Seaport Museum charts boisterous beginnings of Dock Street [photos]

The history of Dock Street in Philadelphia — once a rough-and-tumble thoroughfare filled with hucksters and dockworkers -– is now on display at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing.

“Hucksters: The Tumult of Dock Street” comes largely from the collection of the late John M. Taxin, former owner of the legendary Bookbinder’s restaurant at Second and Walnut streets.

Taxin started as a huckster, peddling produce out of a cart on Philadelphia streets, then opened Bookbinders in 1945. He turned it into a landmark lobster restaurant attracting patrons including Frank Sinatra, Mayor Frank Rizzo, and mob leaders.

He also kept a diary, faithfully, every day.

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“I have my grandfather’s life in a book – many books, actually, almost 90 years of books,” said Taxin’s grandson, Erich Weiss. “This area was rough and tumble. He wrote about a policeman on a horse riding into a bar breaking up a fight. Drunks grabbing a trolley and taking it down the wrong way down the street.”

Weiss curated the exhibition in the Seaport Museum’s community gallery. It begins the story of Dock Street when it was Dock Creek, an important trade route that allowed merchant schooners to sail into the city, all the way to what is now Independence Mall.

By the late 18th century, it had become so polluted that the city decided to pave it over as a street, which quickly filled with hucksters selling produce and oysters.

“It was loud. It was profane. It was quarrelsome and brawling and everywhere it gambled,” reported the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1959. The chaos started before dawn and ended by late afternoon, when there would be nothing left on Dock Street “but the rats.”

“Huckster was a pejorative to begin with. I think it was first meant as an insult,” said Weiss. “Men like my grandfather took it as a name of pride. You know, picking yourself up by the bootstraps and becoming a success in America.”

In 1959, the city decided to bulldoze the whole thing and make way for what is now the iconic Society Hill Towers.

Salvaging scraps of the past

Taxin was also something of a hoarder, and all of that stuff was crammed onto the three floors above the restaurant, floors that periodically were cleaned out. Weiss had to sometimes jump into dumpsters to retrieve scraps of the collection. “I had a good eye, and a nice touch of OCD,” he said.

All that stuff rescued from the trash heap makes up one of the finest collections of midcentury Philadelphia ephemera.

“Atwater Kent had been collecting things in the ’30s [to establish the city history museum] and the Franklin Institute was collecting. John Taxin was collecting in a much different way,” said Seaport chief curator Craig Bruns.

“He would low-ball it. Trash — it was that kind of thing. He amassed these things that other people didn’t see as valuable,” said Bruns. “He’s an important historical figure for the city, not just for what he did with Bookbinders, but also as an historian collecting Philadelphia.”

As part of the exhibition, Weiss asked 23 artists to contribute original work in response to Dock Street. Some are associated with the Chinatown artist collective Space 1026, including Jim Houser, Tim Gough, Thom Lessner and Adam Wallacavage, and there’s tattoo flash art by The Gus of Olde City Tattoo.

Meanwhile, the Seaport Museum has doubled its financial endowment to $23.5 million, thanks to four local donors.  That fundraising achievement shows the institution has moved past its scandalous past. In 2007,  former CEO John Carter was sentenced to 15 years for embezzling $1.5 million from the museum. Since then its leadership has changed several times.

Current CEO John Brady said the museum’s success is based on its newfound stability and interactive programming that puts bodies and minds out on the water.

“‘Hucksters’ is us doing what we do best — looking at maritime history of the waterfront and capturing people’s imaginations,” said Brady. “That community gallery has been a tremendous success for us. We’ve done tattoos, the ocean liner the SS United States, sugar by the guys at the Franklin Fountain. It has brought in new constituencies, and gotten people to think of us in a different way.”

“Hucksters” will be on view until February.

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