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

The Latino glances over, sneers. I look away, willing the light to change. Mom hides behind her sunglasses, saying nothing, though I know she can hear the lyrics because for Christ’s sake people buried in Holy Sepulchre can hear the lyrics. And it strikes me that this is now the soundtrack of her daily life, the loud, awful, abrasive noise she weaves in and out of every day, trying to preserve some sense of order.
And a certain heaviness, felt on my parents’ sidewalk not a half-hour ago, seeps back into my heart. It comes each time I now find myself in the “old neighborhood,” see what it has become, what it’s still becoming. Each time I visit, there’s a little more grime on the recreation center where I worked as a teenager, one more fence peeling and unrepaired, one more car stuffed with thugs blaring god-awful music the whole neighborhood has to endure. Tales of random shootings, in my youth confined to the “bad” neighborhoods of North and Southwest Philly, are now at the corner of Summerdale and the Boulevard, a slow, unctuous ooze of civil chaos creeping its way toward the house where I grew up.
Such is life in urban America. Neighborhoods rise, they fall, if you’re lucky some eventually come back. You deal. Which would seem a particularly easy task for me, someone who never felt connected to this place, who from the age of six seemed to always have his eye on the door and his foot on the gas, who grew into a restless young man eager to find fulfillment in more cosmopolitan, metropolitan locales. Yet it’s odd, this grip in my gut, this feeling that I, like my parents, can’t face the fact it’s time to move out, move on. I feel slightly bewildered, wondering why the one thing I couldn’t wait to go away from is now the one thing I can’t let go.
The light turns. The first carpet place, Mom says, should be four blocks up on the left.

NOBODY KNOWS MUCH about the Northeast, and fewer people than that understand it, including me. As part of the city’s identity, as a section to help define it, bring it texture and vibrancy and shape, the Northeast has always been the odd neighborhood out, the real estate equivalent of “and the rest of it.” It’s a huge swath of amorphous terrain that for the last half of the 20th century existed in a kind of suspended state of contented blandness, a big lumbering caboose of workaday white people tacked onto the train that was the city.
It can actually claim some snooty roots, given it was first settled by William Penn back in 1682. Through the better part of two centuries, the Northeast developed into a region of farms and industry — mills for flour, textiles, grain and calico; iron foundries; the famed Disston Saw Works in Tacony — with a few scattershot villages in between. It also snagged some wealthy folks who loved its wide-open spaces, and who built imposing mansions on its roomy, unspoiled tracts.