Under the El
Artists, dancers and artisans are fighting to save Frankford. But it’s tough to overcome a history of violence.
Every morning, my 2-year-old daughter smiles and points to the train yard where they found the first mutilated body.
They’re building a multilevel garage there now. By early 2006, commuters will be able to park their cars and hop the Frankford El without worrying about smashed windshields or returning to an empty space where their car used to be.
But 20 years ago this week, this was where SEPTA workers found Helen Patent, stabbed 47 times in the head and chest. Her body was naked from the breasts down, legs parted in a lurid display. The violation went even deeper: a deep gash along her stomach revealed her internal organs to the elements.
During the next five years, at least eight women would be beaten and butchered by a serial killer dubbed the “Frankford Slasher.” The DA tried and convicted a man for at least one of those murders,but some true-crime writers maintain that the real killer was never caught.
The Frankford Slasher is not as well-remembered as two other homegrown killers operating at the same time — Gary Heidnik and Harrison “Marty” Graham. But serial killer buffs across the country are familiar with his exploits. As recently as March, when authorities caught Kansas’ infamous “BTK Killer,” the Associated Press listed the Frankford Slasher in a short roundup of infamous unsolved serial killings.
In Frankford, time has started to erase the scenes of the Slasher’s crime. The construction of the new Frankford Transportation Center, for instance, knocked over the few buildings on the corner of Pratt Street, including the Golden Bar — “Goldie’s” to locals — where the Slasher allegedly met many of his victims.
I remember Goldie’s. I remember the old El tracks, the green, rusting rib cage that used to drape this block of the Avenue in shadow. That’s what my brain still sees whenever my wife and kids drop me off at the El to catch the train to work downtown.
I grew up in Frankford, and was a teenager at the time of the horrific, blood-soaked murders. But here’s the odd thing:
He’s not what haunts me most about the old neighborhood.
Frankford in the 1970s was a cool place to grow up. Along the Avenue, you could find everything. School uniforms at Cramer’s. Vinyl singles at Pat’s Music. Star Wars action figures at Snyder’s Toys. Rotisserie chickens spinning in the window at Farmer’s Prize. Coloring books at Kresge’s, which still had a lunch counter. A magic shop. A candy store. An umbrella shop. Pizza from Leandro’s, best in the known universe. It was the prototype of the Great American Mall, sprung up organically, and with funkier stores. In case of a sudden downpour, it even had its own roof: the tracks of the El.
During the summer, sidewalk sales were a big deal. The last sidewalk sale I remember vividly took place on July 13, 1985, the same day the Live Aid concert was underway down at JFK Stadium. I was only 13, but I could feel the vibe: Philly was a special place to be that day, even on Frankford Avenue.
A little over a month later, the Slasher’s first victim was found.
It’s not fair to ascribe too much power to the crimes of one deranged killer; the Frankford Slasher didn’t single-handedly murder the neighborhood. But he was a living symbol of larger destructive forces — drugs, Reaganomics, SEPTA — that helped butcher the once-thriving business district. Crack flooded the streets in earnest in the mid-1980s. When SEPTA decided to replace the El tracks and Margaret-Orthodox station around the same time, the construction and closed stations strangled foot traffic along the Avenue. Prostitutes in fishnets replaced racks of T-shirts and jeans for sale.
There was a time I felt perfectly safe walking down the Avenue. I clearly remember when that changed: my high school years, 1985-1989, the same time the Slasher was stalking his victims. He was the embodiment of fear and death, if not the cause of it.
Today, the Avenue is still full of shops. But too many of them are in the same line of business: dollar stores, hairstyling joints, bars. None, except for the bars, stay open past 6 p.m. You can still buy school uniforms at Cramer’s, even though the two nearest parochial schools have closed. Pat’s Music fled to Mayfair. Snyder’s is a dollar store. Farmer’s Prize was abandoned; the shop’s counter is still visible through the dark, dirt-caked glass. The Kresge’s is now a health clinic. Magic shop, candy store, umbrella shop — gone.
One of the few remaining stores is Joe Plantulli’s barbershop at 4332 Frankford Ave., above Unity Street. It’s hard to tell that Joe’s is still open. The striped barber’s pole is broken and acid-etched graffiti mars the front windows.
On a recent day, Thomas Sullivan, who owns a nearby plumbing business, was sitting with a cape around his burly frame. “This place,” he says, “has turned to shit.”
