Like most of the city, South Street didn’t start out as what it became. For most of its existence, it served as the city’s thriving garment district, a hub of sewing machines and pushcarts that hummed along until it was clocked by Ed Bacon, who decided an expressway connecting the Schuylkill to I-95 would look great there. His proposal died, but the damage was done.
Out went the commerce and the immigrants; in came the starving artists, the hippies and the criminals. The Orlons’ catchy spin notwithstanding, the avenue’s decline was more the stuff of harsh urban poetry. In 1976, soon-to-be Temple professor David Bradley, who would go on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award, published his first novel, a clump of grit simply titled South Street, which told the tragicomic stories of a ragtag group of Philadelphians weaving into, out of and around the street’s long shadows: “A little way downtown, near the junction of a nameless alley and South Street, was a dim entranceway, a hole in the wall with a thick wooden door hanging open, and out of it came belches of heavy-beating jukebox music and stale tobacco smoke.”
There is not as much smoke on South Street. In pockets it manages to telegraph city mod, like Northern Liberties. The beacon of it all is the Whole Foods at 10th Street, which keeps women in hair bands and BabyBjorns cascading in for organic bell peppers and shiitake mushrooms. On rare moments, during a sunset or a blanketing winter snow, the street can look achingly beautiful, drenched in color like a Homer painting. But the slightly sinister air lingers, like an English fog drifting about the heath. You have to look deeper to cut through it, see the street for what it really is.
On a chilly Saturday night, I stop across from Paul’s Fresh-Cut Idaho Fries (homemade funnel cake a specialty) and find Kenzie, 19, and Nate, 21, singing. I ask their last names, and they seem suspicious; South Street isn’t a last-name kind of place. Nate is from Louisiana and has been roaming the country, busking, since he was 16; he met Kenzie last year. They ended up on South Street the way most people do: They simply wandered on.
A black dog—a stray they picked up somewhere—sits to the side, its jowly face planted on the cold cement, listening like the rest of us. Kenzie plays the saw, knifing the violin bow back and forth like a symphony soloist. Her voice is high and thin, wan and haunting, and belies her black-boot-and-torn-tights tough-chick look. Nate, with piercings and hickory tattoos, is pretty, a dirty James Franco. He has a richer, more plaintive voice, soaked in bluegrass. He’s strumming a banjo. They’re singing “Chocolate Jesus” by Tom Waits:
When the weather gets rough
And it’s whiskey in the shade
It’s best to wrap your savior
Up in cellophane.
I glance around. The well-dressed black woman standing next to me is weeping; the Russians watch with impassive eyes. There are three white girls on their way for cocktails, and a 50-something couple from New Hampshire, burping up their cheesesteaks. Three 20-something black guys in baggy denim, each exposing more of his underweared ass than the next, stand at a distance, their head-bobbing to the music just barely discernible. And for two lovely, lonely minutes, the only sound you hear on South Street is two anguished voices in two-part harmony, asking Jesus to love them.