Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem

This is the problem we never talk about

When I travel and tell people where I’m from, they often want to know what Philadelphia is like — they’ve heard things. I tell them it’s a good place to live. I talk about a revitalized downtown, and restaurants, and a gritty realness. The neighborhoods are cool. But there are certain places I don’t mention:
North Philly. West Philly. Southwest Philly.

I’ve walled off parts of those areas from my thinking, certainly from my life. I don’t go there; middle-class and white, I more or less imagine the city as if those places don’t exist. Which is absurd — because those neighborhoods, impoverished and dangerous, are certainly there. They are part of my city.

So I started taking walks into largely black neighborhoods, up into the Badlands of North Philly, and west out Race Street to Cobbs Creek Park. Germantown Avenue into Nicetown. And I started talking to people who live there.

Charise, for one. She just turned 20, and she’s in her second year at Swarthmore. Early on a warm September evening, I walk through the world where Charise (not her real name) grew up, starting at 65th and Race.

There’s trash all over. Some blocks between Race and Vine are lined with rowhomes but not one tree — there’s no escape or cover, except for front porches, where people sit and stare.

At 62nd and Race, I chat for a moment with a friendly 30-ish woman, her top sweeping dramatically off of one shoulder. She says she’s “just trying to make some money.” 

How?

“Whatever comes up,” she suggests cheerfully.

A block later, I stop two cops patrolling on bikes. Shootings and drugs and prostitutes, they inform me, are the norm here. One cop reaches into his pocket and hands me 19 packets of crack, each about one-third the size of a sugar cube, wrapped in clear plastic, worth five bucks a pop; he just took them off a guy a couple blocks farther east.

As I walk in fading light, I hear several arguments through open windows. They all involve a woman screaming something like: You sneakin’ around, you sneaky fucking ass. You’re a fucking liar. You fucking asshole.

I come to Charise’s block as dusk settles.

There’s a cop parked on Arch, at the bottom of her street. Officer K.I. Carter is stationed there, she tells me as she snacks on Ritz crackers, “so that the little people can play, with no fear” — until, at least, the drug dealers get rolling. Half a dozen kids scramble for a football in the middle of the block.

How, I wonder, can anybody emerge from this to end up at Swarthmore?

I’ve talked at length to several other inner-city folks from tough neighborhoods who have turned their lives around, and all of them have done it with a leap of faith, or will, or unbelievably hard work, or maybe all of that. They are not the norm. The numbers make that clear.

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  • Jack

    To often do large metropolitan areas throw most of their resources towards convincing the world they are an attractive place to live and work. In the meantime, there are so many living harsh lives wit

  • Rita

    You seem to feel you are qualified to state what Black leaders should be doing, and then add a “maybe it’s our problem” simply as a rhetorical strength to your writing. You’re right. Our children are everyone’s problem, but instead of pointing your finger at what Black leaders should do, how about owning what whites have done to make our inner cities what they are? once you own what whites have done, and continue to do, then you may be honest about the work that YOU can do, to help this process unfold, like get involved in a Whites working against racism group (WIARS, UHURU) or starting your own. Then, you can make alliances with those Black leaders and find out what they are already doing, but that mainstream media doesn’t acknowledge, except in passing (as you yourself do) If you sit and analyze your own privilege, you may discover that going for a walk and collecting a couple of stories in a poor neighborhood does not make you and expert compared to Blacks or whites who live in that neighborhood everyday. You may decide to write an article, where you ask Black leaders what they think about the inner…

  • Rita

    city, interview people from the organizations that are making a difference, or make alliances with them. You may choose to share some of the power that you are writing from.
    You pointed your finger at Black leaders. As a white antiracist activist, I point my finger at you. What will YOU do about it?

  • Donna

    I think part of the problem is articles like this one, titled Philadelphia’s Poverty Problem and somehow only mentions the predominately African American neighborhoods as the problem, this is a largely populated African American city and I’m not naïve to the fact that there are statistics that points fingers at “us” so to speak. But “we” don’t own the rights to single parenthood, promiscuity, drug addiction, crime etc. But when “we” get into our minds that these are our issues, this is what we do because we are black, than the cycle continues on and yes only a few will go against the grain. So it is very important to paint the entire picture, if this was an article about issues specific to AA neighborhoods I could understand that but Philly’s poverty problem, that needs to expand a bit further I’m much more concerned when visiting my bro in his Northeast neighborhood due to his drug addicted neighbor who happens to be white than I am my own where these things exist but on no grander a scale than my white counterparts.

    Also, and because I only read Phila mag on occasion I don’t know if this has been done in…

  • Lando

    This has to be one of the most offensive things I have ever read, and the subtle language used by the author reveals both his own prejudice, feelings of himself as some sort of savior, and conceptual separation from those of us in the “inner city” As long as you continue these “poverty” field trips and point the finger from on high with this “us” vs. “them” mentality, nothing will change.

  • mike

    Two words could put an end to the problem: stop welfare. Decades of rewarding single females who have babies with free housing, free food, free medical care, etc. When you stop the gravy train, you

  • Niki

    Blaming Black people for poverty? That’s a hell of a stretch! Do you seriously think you can answer the poverty problem in Philly by walking around Black neighborhoods for a day? Maybe if Philly mag actually paid attention to minority neighborhoods they would discover the wonderful people living here instead of buying into the stereotype first and fitting an article into it later.

  • Joe

    Why should the author DO anything about it? Why should I? Besides shooting you degenerates when you break into out homes, we should have as little contact with each other as possible.

    We aren’t having 10 kids with 5 different dads. We aren’t eating crack, heroin, and pot on a daily basis. We don’t spend out time on the porches and corners guzzling 40′s….
    …..

    ….and the few of that do? Well…they don’t blame it on the blacks.

    Be accountable for your own actions, first, and maybe then whites will hold out an olive branch

  • walter

    Your article is very interesting. You make some valid points regarding poverty and cycles of poverty. Unfortunately, you paint a picture of these areas as places which solely contain individuals who are stuck in generational poverty and perdition but no one who has a history of generational honor, morality and goals. I am black and very familiar with the west Philadelphia areas you speak of. I know families from these areas who generation after generation have put out productive law abiding citizens. You see Mr. Huber, these neighborhoods are more than just the 2 dimensional morality free slums you paint them to be. But thanks for the sensational read. And I would implore you to take Rita’s advice.

  • Jay

    The author doesn’t go far enough. This intractable poverty isn’t white people’s fault and hasn’t been for a long time. It ain’t white people telling Black men to abandon their children. It ain’t white people telling them it’s cool to be in jail. It ain’t white people who say a man who gets a job, takes responsibility for himself, and takes care of his kids is a p*ssy and a f*gg*t. The Black community is like a barrel of crabs. Anytime a Black man tries to do something with his life he’s dragged back down by the others. I’m a C/O in the prison system and I see it all the time.

  • Jay

    The author doesn’t go far enough. This intractable poverty isn’t white people’s fault and hasn’t been for a long time. It ain’t white people telling Black men to abandon their children. It ain’t white people telling them it’s cool to be in jail. It ain’t white people who say a man who gets a job, takes responsibility for himself, and takes care of his kids is a p*ssy and a f*gg*t. The Black community is like a barrel of crabs. Anytime a Black man tries to do something with his life he’s dragged back down by the others. I’m a C/O in the prison system and I see it all the time.

  • Mooreae

    Has Anyone Visited Kensington To Find Out Why The White People There Are Poor? Stop Pretending Black People Are The Downfall Of An Already Corrupt City.