He’s mock-serious; after some conversation, it’s clear Sullivan is still hoping Frankford can reverse its fortunes. What bothers Sullivan the most is a lack of consideration. “A guy was parked in front of my driveway and got all angry when I asked him to move. It’s all m.f. this, and m.f. that. He’s like, you don’t live here. My son, who was with me, tells the guy, “With people like you, who the hell would want to?’ I call the police, and when they show up, the guy and his girlfriend are suddenly all nice.” Neither Sullivan nor Plantulli live here anymore.
Down the street, Debbie Klak is pouring tiny glass beads over the lacquered panels of a white lamp shade. “These are called sugar shades,” she explains. “Others call them candy glass lamp shades. It’s a technique that was common in the 19th century, but lost speed around 1918.”
Klak, the fortysomething owner of Shades of the Past, is a Frankford native who came back to open her vintage lamp store three years ago. She now lives in Northwood, the area of Frankford west of the Avenue known for its large houses and tree-lined streets. Years ago, it was the home of the ruling class, who owned the mills and factories in Frankford and Kensington. She’s also the president of the Frankford Historical Society.
“There’s some sort of pull in Frankford,” she explains. “Even though it doesn’t look like much today, all you have to do is look at the buildings. There was something here. It was once a glorious area.”
That was the selling point back in 1998, when we first reported that some people were trying to turn Frankford Avenue into an “Avenue of the Artisans” [Cover story, Gwen Shaffer, March 19, 1998]. Crafts, antiques and art were going to save the neighborhood; people into home restoration, the idea went, would flock to Frankford to find the only craftsmen who could, say, restore a 19th-century Regence-style giltwood chair. Prominent among Frankford’s cheerleaders was Kevin Phelan, who did the unthinkable in 1998: He opened The Art Place, spending $30,000 on rehabbing a previously abandoned building and turning it into a eye-popping storefront with elegant columns and sidewalks.
But Phelan moved to Mt. Airy and sold the shop in 2003; it’s now a men’s hairstyling joint. Klak admits the Avenue is in a “bit of a slump” since 1998’s first glimmerings of a renaissance. Right now, the heart of it is centered on the Avenue between Orthodox and Sellers streets, with Klak’s shop, Gilbert’s Upholstery and the promise of a new cafe and restaurant.
“We had two businesses that were nice on the Avenue — there was a cafe, then it switched to a framing shop, but she left,” says Klak. There was also an antique store right next door that fit perfectly with Klak’s business and nearby Gilbert’s Upholstery, which was convinced to move from its old Orthodox Street location to a place right on the Avenue. “This is what the goal was, to get more antique dealers here to create a destination,” says Klak.
When I look around the Avenue, I can see the potential.
But just a few storefronts down from Shades of the Past is the place I remember as Newman’s Seafood, where my mom would take me to pick up flounder fillet for dinner. Now the store at 4511 is shuttered. The sign reads, simply, “Seafood, Fresh & Cooked.”
That’s where Leonard Christopher, the man convicted of one of the Frankford Slasher murders, worked as a fish cutter.
The victims of the Frankford Slasher were tagged as “nobodies” — female barflies who, if they weren’t active prostitutes, certainly lived a similar lifestyle. They hopped bars — mostly Goldie’s at Pratt Street, sometimes the Happy Tap, closer to Margaret Street.
The Slasher was a few years into his work before anyone noticed the pattern. First was 52-year-old Helen Patent, who lived in Parkland, Bucks County, but was reportedly a Goldie’s regular, estranged from her husband. In early January 1986, the body of 68-year-old Anna Carroll was found on her bedroom floor, naked from the waist down and stabbed six times, with a butcher knife still lodged in her torso. Carroll lived in South Philly, but also hung at Goldie’s. So did 64-year-old Susan Olszef, who was found stabbed to death on Christmas Day 1986. Just a few weeks later, 28-year-old Jeanne Durkin, a former go-go dancer and homeless woman who slept on the street near Goldie’s, was found beneath a truck near Dyre Street. She had been sexually assaulted, stabbed 74 times and wrapped in an overcoat.
Just 21 days after that, Catherine M. Jones, a 29-year-old waitress who worked on Frankford Avenue, was found beaten and strangled in Northern Liberties. The m.o. was different; no stab wounds, no apparent sexual assault. Some writers count Jones in the Slasher’s victim list; others aren’t so sure.
Well over a year passed before 66-year-old Margaret Vaughn was found stabbed to death in the vestibule of her apartment building on Penn Street near Harrison. She had been out drinking in the bars under the El, trying to forget the fact that she’d been evicted from her apartment that same day, Nov. 11, 1988. Then, on Jan. 19, 1989, Theresa Sciortino, 30, was found in her apartment on Arrott Street, just above Griscom, cut to ribbons and wearing nothing except a pair of white socks.
