Marita Krivda, a life-long resident of East Oak Lane, co-authored Images of America: Oak Lane, Olney, and Logan, which was published this year.
Krivda’s interest in the history of Oak Lane began when she moved into her parents’ house in 1994, following the death of her mother. She found out that the home was built in 1888 and like many of the beautiful homes nearby, including the one next door that is identical to Krivda’s, has a rich history.
“I couldn’t imagine anyone else living here,” Krivda said.
In early 2009, Krivda again found herself immersed in local history, this time for a lecture series she was working on for the Oak Lane branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
“As I [researched] the lecture series, I thought, ‘There’s a book here,’” Krivda said.
Others agreed. She presented her idea for the book to Arcadia Publishing, which had previously published similar historic renderings of other Philadelphia neighborhoods. Krivda then got in touch with Rachel Hildebrandt, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania through the Old York Road Historical Society, which partnered with her in the research. Together, they began compiling photos, historic facts and personal accounts.
Her book provides readers with a break-down of the different neighborhoods and their boundaries. Historically, she says, East and West Oak Lane were really one and the same. The directional discrepancy was created by realtors who described the row homes being built west of Broad Street saying, “West of Oak Lane” to capitalize on the cache that surrounded the Oak Lane community. As the city limits expanded, the neighborhoods broke apart and developed differently.
West Oak Lane is characterized by row homes and what Krivda calls more affordable housing. Many of the mansions that stood on sweeping estates when the area was rural farmlands were demolished and tracts were broken apart and sold to developers.
Although the architectural history is interesting, for many, it is the unique histories of the people who lived in and helped develop these neighborhoods that make the book come alive.
The photo of a poster for Adam Forepaugh’s circus stands out among the other historic images in the West Oak Lane chapter of the book. Few may know it, but Forepaugh’s circus company was the chief rival of the P.T. Barnum Circus throughout the 1870s and 1880s. West Oak Lane claims a piece of this big-top tale by being the location of Forepaugh’s home which was on land between Stenton Avenue, Medary and 20th Street. He used this land as winter quarters for his circus.
One of Krivda’s favorite stories is that of Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble, a British actress who married Pierce Butler Jr., a wealthy West Oak Lane landowner who made his fortune through his slave-run plantation in Georgia. When Fanny learned of her husband’s involvement in the slave trade, she was appalled. She divorced him and published a journal account detailing what she had witnessed on Butler’s plantation and her views on the American slave institution. Her book was widely read and Krivda said it was influential in the abolition of slavery in America and England.
“She could just do anything and was a woman of principles…She’s one of my heroes,” Krivda said. “And, I didn’t even know about her until I started writing the book.”
Although her book doesn’t tackle issues like slavery or injustice, Krivda said she hopes the tribute to history will inspire further preservation of the historic neighborhoods. She has worked with the Oak Lane Community Action Association, the East Oak Lane Tree Tenders, which later expanded to West Oak Lane, and is actively involved with the Friends of the Oak Lane Library. Although she has taken a step back from her role as an activist, she now focuses on educating others and writing.
Krivda is still willing to do her part to preserve historic locations in Oak Lane. Whether it’s knocking on neighbors’ doors to provide historic information and advice about the up-keep of these structures, giving lectures or researching, she channels her passion in an infectious way. The book is set up in a way that encourages anyone interested in the history of the neighborhood to tour the locations and bear witness to the evolution of these lively areas, which is still taking place.