogs and cheesesteaks from a cart at Temple University.

He quickly became a familiar figure at City Council meetings, invariably clad in an old army jacket, screaming and shouting and disrupting meetings to fight for his cause. Supporting him as his attorney was younger brother John.

Milton Street's success in winning rights for the vendors - and in a housing campaign in which he put squatters inside vacant, federally owned homes - led him into elective politics.

After election to the state House as a Democrat in 1978 and to the state Senate in 1980, he switched parties to give Republicans control of the chamber. He was rewarded with a committee chairmanship and a fine office that formerly had been Vince Fumo's.

But after that, his forays into politics and business were met with similar lack of success.

In 1982, he challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Bill Gray in a nasty battle for Congress, calling Gray "an Uncle Tom." He lost.

In 1984, he ran for reelection to the state Senate as a Democrat, and lost. In 1986 and 1988, he ran for state representative and lost twice more.

He lost a job in Philadelphia Traffic Court in 1990 after not paying more than $2,000 in tickets. "Why the [obscenity] should I pay?" he said at the time.

A year later, he was convicted of assault after bursting into a courtroom at Traffic Court, shoving one court officer, and punching another.

In 1985, he filed for bankruptcy and lost his East Oak Lane home to foreclosure. He opened a Germantown steak shop with a $20,000 federal loan and the slogan, "You get a roll full of meat when you eat at Street's." The shop folded, and the loan was never repaid.

He returned to street vending in the 1990s, and the Rendell administration in 1996 and 1997 put Street in charge of vending at the Penn Relays. The Penn's Landing Corp. took him to court for unpaid vendor fees.

In 2001, when his brother was mayor, Milton worked as a consultant for a Houston-based maintenance company that won a lucrative airport contract. The company kept him on the payroll after the deal was secured.

In 2003, he tried to win $1.2 million of airport work by creating a company to manage the baggage-conveyor system. He got the name of his company, Notlim Inc., by spelling his name backward.

In 2004, he emerged as an operative in Super Ducks, a business of amphibious touring vehicles that sought to use a pier controlled by its rival, Ride the Ducks. Street was accused in a court filing of threatening to get access to the pier "the hard way." He denied the charge, but his firm lost the case.

In 2005, on the night before the huge Live 8 concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, city officials revealed that he had been hired as the minority partner to the prime vending contractor for the concert.

In 2007, despite his Moorestown address, he ran again for office in Philadelphia, first for mayor and then for City Council. He won neither, but, as usual, stirred controversy, especially when he disparaged mayoral candidate (and now mayor) Michael Nutter as a "watermelon man."

Throughout, Street was unabashed about his disdain for the rules and regulations of ordinary life and his insistence on looking out for Number One.

As he said in a 1981 interview, "I ask the question, what's wrong with being out for myself as long as you're out for the community? I have a right to live. I have a right to support my family. I have a right to be happy. 'He's out for himself' - that's one of the craziest statements I've ever heard. It tickles me every time I hear it."

 


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.