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

THERE WERE TWO kinds of kids who grew up in the Northeast in the ’60s and ’70s. There were the ones like me, the wanderers on Big Wheels. But the bigger chunk were like my brothers, the kids who went to Temple or La Salle or Drexel, got married, then bought their first houses … in the Northeast. Because that’s how your life was laid out. What was expected. My brothers wed in quick succession in the ’80s, and each of them fell right in line: Pat bought in Fox Chase, Tom in Mayfair (Grandmom Callahan’s place), Jack in Somerton. This endemic, stifling parochialism is part of the fabric of a lot of neighborhoods in the city. It kept the Northeast stable, until those kids — a better-educated, more consumerist and, let’s face it, more self-centered bunch than their parents — decided the Northeast sucked. They resented paying higher property taxes than other sections of the city, resented that the schools weren’t good. They began to covet new, shiny, clean, air-conditioned shopping malls, decent restaurants, stadium seating. And the wage tax — that was a whole other story. I can’t count the number of times we sat in Mom and Dad’s living room watching an Eagles game, and Tom, Jack and Pat would be going on — and on, and on — about how much it cost to live in the city. How you paid and paid and got nothing back, because no one in City Hall gave a shit about the Northeast. This brewing, stewing dining-room-table resentment led to the Northeast’s big splash in the city news cycle, in the form of a fledgling secessionist movement in 1985, the Northeast cast as Taiwan, wiggling out from under the iron thumb of the oppressive regime at Broad and Market.
The Northeast didn’t secede, of course. But the fuse, as they say, had been lit. Eventually my brothers pulled up stakes for the ’burbs, taking their taxable income with them. The people who moved in after them weren’t descendants of Western Europe like us, but a messy mix of cultures, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Russians and African-Americans, fleeing the scar tissue of North Philly, just as my parents had 40 years earlier. Which all sounds very Sesame Street, except for the fact that Sesame Street isn’t real. (Though Tudor Brennan, who lived next to Grandmom, did boast a certain Big Bird quality.) The unpretty truth is that when it comes to a working-class neighborhood like the one I was raised in, the melting pot melts faster when everybody looks alike, even if they’re from Italy, Ireland and Poland. When everybody looks different, the result does, too. Instead of seeing what everybody has in common, all anybody sees is the differences.
Other things intervened as well — the collapse of city manufacturing meant no common ground where people could meet, bond, say, “Hey, let’s grab a beer after our shift,” or “We’re having a picnic in Burholme Park this weekend, come.” Technology, too. No one sits outside anymore because everyone’s inside, firing up the DVR or, heaven help us, yakking for hours on a cell phone.