Witnesses started to come forward; Vaughn and Sciortino had been seen hanging out with a middle-aged white man. Sketches were circulated. No arrests came of it.
There was a break in the case after the seventh (or eighth, if you count Jones) slaying. Carol Dowd, a 46-year-old woman with a history of mental illness, was found stabbed 36 times behind Newman’s Seafood early in the morning of April 28, 1990.
The next morning, detectives questioned a Newman’s employee named Leonard Christopher, who volunteered an odd piece of information: He knew one of the Frankford Slasher’s previous victims. He also said he was with his girlfriend in his apartment the night of Dowd’s murder, and both had seen a stocky white man lurking around the seafood store.
Christopher’s girlfriend denied being with him that night. Two eyewitnesses, both prostitutes, placed Christopher at the scene of the crime, with a large utility knife tucked in his belt, right around the time of the murders. To make matters worse, Jaesa Phang, Christopher’s former boss at Newman’s, testified that he had told her, “Maybe I killed her.” Then, a moment later, recanted. He was arrested a day later.
Despite the fact that previous eyewitnesses tagged the Frankford Slasher as a middle-aged white guy (Christopher is African-American), many residents breathed a sigh of relief. They caught the guy.
Then came the murder of 38-year-old Michelle Martin, stabbed 23 times and found just blocks away in her Arrott Street apartment. Christopher was awaiting trial in jail at the time.
Christopher was tried and convicted of Carol Dowd’s murder in December 1990, based largely on eyewitness accounts. He was not tried for the other Frankford Slasher slayings. (Technically, those are still unsolved.) Whether the Martin murder was the work of a copycat killer or the real Frankford Slashe, remains unknown. “I was railroaded,” Christopher said after hearing the verdict. “I didn’t kill Carol Dowd. I did not even know Carol Dowd. I was implicated by prostitutes … that the police put up.”
The case has only been revisited by a few true-crime writers in serial killer tomes. But this past March, CBS 3’s Walt Hunter reported that DNA evidence from two of the murder scenes was being reanalyzed in hopes of new answers. (Repeated calls to Christopher’s defense attorney, Jack McMahon, were not returned.)
No matter the outcome, decades from now the Frankford Slasher may be a tourist attraction, his grisly exploits shared on a walking tour, á la Jack the Ripper walking tours in London. But today the wounds are too fresh. Debbie Klak steers clear of the topic when I bring it up. She wrinkles her nose at the mention of it; to Frankford residents, it’s an aberration, nothing more.
And maybe they’re right. People who want to lead Frankford into a new renaissance have more immediate worries.
Frankford is not the most violent neighborhood in the city. But it’s certainly the worst in the Northeast, and enough of a deterrent to make people think twice about moving there, no matter how sweet the deal. A look at the Inquirer‘s recent map, “Shooting Victims in Philadelphia, 2001-2004” reveals a hot zone of shootings along and around the Frankford Avenue corridor. I counted more than 30 shootings in the streets where I played as a kid.
According to data from the University of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia Neighborhood Information System (www.cml. upenn.edu/nis), aggravated assaults in the 19124 ZIP code have more than doubled since 1998, and assaults involving guns have nearly tripled.
Even worse, an active drug corridor exists along Foulkrod Street, east of the Avenue, literally around the corner from my childhood home. When I told a cop in the 15th District where I used to live, he misheard me, thinking I was still there. “Move,” he said. “Just move.” This is not surprising. A few months ago, it was revealed that a 21-year-old drug kingpin put a $15,000 price tag on the heads of two plainclothes members of the 15th District who’d put a squeeze on the drug trade on Foulkrod Street.
The war is fierce on both sides. Will someone looking for antique furniture want to step into the middle of it?
When she was 10 years old, Debbie Klak used to sit on the steps of the Frankford Historical Society and wait for someone to show up. After a while, she’d work up the courage to go pounding on the door, but no one would answer. Every day, she repeated the ritual. Every day, she hoped someone would answer.
Today, as president of the society, she’s unlocking the metal security gate at the Historical Society building on Orthodox Street. “We’re still painting, so forgive the mess.”
It’s a busy time for the society — a flurry of fundraising and new projects. A week from now, the latest in the Images of America series, Frankford, will hit bookstores, compiled by Historical Society board member Brian Harris. And in mid-September, they’ll be presenting historical artifacts and memorabilia of the Frankford Yellowjackets, the precursors of the Eagles. The sixth annual Frankford Arts Festival is scheduled for early October; it has replaced the sidewalk sales as the big local event.
