Jenkintown: Report From A Big-Hearted, All-American Town

In this “Mayberry among the strip malls,” the police send emails reminding you to lock your doors and everyone joins the parade.

Next stop for My Town: Next Sunday, Tracy Dahlby writes about Austin, Texas—a city of becomings.

I live in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, which happens to be the setting for ABC’s hit sitcom The Goldbergs—a tribute by producer Adam Goldberg to his 1980s me-generation upbringing in this strange little borough just north of Philadelphia. I say strange because Jenkintown is something like Brigadoon, the magical village in the old musical that appears for one day every hundred years and never changes.

Fewer than 4,500 of us are hunkered down here against the world on little more than half a square mile—wedged between two large townships on a main drag that used to be a Lenape Indian footpath.

There are no forests or rivers or fields to physically set us apart, but there may as well be.

Think Mayberry among the strip malls.

The result is an iconic small-town identity all out of proportion to its size—with a flinty sense of independence and greatness in its heart.

"It's a weird little bubble town,” says Jenkintown Mayor Ed Foley, a marketing guy for an insurance company who also plays guitar in his own band, Ed Foley & The Broken Promises. “It’s easy to feel that the rules apply to the rest of the world and that all bad things happen elsewhere.”

Of course, right before he moved here from Boston, in 1999, a human torso was discovered near the Jenkintown train station.

“Horrified,” he promptly called the real estate agent who had been working him hard to move here.

“‘Ed, if you’re gonna kill a guy, of course you’re gonna dump the torso in Jenkintown, because it’s the least likely place anybody would do it!’” she told him.

“That sealed the deal for us,” Foley says—and moved in.

Every once in a long while something bad may happen, like anywhere. But mainly it’s the occasional bank robbery or break-in and the usual run of underage drinking and pot smoking—in basements across the borough, up behind the football field at Dead Man’s Ditch, or down the train tracks to a spot the kids call Chezzy’s.

Day to day we feel so safe that our police department has to periodically send out emails reminding us to PLEASE LOCK YOUR DOORS AND CARS, because as often as not when there are break-ins, they’re actually “walk-ins” into unlocked houses and cars.

Because it’s Jenkintown.

The children wander freely for the most part, playing manhunt, risking their necks on backyard trampolines, thrill-sledding the third hole at the nearby Abington Club.

The same 40-something kids you went to kindergarten with will be with you on the graduation dais 13 years later, the girls in white dresses carrying flowers, the boys in tuxedos lighting up cigars.

Our younger son spontaneously lifted up a member of the school board in jubilation after she handed him his diploma. That would be Mrs. Cheek.

Because it’s Jenkintown.

Welcome to the Village

We came in 1993—husband Doran, four-year old Nathaniel, and 18-month old Aden—from a Victorian twin in the urban University of Pennsylvania area of Philadelphia. It was a relocation prompted by the usual consideration about schools and the occasional empty crack vials our older boy was picking off the sidewalk.

Jenkintown seemed a solid bet.

It’s got one of the smallest yet most highly regarded school systems in the state, a 24-7 police force, two volunteer fire companies dating back to the 1880s, a library founded in 1803 that’s just steps from our door, and a real downtown shopping district full of restaurants and specialty shops. It was at our restored circa 1913 old-timey movie house—the Hiway—that Bradley Cooper, who grew up in the zip code and was nominated for an Oscar this year for his role in American Sniper, decided to be an actor after watching The Elephant Man there as a boy.

We arrived as newbies, welcomed, but outsiders—the latest interlopers to the kingdom.

Yet many families remain that have been here for generations—one town elder remembers horses and wagons, and Civil War vets marching in the Fourth of July parade. That would be Ted Jensen, a former four-time mayor and fire chief and the closest thing to Mister Jenkintown that we have.

The children marry (not uncommonly each other) and plant themselves in this familiar soil. Parents leave their houses to their kids. A homeowner will sell one home in Jenkintown just to move to another home in Jenkintown.

“It’s like the stoop kid in the old TV show Hey, Arnold,” says our Aden. “He never leaves his stoop. Either you stay and are part of that dynamic for a long time. Or you get out. Way out.”

