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

During all of it, I never stopped, not for a second, to think about what it would feel like when I came back and my “old neighborhood” wasn’t my old neighborhood anymore. The Northeast I grew up in was safe and predictable and almost breathless in its banality, a hermetically sealed snow globe of mediocrity and civic sameness. There was never any scandal or notoriety or crime or excitement. It was just a place where on a hot summer night you’d find Norman Vodvarka sitting on his stoop listening to the Phillies on his black transistor radio, and a few doors up from him, Nick Salvatore, cigarette dangling from his lips, watering his lawn, and a few doors up from him, The Aunts, sitting on the cement patio in folding lawn chairs, a blue-collar version of Meredith Willson’s pick-a-little ladies, blathering on about lunch meat sales at the Acme and Great-Aunt Winnie’s bursitis.
Nobody sits outside on St. Vincent Street anymore.
And that, I think, is what I feel bad about, regretful about. Guilty about. That I didn’t appreciate the Northeast when I had it, that I talked down to it and about it, that I didn’t see, couldn’t see, what it did for me, what it provided. What it meant. That its tabula rasa allowed me the space to dream myself to something bigger. I never once, in all the years I lived there, worried about something bad happening. Now I am filled with a real and genuine sense of sorrow, because something very bad has happened to it. Somewhere along the way, the snow globe got cracked.
So my guilt comes crashing down on me every time I drive in. The guilt about what’s happening to my neighborhood, and the guilt that I’m not doing right by my parents, not forcing them to leave, not keeping them as safe now as they kept me. And perhaps most of all, the guilt that although I’m a white liberal who has lived in integrated neighborhoods a good part of his adult life, who has friends who, grouped together, could fake a U.N. Security Council meeting, who absolutely believes in the value of diversity, there will come another day when another black man will walk into my mother’s kitchen, and this time she won’t be able to talk him out.