Theresa (Altomare) Corcoran
East Falls Historic Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Theresa (Altomare) Corcoran (TC)
Interviewer: Louise (Corcoran) McShane, Theresa’s daughter (LM)
Date of Interview: August 2, 2009
LM: Theresa, where and when were you born?
TC: I was born in East Falls, on the 3600 block of Stanton Street. I was born in one of the houses that was demolished, one of the 13 houses. I guess it would be 3618, somewhere around that number. All of our children went to Saint Bridget’s. Some people would laugh when I tell them that my children attended class in the same space where I was born by a midwife.
LM: When were you born?
TC: I was born in 1923.
LM: When did your family come to East Falls?
TC: My father came to East Falls in 1912, lived here for a while, went back to Italy where he met my mom, married there; then came back to East Falls and lived on Stanton Street. I’m not sure of the house, maybe the same house that he had lived in before. For a while he went to school to some of our relatives in Worcester, Massachusetts which at that time they called Oxford, Massachusetts if I recall that’s what somebody told me.
LM: Was your mother born here?
TC: My mother was born in Italy. She came here after she had four children. She brought two alive here, two died on the boat coming here to America and settled.., my father had rented the house on Stanton Street.
LM: Where were you married and when?
TC: I was married in Saint Bridget’s Church in 1949.
LM: Do you have any children?
TC: We have eight children, beautiful children.
LM: Do you have any grandchildren?
TC: We have twenty-eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
LM: Any more on the way?
TC: Not that I know of, hopefully there are..; the more the merrier.
LM: Did you have any brothers or sisters that lived in East Falls?
TC: All of my family lived in East Falls.
LM: Where did your brothers live?
TC: I had four brothers. We all lived in the same house until we got married. The first one that got married was living on Tilden Street, 3400 Tilden Street. Another brother lived on Bowman Street. And the other brothers moved to Tilden Street and Ainslie Street.
LM: Did any of your nieces and nephews live in East Falls?
TC: We had eight nieces and nephews at the time, maybe ten living in East Falls.
LM: Did you live in any other houses in East Falls besides Stanton Street?
TC: We lived on the 3600 block of Ainslie Street (3536: Ainslie and Cresson Street). We moved there later on in life. I was about, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old.
LM: After Ainslie, did you live in any other houses in East Falls?
TC: We moved to Washington, D.C. for five years. We lived right near The Capitol. My husband went to Catholic University for philosophy and then got a job with the government working with the senate and then became a capitol policeman during the McCarthy hearings.
LM: When did you move back from Washington?
TC: We moved back, I don’t recall the year, about five years after we were there. I don’t know what date that was. I don’t remember.
LM: After you moved back from Washington, where did you live in East Falls?
TC: We moved in with my mom on Ainslie, then we bought a house on Sunnyside Avenue; 3420 Sunnyside Avenue, and we lived there for a long time until my mother passed away and my father needed care so we sold our house on Sunnyside and moved into the house on Ainslie and Cresson Street and took care of my dad and the eight kids and two dogs.
LM: When you were talking about Stanton and Calumet Streets, do you remember anything about the Irish and Italian immigrants in that part of the neighborhood?
TC: Well, it didn’t seem like the Irish and the Italians got along too well. I remember as a kid they used to quarrel – what about, I don’t know. We used to see shootings on Stanton Street where the old school building was, just beyond the school building that’s there. I remember some of them being shot to death.
LM: Were there certain places on Stanton where the Irish lived and where the Italians lived, or certain places on Calumet?
TC: I recall that the Irish lived on the bottom of Stanton Street and the Italians up from the Irish, and the same was with Calumet Street. It seemed that the Irish were down at the bottom closer to the river, the Schuylkill River, and the Italians (it was a mix) – the Irish and Italians – the rest of the street.
LM: Did the Italians speak English?
TC: No, they didn’t. Because, they made their own community and they only spoke the one language, the Italian language. So, they didn’t get to know the English language very well.
LM: Where did you go to school?
TC: I went to Saint Bridget’s.
LM: What was that like? Did you like school, or not?
TC: I loved school. I liked school, I did; and I loved the nuns, except a few. I have bad memories of them.
LM: What did you not like about school?
TC: I guess homework. In those days, parents (especially immigrants) assumed that their daughters were to do all of the chores in the house – dusting and cleaning and what-have-you, and they were only concerned about that because they thought that the girls would get married and tend to their families more than anything else than to go out into the working world.
LM: So school wasn’t that important?
TC: Not to the parents. Some of them yes, and some no; to my parents, formal education was not that important.
LM: Where did you and your family go shopping?
TC: We went to where Ridge Avenue and Midvale – there was an A&P on Midvale at one time, and then there was one right across from the firehouse.
LM: Was that a supermarket?
TC: Yes, the A&P was a supermarket (The Atlantic & Pacific).
LM: Were there any other places to get groceries? Did you have a farm in East Falls?
