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.”
“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.