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A few blocks off South Street, neighbors wonder what’s next

The neighborhood has always had hectic nights. But is this the start of something different?

The 300 block of quiet, leafy Gaskill Street., just a half block from South Street.
The 300 block of quiet, leafy Gaskill Street., just a half block from South Street.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The dissonance between Saturday night’s gunshots and Sunday’s mourning doves, church bells, and distant train whistles epitomizes what it means to live in the shadow of Philadelphia’s most fraught party zone.

Sometimes life in this corner of the city seems charmingly small-town and almost bucolic. Sometimes not.

Did we even hear the gunshots a block away that evening? You unconsciously begin to filter out noise — dismiss it along with the ATVs, motorcycles, and car radios — when you’ve spent 28 years living a half a block from South Street, as we have.

From about September to May, depending on the weather, the mood is generally soft and gentle. On summer weekends, all hell breaks loose. Tourists, college students, concert-goers — anyone looking for a bit of excitement — flocks to our neighborhood. Friday night comes, and you wish for rain (it keeps the crowds small), close the shutters and hope things don’t get out of hand.

» READ MORE: What know about the South Street shooting: The victims, investigation, and response

We call our street the breakup street; at least once a year we’re awoken by a couple that’s chosen a spot under our bedroom window to have a 2 a.m. breakup, usually after a few drinks are consumed. I wonder how the young parents nearby are able to get their children back to sleep when motorcycle after motorcycle comes screaming down the block at midnight.

Post-parade Mummers have treated our side streets as urinals, and in some years the Greek Picnic or Mardi Gras celebrations have overwhelmed the streets with violence and incivility.

But Saturday night’s shootings were very different. People died. And it feels as if some awful demon has been let out of the bottle. That demon, of course, is guns — in all of their now-ubiquitous horror.

South Street always seems to bounce back from crisis, and in fact seemed largely back to normal on Monday. A family posed for photos in front of Jim’s. Sneaker stores were busy. But scratch beneath the surface, and what you found were different shades of grief and frustration.

“Overwhelmed” is how my neighbor Gail responded when I asked how she was, citing both Uvalde and South Street as weighing heavily on her mind.

“It’s another black eye for South Street,” said Mitchell Cohen, owner of Cohen’s Hardware and a championship neighborhood booster. “I wish I had the magic answer.”

And it is a wonderful neighborhood. The small streets around South Street are a universe apart from the juggernaut of noise and chaos in terms of green density, architectural variety, and social cohesion. We moved here because the house was such a wreck, it was one of the few in the city we could afford. Residential blocks nestled up against South Street were a challenge then, in the early 1990s. A book-signing by Howard Stern at Tower Books on South Street in 1993 drew an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 fans, according to reports, with the line snaking down side streets.

And yet, there’s an appeal to South Street between about 2nd and 9th, an authentically Philadelphia vibe, a funkiness, and an edge. The organic nature with which it has changed over the years from immigrant enclave to bohemian haven to pop-up urban blowout has answered the needs of an evolving city.

News reports have described South Street as an entertainment district, and it’s true there are some clubs and theaters (like TLA). It’s probably more accurate, though, to describe South Street as a self-entertainment district — a place where anyone can go to see and be seen without spending a lot of money. Whether that role can be preserved and cultivated in a safer way given the recent proliferation of guns is the salient question residents, community groups, and others must ponder as we head into what promises to be a long, hot summer.

In a city where the gap between rich and poor is ever-widening, that’s no small consideration. South Street as it existed before Saturday night was, to borrow Robert Venturi’s phrase about Main Street, almost alright. Now, it’s not. But its traditional role as being open to all still seems crucial.

I say this as someone who has felt like being regularly tormented by South Street’s noise and chaos was a fair price to pay for the pleasures of the place.

Next month, after nearly three decades in our little 1812 row home, we’re moving to another part of the city. The reasons are unrelated to South Street, and we may even return one day to our idyllic block and the tight pack of neighbors who have grown tighter in response to living in the belly of the beast.

There’s plenty I’ll miss. The small-town feel. Picking up neighborhood news along with my tools and paint at the hardware store. Steering tourists to Jim’s for cheesesteaks.

And then there are nights I’ll remember for the strange jolt of pain and joy this neighborhood regularly delivers. One beautiful July evening we returned home from a wedding to find the atmosphere at that tinderbox moment when you sense things are about to spin out of control. We parked on 3rd Street and were crossing South in a thick crowd when a voice in front of us shouted that someone had a gun. The crowd turned and ran in our direction, and I thought about the strangeness of such a demise: trampled to death a block from my house.

We ducked behind a dumpster and the moment passed, and the currents of humanity on South Street quickly resumed their normal course.

It turned out there was no gun then. But last Saturday night there was, and now we live with the uneasy knowledge that there are plenty more.