TC: My Mom and I used to walk to City Line Avenue. There used to be great restaurants there before, but they tore them down. They used to have victory gardens. Money was hard to come across. People lost their money in the banks. It was depression time, and they had to find a way to live. So, what they did (most of the Italians) was to plant victory gardens. Ours, one we had at City Line and another we had in what is now called The New Homes on upper Cresson Street.
LM: What is a victory garden?
TC: A victory garden is where our parents grew tomatoes, string beans, and other vegetables and whatever we needed to eat. Many families grew victory gardens during the war.
LM: You and your Mom grew the victory gardens?
TC: My Dad, my Mom, and I helped.
LM: What did your brothers do?
TC: We had a barber, 3 carpenters, and a policeman. One was both a policeman and a carpenter.
LM: What did you do for fun when you were growing up?
TC: We used to call them the new homes. We still call them the new homes, which is upper Cresson Street. I used to go roller skating, which was the best time of my life. I guess that’s about it. The rest was get home and start cleaning.
LM: Was there a playground in the neighborhood or did the church have any parties you could go to for fun?
TC: We didn’t have any playgrounds in the neighborhood for the children to go to for fun. Saint Bridget’s had a lot going for us. We had a sewing circle. We met like Tuesday nights. We had Sodality (devotions to The Blessed Mother). What I remember most fondly, though, is the parades we used to have. I remember marching in the parades down Stanton Street and Midvale Avenue; and going up to Dobson, which was a beautiful mansion up there on Henry Avenue. It’s now, I think, a big school; but we had great fun having our church picnic there. People used to go from house to house to collect donations for the picnic, primarily for the picnics. They made enough money to have the picnic, a beautiful picnic.
LM: Was that picnic the Mardi Gras or was it something different?
TC: The Mardi Gras was something different. It was held, well, during Lent and I participated in that. We cooked a roast beef dinner and set the tables, and we would make money for the church.
LM: Where was the Mardi Gras held?
TC: That was in the cafeteria of the Old Church. It was in the school building; in the upper part of the school building. We used to have a kitchen. I guess the kitchen that we have there now was there at the time, and we used to do all of our cooking there.
LM: A lot of people from East Falls talk about going to Woodside Park. What was that like?
TC: Woodside Park was an amusement park where on Saturdays and Sundays parents would take their children to enjoy amusement rides, like the roller coaster and the merry-go-round.
LM: During World War II, did you go to see the GIs or were there GIs in East Falls?
TC: We used to travel to Atlantic City. There used to be a huge hotel, the Knickerbocker Hotel. They converted that into a hospital for soldiers returning home from the war. Many of them lost their limbs and had other serious injuries. We used to go down once in a while to visit and help the soldiers, and we had fun. There was also a dance hall in the hotel for socializing with the soldiers.
LM: What were the streets in East Falls like? What did the New Homes used to look like, or Allegheny, or McMichael Park, or the upper part of East Falls, like Netherfield Road?
TC: Well, most of the streets were cobblestones; which later on they just removed the cobblestones and just paved them. I don’t remember too much about the other streets, but I know Calumet and Stanton Street had them.
LM: Were the New Homes farms?
TC: The New Homes were the victory gardens where my Mother and Father had a farm. It was decided that houses were going to be built there, so that was the end of the victory gardens.
LM: The houses up by McMichael Park and Netherfield Road; were they all houses when you were growing up?
TC: McMichael Park was always a park and the houses were always there as long as I remember.
LM: Did people use McMichael Park a lot?
TC: The children did. They were really amused by the turtle.
LM: Do you remember any famous people who did something special for East Falls?
TC: I remember a story about my Dad in those days. People used to try to get their taxes lowered, and John B. Kelly was a contractor at that time, but he had influence at city hall to reduce the taxes for some of the poorer people in East Falls. I remember my Dad and I went to his house and he helped my Dad a great deal when we first bought the house on Stanton Street. He helped him with the taxes. I remember playing with the Kelly girls. I had permission from their aunt, which lived below our house on Stanton Street, 3634. I used to see the children going to ten o’clock mass; and at that time, nobody had swings and sliding boards because they couldn’t afford them; but Mrs. Kelly had nieces and nephews and children and Grace used to go down there and I got permission from Mrs. Kelly to go down and play with Grace. I guess she was my age, maybe younger.
LM: Did your parents and your friends’ parents work near East Falls?
TC: Manayunk was where my father worked.
LM: And your friends’ parents; did they work near East Falls?
TC: I don’t recall. I really don’t remember what their jobs were. They were out of work for months. My friend Betty Potenz’s dad owned a bar on Ridge Avenue in East Falls, but many of my friends’ parents were unemployed.
LM: Did most people get to work using PTC (public transportation) or did they own cars?
TC: They used PTC. There were hardly any cars when I was little. PTC was there at the time, and people had to use public transportation to get around. I remember my Mom used to buy her meats at 9th and Christian Street because the food was reasonable there.
