The Late Great Northeast

Growing up in Northeast Philly, I desperately wanted to escape its marshmallow blandness. Now — 40 years later — my old neighborhood has radically changed. Figuring out why I find that so upsetting just might open a new window into the most mysterious swath of the city

JULY 2008
I am going to see about the rugs. She wants new, wants my opinion. My opinion is that she should not be buying new rugs.
I step out of my car into the driveway of my parents’ house, which looks like almost every other house in the Northeast, the sensible cloth coats in the city’s real estate wardrobe. The twin can properly be described as tidy: Its brick is pointed, its steps are swept, the postage-stamp lawn is cut by the kid next door. The green aluminum awnings are weathered, faded. On the whole, it appears remarkably unchanged over 45 years, except for the front and back screen doors, now ugly steel-barred Italianate monstrosities that lock with keys.
Something inside me tugs my body down to the sidewalk, and as I walk, I pick off each house, like targets in an arcade shooting gallery: the Donahues, the Dobersteins. The Beckers, the Benzes … On the other side of us, the Huhms, the Salvatores. Eight addresses down, I stop at Grandmom’s, which was later Aunt Dolly’s, and which is now I Don’t Know Whose. Grandmom was the first to move here from North Philly, back in the early ’60s. She told the realtor she just wanted a nice place without too many Jews. The realtor, a Jew, sold her a house around the corner from Adath Zion synagogue.
Two of my mother’s sisters lived on this block, and with Mom they were known collectively as The Aunts, part of a raucous Irish-­Catholic family that included an uncle named Apple and an aunt called Snookie. Later, when I had to explain such things to people, I told them we were simply the Kennedys without the money. We ate dinner every night at six, went to church on Sunday and to Wildwood for a week every June. In the summer we had big family picnics centered on a softball game and a keg of Schaefer, and in winter a big post-Christmas party — which also centered on a keg of Schaefer.
Onto this blank canvas my three older brothers painted their lives. They thrived — none of them moved out until he got married. (Tom was almost 31 when he left.) Me, I had no intention of following that model. I sat, sometimes for hours, staring out my bedroom window at the driveway below, imagining myself someplace — anyplace — else. I read a lot. Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, my cousins’ Nancy Drews. I gobbled up their worlds of adventure, their exotic spices and perfumes, transporting myself out of one made of mayonnaise.
I walk in the front door, and Mom looks up from the dining room table, where she is surveying clipped-out newspaper rug ads through her big pink-Lucite-framed reading glasses. She wheels her chair back — all the dining room chairs are on casters, because, well, this is the Northeast. She is constantly both bemused and befuddled by my chichi tastes, my love of the elegant and the formal. When I bought my ridiculously expensive hand-distressed dining room table a few years ago, she ran her fingertips over it before asking, “Did you get this out of the trash?”