The memories come in fragments. What else would you expect from the last bohemians of South Street?
The $25-a-month rents ($96 for a three-story building). The Thanksgiving potlucks that lasted three days, where every other person came through the door with a turkey. The parades where handmade signs encouraged neighbors to "bestoon, bedeck and bedraggle" themselves through South Street's "alleyways, byways and thighways."
The late '60s and early '70s on South Street, when the near-deserted strip was an empty canvas that hippies, hipsters, and hucksters could fill. Days spent sitting at the bar at Lickety Split or staring into the fun-house reflections at the Crooked Mirror cafe. Nights at Turk's, where revelers pushed on a phone-booth wall and climbed a hidden staircase into the darkness of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. An afternoon when the architects and builders of what would become a famed gallery excused themselves to drop acid, stand in the middle of the street, and howl at a total eclipse of the sun.
"We all started in old rundown buildings with little money in our pocket," said Rose Gordon, whose shop, 2nd Hand Rose, opened in 1967 and was considered one of the first of what she and her friends called the South Street Renaissance. "There was nowhere else to go for us, so we had to make the best of what we had. And voila! Somehow, it worked."
These memories have been celebrated almost since they were created — and then at reunions that captured the élan of the old shop owners, artists, and tenants, many who have moved on, some who held fast. Their friendship — their family, even — forged first in a fight over a proposed expressway plan for the corridor. The defiant spirit of the neighbors and shop owners who beat the roadway became South Street's pedigree.
They used to meet every 10 years or so. But now the old gang fears allowing so much time to pass between bacchanalias. The hippies — and even the punks that followed them – are growing old. They come to reunions with graying hair and aching joints, and last year, in the case of a beloved bouncer at the Copabanana, a missing leg.
A consensus was reached: Forget milestones. The last remnants of the renaissance had to see one another every year.
As this year's soiree nears, Oct. 14 at the Copa Havana, whispers travel along South Street — who will come? Who is left? And what's to become of their street?
The street they're returning to is yet again trying to reimagine itself — with newly vacant storefronts, more than in a very long time, that call to mind the deserted strip they first colonized.
It's juggling the promise of new, exciting retailers — Federal Donuts opens a branch there this weekend — while trying to maintain South Street's weird, grungy, open-to-all charm.
"We have to make sure that history is not lost, but built on," said Michael Harris, who runs the South Street-Headhouse business district.
Next weekend the pioneers will pull forth those fragments of memory. Julia Zagar, the proprietor of Eye's Gallery, and wife of the celebrated mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, is hosting an exhibit on the history of the street. They expect to see Joel Spivak, an architect, activist, and author, who long ago stared into that eclipse. Bill Curry, a former Inquirer columnist, who owns the Copabanana, and was last year crowned king of the renaissance. And the punks, too, like Rick Millan, who owned the iconic store Zipperhead, where the Dead Milkmen filmed a music video for "Punk Rock Girl."
And they will talk of a street that, no matter how often it changes and remakes and rediscovers itself, will never be like the one they first knew — the one for people with nowhere else to go, where they created a place for themselves, where the rent was cheap but everyone, as Spivak puts it, felt the greatest sense of abundance.
"It can never happen again," pined Gordon, ever the hippie. "Greed has set its angry face on all that was nirvana to us then."
But for a few hours on Sunday, they'll have their nirvana again.