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 Northeast wasn’t officially folded into the city until 1854. But it was the early 20th century — with the openings of the Frankford El, the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, Roosevelt Boulevard — that saw the Northeast become what it became for me and those like me, as scores of first- and second-generation working-class Philadelphians poured into the region to work at the mills and then the industrial plants that followed. Trolley lines made trips to Center City easy; the housing was plentiful and cheap. And thus a boomtown came to life, Levittown before there was a Levittown.
We came to the Northeast in 1963, six weeks after I was born. My parents, never early adopters of anything, blithely watched their working-class white neighbors march out of North Philly and stayed behind, even after my grandparents left. Until the day in 1962 when a black man calmly walked into our kitchen on Hemberger Street as my mother fed my four-year-old brother lunch, and asked her if anyone else was at home. Typical of the steely Irish rose she can still be, she calmly talked him out of the house. Then called my father to announce they were moving.
We ended up in a brick twin eight doors down from Grandmom Kelly on St. Vincent Street, which certainly sounded like a highfalutin address even if it did face a football field. The Northeast was the business-class version of what we’d left, North Philly with more legroom. In square miles it took up almost a third of the city, a patchwork quilt of sections with odd, guttural names like Holmesburg, Rhawnhurst and Bustleton, as if a German social club had won a contest to name each block. The neighborhoods were like mini Balkans, each with its own identity, each sort of cut off from the others. It wasn’t like South Philly, which you could almost picture as a person, the sinewy guy in the wife-beater and gold chains, his mother in her floral housecoat sweeping the front stoop. Or even West Philly, which was, well, where the blacks lived. The Northeast didn’t have the claim to history of a Germantown or Chestnut Hill, or even Manayunk, for that matter. It was simply The Northeast, a sprawling, shapeless marshmallow where life was, every day, extraordinarily ordinary. There was no Le Bec-Fin of the Northeast, no Nan Duskin of the Northeast, no Walnut Street Theatre of the Northeast. The Northeast was where “going out to play” meant raking the leaves into a big crunchy heap before jumping in them, or climbing the smelly pile of old tires in back of the Sunoco. Where your July 4th was spent lugging a lawn chair to Lawncrest for the fireworks, and where fall Saturdays meant a bunch of 10-year-old girls screaming “Fire up! And up! And up and up and up!,” waving their pom-poms for the gangly, bumbling boys of the Northeast Optimist football team, whose heads were barely big enough to keep their helmets upright. Where you could imagine a much larger life for yourself, even if it never occurred to you, in fact, that it was your neighborhood that allowed you to go on and seek it.