A Childhood in Kensingston
by Nicolette Boyd
Dennis Clark was born June 30, 1927 into an Irish working-class community in Kensington, an industrial neighborhood in north Philadelphia. The neighborhood was filled with mills and factories, with its workers living close to their workplaces in brick rowhouses. While most of Kensington's workers labored in the carpet industries in the nineteenth century, hosiery and knitting mills dominated in the early twentieth century. Clark's father had worked in Cramps Shipyard along the Delaware River in Port Richmond during World War I and as a glazer at Longwood Gardens in the 1920s, but during the Great Depression struggled to find employment. By the time Clark was 12, his family had moved 10 times.
“We kept moving because the rent man kept coming. My father would say to his wife, whom he called Ger, short for Geraldine, he’d say ‘Ger, butter the doorsteps so we’ll slide out easy next time.’ We often couldn’t pay the $8 or $12 a month rent, so we’d have to move. It was very turbulent, I’m sure for my parents, but to us it didn’t mean much, I don’t think, as children. So we lived on Water Street, Lee Street, Lehigh Avenue, Heart Lane, Jasper Street, Rand Street-- It was moving around from one pathetic rowhouse to the next.” – Dennis Clark, August 25, 1982
Like other families in Kensington's Irish community, the Clarks battled with unemployment, hunger, sickness, and childhood diseases, including tuberculosis. As children, Clark and his friends played with clothespins, marbles, dead rats, cardboard spools from the mills, iron toy trucks, wagons, and pop guns. They also pretended to be gang members or cops, acted out electrocuting the bad guy, and sang Irish ditties and rhymes.
“I'm not sure that childhood memories of the mill districts of Philadelphia in the 1930s are exactly romantic reflection. However, in retrospect, everybody’s childhood takes on a glow, and even though my family was poor, and we lived in what surely would have been declared a slum district… the juvenile experiences have timeless quality.... The childhood was relieved, surely, by the amusements that children engage in. They were sort of homemade.” – Dennis Clark, August 25, 1982
Clark worked small jobs or huckstered to earn money for his family or for movie tickets and other activities. He sold scrap metal and produce on the streets, and hawked Evening Bulletin newspaper extras. His family encouraged him to pick up buttons on the street. He and his siblings each only had two day-time outfits. Many days, the family had bread and molasses for dinner, and the holidays were always a struggle to afford a nice dinner or toys. Clark remembered getting an item of clothing or one toy for Christmas, and stealing a lamb from the Episcopal Hospital for Easter dinner.
“But some of the amusements were less innocent. Coal stealing was one…. One of our ways of making money when we got to be about ten years old was to sneak down the rain spout at 4 in the morning and meet our pals on the corner… We would go down to the docks at Dock Street, Old Market, and we’d hire a horse and wagon down at Fishtown for $4 a day… We’d stock up with produce that the real grocers didn’t buy… Off we’d go about 7 in the morning to huckster these wares in the tiny streets. We wouldn’t go to our neighborhood because our mothers would be agitated that we’d be in this enterprise... We’d go through the streets yelling, ‘Watermelon here. Get your red ripe watermelon. Tomatoes, Jersey Tomatoes!’” – Dennis Clark, August 25, 1982
Clark grew up with his father John, mother Geraldine, sister Geraldine, and a brother, Thomas, who had an intellectual disability.
“My father called a doctor who was a drug addict. In delivering my brother, a brain injury apparently occurred, so my brother lived to be 26 and was injured in that way and his whole life was blighted. It was a great tragedy for my parents who bore it with mighty spirit and great devotion to the child. It was another one of those dark happenings of the impoverished life of working people in the 1930s.” – Dennis Clark, August 25, 1982
His parents were born in America, but grew up with an "intentionally Irish outlook." In his interviews, Clark shared his childhood memories of the local family-run and ethnically-identified businesses on Front Street, Kensington Avenue, and Somerset Street. The Clarks had amicable relationships with local merchants, who often gave them small loans or food, trusting the family to pay them back. This sense of community helped the Clarks and other families during the most desperate times to put food on the table and clothes on their backs.
“The resentment against business people was nothing that I remember. People respected them. They thought that they were honest. As a matter of fact, business people were very honest. If you forgot two pennies of your change, they’d send a delivery boy to your house with the two pennies rather than cheat you... It was a real urban situation where you had on Front Street some hundreds of shops and on Kensington Avenue several thousand… It was great to go window shopping, even though you didn’t have any money... My mother would take us along and we would look at things, and it was wonderful that the world contained such things, but unattainable to us, but nevertheless, wonderful to behold.” – Dennis Clark, August 25, 1982
When Clark was thirteen, the family moved from Kensington to a house in Northeast Philadelphia left to them by his father’s mother. During World War II, his father had a steady job in Cramps Shipyard, and Clark and Geraldine attended high school at Saint Martin’s Parish. Clark then earned a bachelor's degree at St. Joseph's University and a doctorate in history at Temple University. A labor organizer, housing reformer, social activist, and teacher, he wrote 11 books, including The Irish in Philadelphia: Ten Generations of Urban Experience, and served as executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund from 1971 to 1988. Dennis Clark died at age 66, survived by his wife and five children. In honor of his work, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians each year presents a Solas Award to individuals and companies "that illuminate the positive impact that immigrants have on our regional economy."
“Of the fifty boys in my first-grade class, only two went to college. I went on the GI Bill, and another fellow won a Sears and Roebuck scholarship, but nobody else went to college. Many of them of course didn’t even finish high school. Many were killed during World War II and some in the Korean War… The American wars had a sensational impact on that generation, both educationally, people quitting school to join the Army, Navy, and Marines, and then not going to college afterwards… I remember meeting Mr. Fold, who had a furniture store on Kensington Avenue, I said, ‘Hi, how’s Burt?’ He said, ‘Burt is dead.’ Burt was one of the friends that I had, a Jewish kid, who was a pal in my teen years. That was how it would be revealed to you that one of your generation died." – Dennis Clark, August 25, 1982