Our history goes as far back as just about any place in America, beginning in the 1680s when colonists named Jenkins came over from Wales on a ship called Submission. The village broke away from a neighboring township in 1874, and over time Jenkintown emerged as a one time “Golden Mile” shopping mecca that, post-mall-era, has struggled off and on to survive but refuses to die.

There’s something here for every station in life.

A bustling four-lane state corridor (Old York Road/Route 611) divides the borough. Most residences fall on the west side—a traditional small-town mix of detached single-family homes, duplexes, row houses, and several apartment buildings—with the east side mainly two one-way streets five blocks long, with bigger single homes on larger lots.

So the borough is socioeconomically diverse, but not racially, and the school yearbook pictures have looked remarkably similar year after year.

Yet whoever does move in, of whatever background or race, gets absorbed into the clan, and we all more or less get along. During our son Nathaniel’s senior year, one of his boyhood friends, a Palestinian Muslim from Israel, was a captain of the football team and voted homecoming king. That would be Magid.

I remember our first Jenkintown moment.

It happened not long after we moved into a lovely circa 1927 Mediterranean-style home on a beautiful block. One of two kittens we’d brought home from a friend’s farm in Maryland went missing, and I called the Jenkintown police in case somebody turned her in.

Within minutes there was a knock at the door. It was Officer Al DiValentino (now Chief DiValentino, who grew up here), his patrol car parked in the driveway, notebook at the ready.

“Where did you last see the kitten, M’am?”

A genuine friendliness and sense of caring permeates the village. That gaggle of teenagers slinking toward you on the street?  They’re going to look up with a cheery “Hi.”

At the same time, as you might imagine, nobody gets away with anything, and everybody knows your business, or thinks they do. There’s an “undercurrent of Peyton Place,” says a resident who’s writing a novel inspired by Jenkintown that she assumes will require her, upon publication, to flee the borough. Allison.

The Good, the Bad, and the Drakes

Now imagine you’re growing up in this tiny school system, which is known for strong test scores and small class sizes. There are around 600 students K-12 and no school buses, so they mainly walk.

Everybody is housed in one long building since The Link was constructed, in 2006, to connect the elementary, middle, and high schools.

It’s like an exploded version of a one-room schoolhouse. You’re with the same handful of kids, day-in, year-out, from kindergarten through high school. You can’t escape them.

Many thrive; some don’t.

You want to be in the play? Show up. The band? Student government? Field hockey or football? Show up. You’ll probably start.

Girls basketball is a perennial powerhouse. Despite the small pool of talent from which they’re drawn, Coach Jimmy Romano’s teams have racked up 12 district titles and around 550 wins, and counting, over 33 years. Nobody can figure out how he does it.

Our sports nickname is the Drakes, for the ducks that swam on the pond before it was  filled in long ago to make the stadium.

Football remains king. The team’s homecoming bonfire (monitored closely by the two fire companies, Pioneer and Independent) remains a wonderfully nightmarish annual display of homespun pyrotechnics—with adults and children of all ages milling and running around in the dark on the baseball outfield, faces glowing.

Even though there are fewer than a hundred boys in the entire high school, they field an often-enough competitive squad in the Bicentennial League, usually with 30-something or fewer boys, most playing both offense and defense, and dwindling to perilous levels from injuries as the season goes on.

Pagan and Sacred

Our most defining tradition is Color Day.

It’s been going on for generations ever since a coach named Bill Dougherty came up with the idea in 1938.

Basically, the entire town—anyone who went to school here or has a child in the school system or ever did—is identified as either a Red or a Blue. At our first kindergarten parents’ meeting there was a divided pad. You wrote your kid’s name on either the Red side or the Blue side; nobody explained why.

Thus were we marked till the end of time.

Ostensibly, Color Day is for the students. But adults take off work that Friday in May if they can and wear their colors. The town shows up for what amounts to a fast-paced and highly competitive display of old-fashioned events that you don’t have to be particularly athletic to do and that even the cool kids go along with.

They paint their faces and bodies, dye their hair, drum drums, blow horns, and scream—egged on by elected Color Leaders outlandishly attired in anything they can think of, often involving capes, crowns, and feathers.

Every child in the district participates. Class events range from the kindergartners’ orange rush, which involves running back and forth with the fruit and handing it off, to the seniors’ dizzy bat race, whereby participants stand one end of a baseball bat firmly on the ground, lean over, and place the other end against their foreheads, spin around ten times, then run to a finish line. Desperately trying to move forward while able to stagger only diagonally, some simply collapse. On occasion there are collisions. 

