The quirky sequined outfits and jig-like dance routines that some South Philadelphia men adorn and parade on New Year’s Day may look strange to outsiders. But to Philadelphians, it’s tradition.
On the 1900 block of South Third Street, between Mifflin and McKean streets, sit three of the Mummers String Bands and two of the Fancy Brigades. Each of them shares the limited space on the block with local South Philadelphia families.
“[On] this block itself, there’s five New Year’s clubs,” said Edward Solecki, 54. “There’s the Second Street Irish Society… we got the string band, Fralinger here that’s won like, the past eight years in a row, we got Quaker City on the other end,…and then we have Shooting Stars Fancy Brigade, which came in second this year, but came in first the year before. And then we have Merrymakers, which goes out Comic. So, it’s a good mix.”
The Mummers have created a rich and dynamic culture in Philadelphia during the New Year’s celebrations, including its recently established Mummers Museum, just a few short blocks away.
Some of the men on the block support the Mardi Gras-like behavior of the Mummers. In their support, they join in the festivities.
“My brother-in-law and nephew are in the fancy clubs,” said Eileen Scherer, 60, whose family has lived on 1939 South Third Street since 1955.
“I used to be a Mummer myself,” said Solecki, who lives at 1917. Solecki used to march in the New Year’s Day parade with the Merrymakers Comic Brigade – located on the same block – until he was forced to stop due to health concerns.
Nowadays, most of the bands members are former South Philadelphia natives, who have moved to the suburbs or New Jersey. A blessing and a curse, these members, especially of the string bands, don’t interact with the block’s residents, – either young or old – keeping diligently to themselves and their practices.
“When it gets…to that time of year, they’re in their own little box.” Solecki said about the bands and brigades. “They’ll be over in the school yard showing you a little of their routine, drilling and everything. But that’s about the only bits and pieces that you see. And hey, that’s South Philly and that’s [the] Mummer’s.”
Merry makers or not, there are a dozen families who also live on the block. The 1900 block itself is actually one sided. Furness High School stretches across the length of the other side. The residents have stayed tightly knit through the years, since the time many of them made it a permanent home during the 1950s and 1960s.
“Most families on this block knew one another from years ago,” Scherer said. “It’s a very family-oriented block.”
Unlike the craze the Mummers bring with them during the New Year’s celebrations, the block remains fairly quietly, as there are very few children who live on the block. As Scherer remembers, “It always was that way, from the time I was a kid. There never were a lot of kids on the block. I think when I was little there were two other families on the block with kids, that’s it.”
But as residents recall, there is always the opportunity to play with their children at the school yard across the street and the handful of schools and playgrounds surrounding the area.
Socially, the makeup of the block is fairly consistent: mostly middle income families or older couples who more than likely attend one of the two Catholic churches that service the community around them. The churches include Our Lady Mount Carmel, which is three blocks south on Third Street, and Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, which is just north on Moyamensing Avenue.
“I would say, probably 99 percent [of the block is Catholic],” Scherer said. “I’m not sure if the one lady is Catholic. I know her husband was.”
These days, as young families move to the suburbs, elderly couples are left to fend for themselves. Most of them are capable of living on their own, though. Aside from the neighbors of this closely knit community, there is help steps away for those who need it. The Second Street Irish Society, compiled of local members of the community, resides at 1937 South Third Street.
Among the many events and services that the society provides, including an exclusive Pipe and Drum club and Step Dancing Club, many of the members provide care for the elderly on the 1900 block, as well as other areas in the South Philadelphia community.
“The Second Street Irish Society as a whole is a men’s club that is very involved with the community,” said Jeannine McGuire, who works with the young girls in the Step Dancers of the Society. “They do things for the parishes, the community itself and anyone who, really, needs help.”
Much of the help that the men offer comes from their trade. “Most of the guys who are members of the Irish Society are carpenters, handymen [and] electricians.” Essentially, they can help install a screw or fix a leak
The largest similarity between members of the Second Street Irish Society and the New Year’s organizations on the block, is that they literally exist in perfect harmony. “There are also members of the Irish Society that march with the Mummers, so it’s like one big happy family!” McGuire said jokingly.
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