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From threatening to pull down fire escapes to advocating for the poor, Milton Street is remembered

Valerie Russ and Lynette Hazelton - Philly Inquirer

Ruth Birchett remembers the day she attended a political meeting that Charles Bowser, a lawyer who was running to unseat Mayor Frank Rizzo, hosted in 1975.

Bowser was running as the candidate of the Philadelphia Party, an independent political party, and the Black political elite were in the room at a Center City office on Walnut Street.

Former Assistant Managing Director John F. White Sr. was there with his son, John Jr., and the Rev. William H. Gray Jr. former president of Florida A&M University, was there with his son, who had recently followed his father as the third Bill Gray to be pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church.

“It was the old guard in charge, then” Birchett said. Bill Gray III was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and John White Jr. to the Pennsylvania House and Philadelphia City Council.

T. Milton Street and his brother John were also there but at first, no one was paying them much attention.

“Then Milton Street got up and said if Bowser was going to run for mayor, he needed to deal with the drug problems in the neighborhoods,” Birchett said of the former Pennsylvania legislator and activist, who died Monday after a long battle with cancer.

He began talking about people who were selling drugs on a fire escape next to a building at 20th and Dauphin, not far from where Milton Street lived at 19th and Diamond, Birchett said.

“He said: ’These people are doing things that are not good for our neighborhood and nothing is being done about it. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to tie a rope to that fire escape and tie the other end to the back of my truck, and I’m pulling it off.’”

Birchett, who lives in North Philadelphia near 19th and Norris Streets, was once involved in politics as both a Democratic and Republican committee person in the 32nd Ward. She was also a former Republican ward leader there but said she is now an independent voter.

She said she admired Street for his “willingness to take action,” in a number of areas, such as advocating for moving people into vacant housing. She also recalled at least one time when she strongly disagreed with Street.

That was in 1984, when as an incumbent state senator running for reelection, he introduced a bill that would allow neighborhood bars and taverns to remain opened 23 hours a day.

She testified at a state Senate hearing in Philadelphia that there were already too many bars in the neighborhoods and this would only diminish the quality of life:

“I said, ‘If I walked west to get the 33 [SEPTA] bus going south, I had to pass two bars; if I went to get the 3 bus on Columbia Avenue, and went south down 20th Street, I would pass two bars, and if I went east to get the 2 bus, I would pass two bars, and I lived [on Norris Street], across the street from a bar.”

She was the second person to testify that day, and it set the tone for the hearing, she said. Nearly everyone else spoke out against the bill and Street had to kill it.

Calvin Tucker, 22nd Ward Republican leader and former deputy chair of PA Republican Party:

”What I liked about Milton Street, going back to when he was a street vendor and parked down at Temple University, is that he was a vigorous advocator for whatever cause he had. He would march on the streets, around 29th and Dauphin or on Diamond Street, advocating for the poor and downtrodden.

“That’s the Milton Street I remember. That certainly is the same type of politics we had during the civil rights movement,” Tucker said.

“The interesting thing is when he first ran in 1978, I think it was, and went into office in 1979, the tradition in most legislative bodies is based on seniority. When you walk in, they give you a subbasement office where the rats run. He refused to accept that type of accommodation, and he pitched a tent and protested for better accommodations befitting his title representing the commonwealth. That was the kind of person he was when he started his career.

“He was a strong advocate. He wanted change to happen in a short period of time. He lived and saw a level of distress in the underserved community. Over the years, that brand of politics faded away. Milton kept running for office, but he became a little less relevant.”

Linn Washington, professor of journalism at Temple University:

“I covered just about everything he was doing in the ’70s: equitable treatment for street vendors in Center City, making housing available for low- and moderate-income people, the fight against the construction of the Gallery.”

Washington praised Street’s calls to legalize marijuana in the 1980s to decrease property taxes and fund public education.

“Imagine if the state had embraced what Milton proposed in the mid-’80s. Think about all revenue the city would have had and the tens of thousands of people who were arrested for simple possession and because of a lack of vision, their lives were ruined for decades.”

“Milton was clearly a guy ahead of his time.”


The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.

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