THE VACANT LOT
Once upon a time there was a vacant lot in Allentown, PA that stretched from Liberty to Gordon Streets at 22nd, and it was about the size of a football field. The northern most portion at Liberty Street, about thirty yards, was flat and the rest was a steeply rising hill that went a full block all the way to Gordon Street, the lot’s southern border. Halfway up that hill was a huge blackberry tree that kids and birds circled when the fruit was ripe and ate to their hearts content. If almost 60 years qualifies as a long time, this all happened a long time ago.
There was a gang of teenaged kids on Liberty Street who were called “The West End Kids” by The Morning Call newspaper when the teens turned the vacant lot into an amusement park. This gang was very different from the storied thugs or rowdies who create havoc in other neighborhoods. In comparison, these were a bunch of model citizens who were playful and constructive rather than mean and spiteful.
The vacant lot was near Dorney Park, an amusement park that had many rides but the featured attraction, which inspired “The West End Kids”, was a wooden roller coaster. They decided they would build their own roller coaster on their field of dreams.
The original idea came from conversations between Billy Kipp, Marvin Hoffman and Ron Burnet. Burnet was a teenager with a natural gift for carpentry and he would be the” Master Builder”. Hoffman says, “I think I only hammered 2 or 3 nails. Ron did everything”. Burnet says, “I had the whole plan for it in the back of my head. I never put anything down on paper.”
They “borrowed” the lumber from a nearby construction site and the abandoned “Open Air School” which had been built at the beginning of the 20th Century to accommodate children with tuberculosis and was now being slowly torn down by the local kids for projects like the roller coaster.
It all happened in April of 1946, shortly after the end of WW II. The Morning Call published a picture with Billy Kipp riding the single car on its 2-hump voyage. The only way to end the ride was to have a bunch of guys that included Burnet, Hoffman and his brother Donald at the bottom ready to catch the brakeless car.
It only stood for 2 days. None of the kids knew who tore it down but when they got home from school, all that was left was a pile of twisted lumber. In all honesty, it was dangerous. No brakes, of questionable stability, it was a disaster waiting to happen. But it was only the first of several marvels performed on this unused space.
The gang quickly responded. There was a tree in the Hoffman backyard, the closest home to the lot that had a trunk about 18 inches thick. They cut it down, leaving a stump almost 4 feet tall. A heavy board about 6 feet long was anchored in the middle over the stump and 2 reinforced crates were attached to each end of the board, and Presto!, there was a new ride, a cheap version of an aerial merry go round.
Unfortunately, none of these rides lasted very long, especially when the parents came home. But came Halloween, the “West End Kids” came up with a winner. They turned the lot into a scary “Fun House” for the local kids. Just after it turned dark, we were led around a marked off course where paper mache spiders dangled overhead and tickled you as you passed by.
Then a white-sheeted ghost would jump from a hidden foxhole. The whole lot had been undermined with underground passageways and you never knew when the next nasty pirate or skeleton masked soldier was going to spring up and shout “BOOOO!” They went through all that trouble just to play with us kids. Paradise was a vacant lot filled with loving, creative ingenuity.
My favorite of all the experiences was the freezing winter when we had several deep snows that didn’t melt and then we had several ice storms that created a thick crust of ice over the snow. Ron Burnet became inspired, He “borrowed” his Mom’s butcher knife and started cutting out large building blocks of frozen snow. He was going to build an Eskimo’s igloo on the frozen tundra of Allentown, PA.
Soon there was a crowd of helpers and many “borrowed” kitchen knives. Once again, the vacant lot became a place of wonder. I crawled into the finished masterpiece and had the fantasy of being at the North Pole that was now less than a block from the warm comforts of home. It was priceless.
By this time, the kids had gotten smart. At the end of the day, they smashed the igloo. It could have been a seductive danger for little kids who could be buried alive without the gang around to bail them out.. They took as much joy in destroying it as they had in building it. They had their fun and took responsibility for any serious repercussions.
Ron Burnet went on to build a spectacular tree house next to the “Open Air School” (the source for his building materials) that the Morning Call covered and titled “West End Builder At It Again!” Billy Kipp became an Olympic skating coach and was killed in the 1960 plane crash when our entire skating team perished. Marvin and Donald Hoffman (my first babysitters) are still around but Ron Burnet moved away and continued building, earning a living using his gifts.
Eventually the whole lot became the nesting place for a string of identical two story apartment houses and all of the magic of that empty field is gone except in the memories of those of us who had been enchanted by what “The West End Kids” did with it. It taught me a lesson about what you can accomplish when you turn a neglected nothing into a joyful something.