Growing Up Tough in Philadelphia

2029-2027-2025 Federal Street Contract #S-2132

The 2000 block of Federal Street, where Flynn grew up. 

Saint Gabriel's Catholic Church

Saint Gabriel's Catholic Church, 1965. 

by Enrique Mentado-Sosa and Charles Hardy

"They say 'The good old days.' They wasn't really that good. They were good to the extent that you could sleep in your hallway, without somebody robbing you, something like that. You didn't have to lock doors.  But actually, economically, they wasn't good." – John Flynn, 1982

John Flynn (pseudonym) was born in 1917 in the same house as his father and grandmother on the 2000 block of Federal Street, in Grays Ferry, a tough Irish-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia. There, Flynn went to school and learned how to drink and fight.  

"It happened mostly on weekends. Even when I went to school at Saint Gabriel’s, when I got thrown out of there I went to a public school, me and a fellow Michael was sitting next to each other all day because the desks were doubled. And when we got out of school we both ran for our home base, he ran for what we called Polack Town at that time, and there was a church there at 28th and Snyder, it was a Polish church, and mostly Polish people lived out there. And my section was mostly Irish, and we’d come back home and put our books in the house, and go down, and there used to be old lots down where the old housing project is, a brick yard, lots, a swimming pool, and we’d come out there and stone fight with each other.” – John Flynn, 1982

Flynn began to work at age 13 when his father found him a job loading trucks for Union Transfer. His first taste of money caused him to quit school at the age of sixteen. With money in his pocket, Flynn started ‘hanging’ with a gang and frequently spent time in the Tenderloin District.

Young men posing as gangsters

Young men posing as gangsters, Philadelphia, PA, c. 1931.

“After I got work, I started hanging down Sixth and Spring Garden with a gang. And we all drank there. It was weekends, it wasn’t during the week that I drank. And we scouted bootleggers and get a pint of whiskey for a quarter. No, half pint for a quarter. It was a pint for half a dollar. And the place we used to go used to be down by Vine Street between 8th and 9th, it was a court, and I guess you know what a court is, and when you went into one house, a one, two, three house, and the line would sometimes be two or three blocks long, you wouldn’t believe this happened in Philadelphia, and you stood in line, but it moved fast, and they had a one-two-three house, and they had a hole cut in the wall for, you know, like a case, and you put your quarter down and they’d pass a bottle out, and you’d went out the back door and away you went, and it was no problem in regards of what your age was to get a bottle.” – John Flynn, 1982

Although Prohibition was still in effect at this time, Flynn and his gang had no problem whatsoever acquiring alcohol. They generally ended up "every Sunday morning in the jail house," and were bailed out by his boss, who was also the local committeeman.

Prohibition bootlegging (Smuggler)

Bootlegging smuggler, 1939. 

“They [whore houses] was protected by the politicians and the police, the police had the idea, or supposedly had the idea, that this was good to keep them all in one section, but truly their reason for doing it was because they was getting paid off. The same with bootlegging. They had all kinds of bootleggers, and they even ran the taprooms for some of them. There was places where you could go, especially after hours, you know, and sometimes I’d be in them all night long, you know. And not only me but guys from my gang.” – John Flynn, 1982

Flynn’s gang got drunk in illegal taprooms, frequented whorehouses, robbed gay men, and got in fights. When it came to gang fights, however, there were certain rules of respect that one needed to follow.

“Well I guess they was tough to a certain extent... At that time any gang was tough, but they didn’t go in for guns and knives like they do now, you know it was fists. You had to do it with your fists, otherwise your even your own gang would consider you a coward if you used a knife. It was alright to use brass knuckles but not a knife or a gun. They figure you had to defend yourself with what you had. I used brass knuckles myself.” – John Flynn, 1982

Flynn and his gang hung out in a house on 6th and Spring Garden, but were forced to leave after a gang of Cubans moved into the house. They then hung out under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge towers where they continued to drink and get in fights. 

Pier 11 North

The Benjamin Franklin Bridge towers, where Flynn's gang held turf, 1931. 

“At that time, there was a lot of, there still is I guess today a lot of hatred between Blacks and Whites. We didn’t call them Blacks then, it was "n-----." And then, what happened was some of them would come by and when we was drinking we would pounce them and beat the hell out of them, and then there’d be retaliation and you know that’s the way it went. And this went on for some months, and finally this one Saturday night I just didn’t feel good and so I stayed home. And this turned into a real big fight where I think there was three colored guys got killed. And what happened was a big investigation and they investigated me. They had me took me in and questioned me, but I had proof of where I was at, so I was clear. I forget if it was three or four of our guys went to jail for quite some time.” – John Flynn, 1982

After working for Union Transfer for three years, Flynn, now sixteen, in 1933 became an organizer for Teamsters Local 107.

“I was kind of tugged between two things, I wanted to be with the union, but still I didn’t want to do nothing that would hurt my father. So, I went to my father and I told him ‘Pop, I want to be out there with the boys. I think that is what we need.’ He says ‘Son, don’t let me stop you.’ He said ‘If I had my way I’d be out there too, but I can’t with the job I got. Don’t worry about me. I took care of myself all these years. I’ll be able to take care of myself now.’ So I did, and I got the rank of an organizer. An organizer them days was different than it is today. You just didn’t go out and talk. You had to kind of beat up on people and burn trucks, slash tires. It was pretty hard to convince people that it was necessary to have a union to protect themselves. Same thing applies today.” – John Flynn, 1982

“Then when I was 18 I got married, and six months after I got married, I had a run-in with a superintendent and I went out and got loaded and I came back and, you know, I done it. I put him [in] the hospital for two weeks... And at that time the union just wasn’t strong enough yet to protect me and I lost my job. I had to go out and I done everything I could possibly do because there was no welfare then. The wife was already in the family. I carried bananas, I put out circulars, shoveled coal, wash dishes for twelve hours a week where Whitman’s Candy Company had two restaurants on Chestnut Street, and I worked in the one on 1600 [block].”
– John Flynn, 1982

During the heart of the Great Depression, Flynn made ends meet by working long hours at different jobs. He helped form a union for newspaper circular distributors, and worked as a longshoreman.

“Then I used to carry bananas, and when I could that was two days a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays. And we got, I’m trying to remember, forty cents an hour. And when you got hired first you had to fight your way up to the front where a gang boss would hire you and give you a brass check. And at night time if you didn’t go to the taproom where that boss drank and give him a dollar, you can knock out twenty guys the next time and you wouldn’t get a check because you failed to pay your Doby. And after when you got hired it was a continuous circle. You didn’t even stop for lunch. You went up on the ramp on the ship where two men would throw a stalk of bananas, and they weighed anywhere from 100 to 130 pounds, well 80 to 130 pounds. And you went down to the ramp, you walked over a guy would tell you which wagon to put them on the old horse and wagons. There’d be old horse and wagons on Delaware Avenue, but you didn’t have to go out there I mean they backed the wagons, and you climbed the steps and two men would take them off your shoulders.” – John Flynn, 1982

Flynn lived a troubled life full of hard work and frequent crime. He did not, however, let his past prevent him from taking his first step towards recovery.

“I started drinking when I was thirteen, and today, just today is my anniversary. It’s been four years since I had a drink. I’ve gone to AA. It gave me a whole new life, because after my second wife died I was really going to hell. If I could tell you my condition four years ago today as compared to now you wouldn’t believe it.”
– John Flynn, 1982

Growing Up Tough in Philadelphia