South Street on the reel

By Jana Fagotti
December 5, 2002

South Street is more than the home of Lorenzo’s Pizza; it is the home of citizens who once rallied together to preserve a community in jeopardy as explained in “Crosstown,” an independent film presented in the mansion on Monday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m.

Miriam Camitta, Ph.D., is a folklorist, educator and independent filmmaker based in Philadelphia. She taught at the University of Pennsylvania and recently shifted into filmmaking. After ten years of collaborative efforts between WYBE TV 35, DUTV Cable 56 and a number of editors and co-sponsors, Camitta’s first film was finally released. “Crosstown” was nominated for Best Documentary Film at 2001 Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema.

English and communications professor, Brian Gregory who was inspired by an article Camitta wrote entitled “The Folklorist and the City,” was responsible for bringing Camitta to Cabrini.

Told through the voices of the participants, this film is a history-making story of how a community joined together to save their main street and surrounding neighborhoods from the Crosstown Expressway, which threatened the community on South Street in Philadelphia in the 60s and 70s. The expressway would have separated poorer and African-American neighborhoods from the new, upscale center city.

“It was one big community,” a South Street resident said. The documentary depicted a time when everyone was classless, there was no white or black, there was no priority of old-timers over newcomers; there was just a community with a passion for their neighborhood and a need to keep it together.

At the time of the threat to build the Crosstown Expressway, thousands of residents were forced out of their homes, businesses were closed, but hope was never lost. From society hill to “old Philly,” citizens protested and on July 3, 1960, six society hill residents asked that their houses be saved. They challenged their authority and won.

Late in 1969, a plan was developed to preserve the physical environment of South Street and improve its economical base. However, the highway became a threat once again.

This time citizens of South Street took a different approach. The nature of the battle was to create the proof, through marches and parties in the street, that a community, this tight-knit, could not be split apart.

Finally, the citizens were given the justice they deserved and the community was not given what it didn’t want. The Crosstown Expressway was overturned for the last and final time.

The 70s and 80s drew tourists to South Street and the 90s brought visual and performing arts.

Camitta admits that the city has become a more desirable place to live. Though she no longer is a south Philadelphia resident, Camitta said, “it still looks how it did in 1972,” when she moved there. “It wasn’t safe then, even after the revival, and it’s not safe now.”

Still, passion was evident in the eyes of Camitta as she presented her independent film, “Crosstown,” a documentary that depicted an environment that will eternally be responsible for inspiring her to tell a story of struggle, unity and success on a street that she can call home.

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Jana Fagotti

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