Grays Ferry postcard

Grays Ferry: Where Washington crossed the Schuylkill, ODB got caught and racial tension simmered

It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, entertainment options and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Grays Ferry? Buy the stuff.

The name Grays Ferry carries a negative connotation, made after decades of violence and racial conflict so infamous that Frank Rizzo once carried a nightstick in his cummerbund on the way to the neighborhood. But Grays Ferry’s history stands for much more than that. George Washington routinely crossed the Grays Ferry Bridge, first lady Dolley Madison found refuge from yellow fever in the neighborhood and rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard came to the Gray’s Ferry McDonalds to pee, stayed for a Filet-O-Fish and ended up getting arrested.

In recent years, the racial strife has also simmered. Though Grays Ferry still has problems with crime, it is home to many prideful, longtime residents and generally regarded as an improving neighborhood. Grays Ferry’s home values have risen 26 percent over the past year, and it is starting to see some of the redevelopment associated with nearby areas like Point Breeze and Graduate Hospital.

Boundaries

25th Street to the Schuylkill River and Grays Ferry Avenue to Vare Avenue

Population

13,356 in the Census tracts making up the majority of Grays Ferry

Population Age 20-to-34

2,973

Racial Composition


Rent vs. Own

3,043 vs. 1,865

Median rent and home value

The median home value in Grays Ferry is $72,300, and the median monthly rent is $825, according to Zillow.

Name Origin

Grays Ferry is named after George Gray. Gray was in charge of a ferry and later a temporary bridge built on the Schuylkill during the Revolutionary War that has been rebuilt and rebuilt and is known today as Grays Ferry Bridge. Gray also owned Gray’s Gardens, a popular bar and restaurant.

Legendary Event

Late rapper Russell Jones aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard aka ODB aka Dirt McGirt aka Big Baby Jesus aka Little Billy Clinton etc. etc. was wanted by the police in New York and California on drug charges when he went to the McDonald’s on 29th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue in November 2000. Exactly why he went there depends on the account, but a new biography of ODB explains that he was driving with friends back to New Jersey and really had to pee. So they stopped at McDonald’s, and ODB decided he also needed a Filet-O-Fish. On the way back to the car, he started chatting with a woman and wanted to get her phone number. That’s when a police officer rolled up and recognized him from her son’s Wu-Tang posters. He got arrested.

Adam Butler started a Change.Org petition last fall to properly honor ODB by putting a historical marker for the incident outside the McDonald’s.

Backdrop

The Grays Ferry Bridge was THE place to enter the city from the West and South in colonial times and in the earliest days of America for its convenience and beauty. People like George Washington crossed the bridge, which actually floated on the water back then, hooked up to both sides of the Schuylkill by rope.

What Used to Be

From 1800 to the mid-20th century, The Schuylkill Arsenal stored supplies for the U.S. Military at the intersection of Washington Street and Grays Ferry Avenue. Its most famous users were none other than Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Before they ventured all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the Schuylkill Arsenal stored the following supplies for them: a telescope, clothing, blankets, tents, compasses, red paint for dealing with Native Americans, sewing needles and more.

Schuylkill arsenal

History

Grays Ferry was part of the larger South Philly area known as Moyamensing before getting incorporated into Philadelphia in the mid-19th century. Immigrants, particularly Irish and Italians, settled here. Though the neighborhood always identified as working class, the shift of its racial makeup in the second half of the 20th century made it one of Philadelphia’s most infamous neighborhoods for racial tension.

In 1970, Grays Ferry’s white population was 73 percent white and 27 percent black. By 1990, it was 62 percent white and 36 percent black and by 2000, black people accounted for a majority. White people primarily lived in the eastern part of the neighborhood and black people in the western part, with Lanier Park acting as an unofficial border and particularly violent area in the middle. Racially-motivated crime broke out often and was reported extensively. In 1969, Frank Rizzo, then the city’s police commissioner, infamously left a nice dinner with a nightstick in his cummerbund on his way to Grays Ferry. In 1997, shortly before Philadelphia was slated to host the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, a white man who had been at a party at Grays Ferry’s St. Gabriel’s Church attacked a black teenager named Raheem Williams. In response, Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam came to Philly and led a march of 5,000 people against the crime. It was closely followed by the shooting death of a white teenager at a convenient store by two black men.

Grays Ferry is now predominantly black, with an enclave of Irish and Italians. Racial relations have improved. The neighborhood’s St. Gabriel’s Church, once an enclosed, cultural bastion for the Irish, has become more welcoming to the black community, and white and black leaders formed the Grays Ferry Partnership.

Though Grays Ferry gets mentioned as a target for young people like neighboring Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze, the neighborhood still consists mainly of working-class families and is trying to move beyond the violence that has plagued it.

Alumni

Dolley Madison: President James Madison’s wife was originally married to Philadelphia lawyer John Todd. When the yellow fever epidemic hit in the early 1790s, she moved to Grays Ferry where the epidemic wasn’t as bad. Her husband and infant son still died from the disease.

John Wanamaker: Famous Philadelphia civic and business leader. His statue is outside of City Hall, and the building named after him puts on that cool Christmas lights show every year.

The Forgotten Bottom

Some people refer to Grays Ferry in general as “The Forgotten Bottom,” but locals consider it the part of Grays Ferry west of 34th street and east of the Schuylkill. It’s largely industrial and vacant, but a few people, largely senior citizens, live there. According to the book “The Forgotten Bottom Remembered,” residents of The Forgotten Bottom avoided much of the racial conflict endemic to the rest of Grays Ferry in the 20th century.

Community gathering places

The Store, 29th and Tasker. And if you live in Grays Ferry, you know to pronounce it by saying it so fast the words run together. The Store is a convenience store and is located next to Dean’s Bar, another famous spot for people in Grays Ferry.

_The Store_ pic 2

Vare Recreation Center, 2600 Morris Street: Major place for community children to swim and play baseball and basketball.

Thing to check out

Cow Chip Bingo Festival. If you’re thinking Cow Chip Bingo involves bingo with piles of cow crap, you’re right! This new tradition began in 2009. Every fall Grays Ferry marks out an area of Lanier Park for the game, and people can buy positions on the field. If the cow does its business on your spot, you win thousands of dollars.

Controversy

In 1992, it was found that Edward Savitz, a businessman living in Rittenhouse Square who had AIDS, paid up to hundreds of teenage boys mostly from Grays Ferry and the neighborhood’s St. John Neumann High School to engage with him in sex acts or to give him their dirty underwear or socks over a span of two decades. Savitz died of complications from AIDS before the trial.

Instagram this

The 25th Street Bridge and the Grays Ferry Bridge are popular landmarks to photograph, and Grays Ferry, particularly on the western edge of the neighborhood by the Schuylkill, also offers plenty of gritty, industrial shots of refineries.

Hood morning from #25thstreetbridge #graysferry #igers_philly

A photo posted by @ddiamond62 on

Late blooms in Gray’s Ferry

A photo posted by Chuck Bonfig (@chuckseye) on

Anthony Fleet contributed to this report. Schuylkill Arsenal photo comes from Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University.

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