LM: Most mothers didn’t work outside of the homes back then, did they?
TC: They didn’t work outside of the home, and the immigrant mothers didn’t want to go to school to learn English because the family came first, and they were not going to leave their children at home just to go to school and learn. It’s a shame that they didn’t.
LM: How did laws affect the way people lived? Did you see the laws against liquor, the bootlegging laws, have police come around for that?
TC: Yes, we had a house directly across from us. They used to do a lot of bootlegging. They had a huge hollowed tree in front of their house. It had a huge hole in the bark of the tree, and they used to make whiskey and hide it in the hole in the tree when the police came. Unfortunately the bootleggers bought a parrot who not only observed but repeated everything illegal that was going on; and one day the parrot heard Louie the bootlegger’s wife say “Louie, the cops are coming, hide the liquor in the tree”. When the police arrived they asked Louie if he had moonshine, and he said “No” (Mr. Potenz, I remember him). All of a sudden the parrot repeated “Louie, the cops are coming, hide the liquor in the tree”. It was an exciting neighborhood.
LM: Do you think that East Falls is different than other neighborhoods because of things like the corner store, or the churches, or because everyone knows everyone else?
TC: I don’t think so, not for myself anyway. It seems that no matter where I go I find that people are pleasant and really nice people. I couldn’t find any fault with any of them.
LM: Do you feel that East Falls is special to you?
TC: It is special and it always will be. One reason is because I received all of my sacraments at Saint Bridget’s.
LM: What was it like growing up during The Depression?
TC: Our family didn’t feel The Depression too much, except that my father lost all of his money at the East Falls bank. They had a bank, the East Falls Bank, at Ridge and Midvale Avenues. I remember my father going down there for his money, but the doors shut. That was a bad memory. He lost all of his money, whatever he had in there.
LM: Why wasn’t The Depression that bad for you?
TC: Because my father always had a job, and had a good job. He worked for Container Corporation in Manayunk; then it became Connelly Containers.
LM: Were your friends’ parents all out of work?
TC: Many of them were unemployed, but not my father. I don’t recall which of my friends’ parents were working and which were not, but evidently quite a few of them used to go in the bread line and I used to go with them to get extra bread. I didn’t have to go, but I would go to get extra for them.
LM: Where was the bread line in East Falls?
TC: It was on Ridge Avenue right across the street from the bathing house.
LM: And all you do is stand in line and they give you bread?
TC: Yes, they give you bread and whatever else they have for you. It was primarily bread there. Then they had food stamps.
LM: You didn’t have to say who you are? You just stand in line and they hand it to you?
TC: No, you had to have proof. I don’t know how I got the bread, but I did. My dad never had to apply for food stamps.
LM: Did they know that you were standing in line with your friend?
TC: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
LM: If they knew, would they be upset or send you away?
TC: I don’t think so. Some of them were nice and they felt that I was doing a good deed and they gave it to me. But I got it for them; I didn’t take it home.
LM: How about World War II? How did that affect you? Who was in World War II that you knew?
TC: Well, my brothers: Emilio was in the Air Force, my brother Ralph was in the tank division, and Louis was in the Marines. My other brother worked for PTC.
LM: So he didn’t go because he worked for PTC?
TC: Yes, they excused people who worked for the public, or who did any work for the government, as far as I know.
LM: Were both of your brothers in WWII at the same time?
TC: All three brothers were in at the same time: Ralph, Emilio and Louis.
LM: Were they in the same places?
TC: No, Ralph was in France and Italy. Emilio “flew the hump” over the Himalayas. Louis was in the Marines and sent all over.
LM: How about your husband? Where was he?
TC: Mart was in Germany, France, Italy and Africa.
LM: Were you dating him when he was in the war, or not until after he got out.
TC: Not until after he got out. I knew him while he was in because I worked with him at the Aero Manufacturing Company. That’s how I met him, and then they drafted him. In the meantime, I was writing letters to quite a few soldiers, being patriotic. Finally, he came home and asked me for a date and that was the beginning of our friendship which developed into our getting married.
LM: How about the Vietnam War? How did that affect you?
TC: I don’t recall the Vietnam War.
LM: Your sons were too young to be drafted in that war, but a couple of your nephews served, right?
TC: Thank God my sons were too young, but my nephew Ralph served in that war.
LM: Do you remember your friends from Church having anybody in there?
TC: I don’t recall. They were, but I don’t recall who were. But I know that Ralph was in the Vietnam War.
LM: Why do you think that living in East Falls was so special to you? Is there anybody, now that you’ve moved out of East Falls, anybody that you miss, anybody that you think about?
TC: Well, I think that The Falls is one big family, huge family and you knew everything. Whatever went on in the town you knew about it. The neighbors tried to help you if you got sick or anything. They were the first ones to help you out. It was always a beautiful neighborhood, and it still is I think. I’ve met a lot of good people, especially the parishioners at Saint Bridget’s. I love Saint Bridget’s.