“The history is immense down here,” Klak says. “We’re one year older than Germantown Avenue.”
Frankford, in fact, is older than the city itself. First settled by Swedes in the 1660s, this tiny village became known for its main road, King’s Highway, which served as the primary route between Philadelphia and New York. Horse-drawn carriages transported members of the Continental Congress in pre-Revolutionary days, and the Jolly Post Inn served as a popular way station. Washington did indeed sleep here, and legend has it that the Jolly Post was where some revolutionaries decided that Thomas Jefferson would be the one to draft the Declaration of Independence.
Today, the site is commemorated by a plaque situated over the American Pants Co. It’s tough to find unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. Archaeologists are used to digging beneath the ground to find history; in Frankford, sometimes the best way to see it is to look up.
King’s Highway became Main Street, and shops of all kinds cropped up along the route to New York. These were the beginnings of the Frankford Avenue business district. Shortly after the turn of the century, the city decided to mechanize the route: the Market-Frankford El was opened in 1922, after eight years of construction. Beneath, the stores were shrouded in shadow and assaulted with the constant rumble of trains and the screeching of steel. It’s the soundtrack to my childhood. My bedroom window was a half-block from the Margaret-Orthodox station; the trains would lull me to sleep.
Despite the steel behemoth and its iconic center supports that divided Frankford Avenue in half, the stores under the El thrived until the late 1980s. Today, its future seems to be in the hands of artisans like Klak, as well as developers who want to gamble on Frankford becoming the next Northern Liberties or Fishtown.
“All Frankford needs,” Klak is convinced, “is three more developers like Jim McCarthy.”
McCarthy is the owner of Mantis Development Corporation, which recently converted a building on tiny Gillingham Street — right across from Klak’s shop — into artists’ lofts. (The building used to serve as a flop house for junkies and whores.) Directly across Gillingham is 1535 Gallery, meant to serve as a showcase for local artists’ work.
“He bought two other buildings on Frankford Avenue, too,” says Klak. “But it would be nice to have more developers here. There’s a lot of opportunity here. We have old buildings where the architecture and the interiors are really interesting.”
Like Northern Liberties and Fishtown, where once-thriving industry has left, Frankford’s future seems to depend on developers and the creative class: artists, dancers and artisans.
Down the street from Klak’s shop, up on the third floor of the landmark St. Mark’s Church, dance company 7Dance is rehearsing for an upcoming show [for a preview, see p. 25]. “There is a strong core of artists who have been working to preserve Frankford for a long time,” says Kate Jordan, 7Dance’s community outreach coordinator. “It’s been very inspiring and motivating for me to start to build relationships with them.”
To attract more people like 7Dance, Klak says, certain businesses need to be here. “People want a hometown feel. They want a deli. This is what I’m hearing. They want bakeries — they can’t get a birthday cake around here. Now it’s time for the new generation to step up. And I believe it can work. There are a lot of people in West Frankford who are restoring homes. They’re coming in to me for lighting. Everyone is friendly. I think they’re glad [Gilbert’s Upholstery] and I stayed around.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” says Klak. “I think getting the history out, getting the word out [that] Frankford’s the next place to be. I think in a year’s time, there’s going to be a big turnaround.”
First, Frankford has to overcome the stigma of violence and the idea that it’s ride-over country. Thousands of El commuters see the tops of the old Frankford buildings — the old Circle Theater, most impressively, just past Overington Street — on their way to the Frankford Transportation Center, before scurrying to buses or their cars to take them the rest of the way into the Northeast. To them, Frankford is a gateway, not a destination.
I know. I’ve become one of them.
After spending time in Frankford, something I haven’t done in at least 10 years, I can’t help but imagine what if. What if, instead of being dropped off at the Frankford El, what if we lived here, in one of the gorgeous oversized homes in West Frankford?
Then I read the story of Young Hwa Bang, the owner of the seafood store at 4511 Frankford Ave., where Carol Dowd’s body was found, where Leonard Christopher worked. Turns out, the place was shuttered for a reason.
On July 8, Bang’s body was found in the apartment above his store. The 39-year-old, who had purchased the business only a year ago, had been bound with electrical cords, beaten and stabbed to death. The motive was robbery. The killer, or killers, tracked his schedule, knew when to strike.
That one address could be the scene of two grisly murders, 15 years apart, is haunting.
That people like Debbie Klak refuse to give up on the neighborhood tells me there is still hope under the El.