By B.G. Kelley

I was small and Christmas trees tall when my boyhood neighborhood started slipping away.

Paradise was a tiny neighborhood in northwest Philly, its center point of activity settling at 28th Street and Allegheny Avenue, where many locally owned small businesses and the parish school and church were located. It was, well, paradisiacal to its people at Christmastide.

Family and friends would gather at one home on Christmas Eve to celebrate with food, or gifts, or to trim the tree. Bells would peal with "Silent Night" from the parish church, where poinsettias decorated the altar and the pungent smell of incense filled the sanctuary. The forest scent of real, homemade Douglas fir wreaths, plenished with pinecones and clusters of bright red berries, would festoon seemingly every rowhome front door. And the jolly neighborhood Santa purchased children's fantasies in the neighborhood department store.

That department store was an economic engine of the neighborhood. A certified character owned it: Dick Crean. Everybody in Paradise went to Crean's, not downtown to Gimbels, or Strawbridge's, or Wanamakers.

And Crean grew rather wealthy huckstering everything from toys to tools, wedding gowns to clergy attire, housewares to hoagies, and three-piece suits to wing-tip shoes. He was a showy sort, sporting a ring that sprouted a diamond the size of a golf ball; sponsoring his own string band simply to march in the Mummers Parade every year; and owning a stable of regal stallions. Many times the neighbors would stop dead in their tracks when Crean rode one of his horses along Allegheny Avenue.

I wouldn't have cared if he had driven a stagecoach with a team of horses along the avenue. I knew he was good for a fat tip every Christmas.

You see, as a kid I sold Christmas wreaths outside the front of his department store every Christmastide from the mid-50s to the early 60s - my dad owned the neighborhood flower shop. He and I crafted the wreaths, side-by-side, father and son, on worn workbenches before I was sent out to freeze my fanny off peddling those wreaths.

Crean would always buy a half-dozen a week before Christmas, pulling out a wad of bills as thick as a club sandwich from his pants pocket, peeling off the money with his stubby fingers, paying for them, then slipping me a $5 tip (hugely generous in these days).

So when he entered the store each day I made darn sure I offered him a hearty hello. He'd simply nod his silver-haired head, wave his hand with that diamond ring flashing off his finger like a star, and stride jauntily through the big front doors.

Then one Christmas in the '60s, he walked out of his store and asked me to bundle six for him. But he didn't pay for them.

"Tell your dad to send me a bill," he commanded.

"Geez, Mr. Crean," I replied, "my dad told me strictly cash."

"You tell him it's Dick Crean."

I rushed to Pop's shop, and told him.

"It's OK," he said. "He's running bad on some investments."

I bundled six wreaths, and placed them inside the department store for Crean's daughter to pick up. Then I watched the jaunty, little bantamweight proprietor mount his horse and head home.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Crean," I yelled as he galloped away.

There was no fat tip.

I never saw Dick Crean again. That Christmas was the beginning of the end of Paradise.

Crean sold his department store. People in the neighborhood started moving to the suburbs. The parish school and church eventually closed, as did the VFW and the department store. The trolleys were replaced by buses. Local shop owners shuttered their doors -- my pop moved his shop to Roxborough. The neighborhood even changed its name.

Just as surely as most things in life are terminal, so was Christmas in Paradise.

B.G. Kelley is a Philadelphia writer. bgklly@yahoo.com