Interspersed are relay and foot races around a cinder track, with the day’s winner often determined by the high school girls’ and boys’ tugs of war.

A tally is kept on the football scoreboard, and afterward the winning team gets to paint their color on an old replica of the Liberty Bell that sits on a corner of the football field.

One year in the ‘60s the bell was famously stolen—and half a century later, emblematic of Jenkintown, the story still comes up.

The daring theft occurred on the eve of Color Day, during what amounts to a local mischief night: sleepovers, water balloon and Silly String fights, the bushes all over town wrapped in red and blue crepe paper.

Three Reds—John Hollinshead, George Speidel, and Ed Benson (later a coach and athletic director)—took the bell off its hinges and transported it gingerly on two-by-fours to a waiting van and from there to the Hollinshead’s garage, where it was triumphantly painted red.

The next morning Color Day was delayed until they carted that bell back to the field—on the two-by-fours, to the wild cheers of the Reds.

Traditions like this, infectiously fun and in some ways pagan, are also sacred. They’re rites of passage, totems of our identity, and somehow related to an unconscious unity that can hold us together when the need arises.

Not long ago, Bridget Beauchamp and her husband wrote a show about Jenkintown—“Jenkintown: A Musical”—for the local Pulley and Buttonhole Theater Company she’s creative director of. It takes place on the Fourth of July and involves a younger couple new to town who can’t understand why no one is watching the parade until they discover that everyone in town is in the parade.

We all belong to each other in Jenkintown, whether we want to or not. We’re all in the parade.

When bad things happen, we instinctively come together, like people most anywhere, I suppose. But here the experience feels magnified. Here, people are known individuals.

It’s not easy to explain but feels profound.

The first blow to hit us and our sons’ generation was the death of Andrew Peff, a close friend of our older boy, Nathaniel. He was charming, quick-witted, and a natural leader, with coffee bean eyes, an impish grin, and a confident way about him even as a child.

He grew up a few houses away and died in 2008 in a freak snow-boarding accident while away at college in Maine his freshman year.

A video of the neighborhood posse’s daring skateboard feats and clever boyhood pranks that he had helped orchestrate ran on a loop at his memorial. Black wristbands were made; close friends got “AMP” tattoos.

Andrew had taught me to play “Imagine” on the piano, and I can’t ever get all the way through it anymore.

Andrew and Nathaniel had played on the same travel-league soccer team, the remarkably successful Jenkintown United, which started out ranked in the lowest of five divisions and ended up some years later, against all odds, among the leaders of everyone.

Their star goalie was Jesse Hill, and when we lost Jesse five years after Andrew it was almost unbearable.

Like Andrew, Jesse was in what my husband called “the inner food circle”—he could go into our refrigerator without asking. We recorded his galloping height alongside our sons’ with pencil marks on a doorjamb. Then one particularly difficult October morning in 2012 Jesse decided he didn’t want to live anymore. He had just turned 24.

His memorial in the high school gym was packed. A banner on one wall listing 1,000-point career basketball scorers had just been re-hung, with Jesse’s name the last one added.

He had been the middle-school heartthrob and a playground legend, with an innate sense of justice and so beautiful and charismatic as a little boy that it hurt to look at him. Speaker after speaker counted the ways they had loved Jesse, and he them, and at the end we gave him a sustained standing ovation and cried into our coats.

That Jenkintown Vibe

That kitten we lost not long after moving in?

She eventually turned up the same day, having crept into a boot for a nap. Some months later she got stranded in our Japanese maple, and I came outside to find Tom the mailman climbing the tree as my then-neighbor Norma directed the rescue from the ground.

Adam Goldberg told me that when he created The Goldbergs and set it in Jenkintown, the idea was to produce a universal show anybody who grew up in a small suburb outside a big city could relate to.

Secret short-cuts, first kisses at the train station, boys riding their bikes on summer nights, catching fireflies—all managing to survive the relentless encroachment of a media-drenched world.

Ah, Jenkintown.

How do we love thee?

There are many ways to count.

Marguerite Del Giudice and her family have been Reds for 22 years. She says it goes without saying that Reds rule! (And Blues drool.) Her older son returned home last year to coach the high school cross-country team.

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