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.
More than a third of the city’s kids don’t graduate from high school — and that percentage gets even worse in neighborhoods like this one. Sixty percent of the city’s children are born out of wedlock. A third grow up in poverty. Philadelphia, recent stats say, is America’s poorest big city.
Which hurts all of us. Consider the problems just on a practical level: It’s tough to attract new business to the city when so much of it is dangerous, when we lack an educated workforce. We lose out on tax revenue. We end up spending more — billions more — on prisons and services trying to resurrect our poorest people than we would in tackling some of their problems head-on.
But something else came through in every story I heard, a prominent cause of all that failure in our inner city. It’s a problem that makes the lives of children, especially, so much more difficult: Inner-city families are often a mess of neglect and bad behavior and worse. It’s one of the reasons people like me start pretending certain parts of the city don’t even exist.
“POPPA WAS A ROLLING STONE.”
Tanisha laughs as she says that — not that she thinks it’s so funny, really, but it’s the truth. She says it several times. “Poppa was a rolling stone.” She giggles. Her father has had 10 children with five different women.
Tanisha didn’t fall far from the tree. She says her problem was “fornication.” She got pregnant at 17. She had one son, Evans, with a drug dealer, and another with, well, she wasn’t sure, at first. But now she’s convinced her second son’s father is a Jamaican drug dealer who was deported. He doesn’t know he has a son.
But Tanisha, 31 now, straightened her life out via a renewed faith in God. She quit sex cold turkey for a year and a half. With her husband Anthony, who drives an armored truck, she rents a rowhome in West Philly and home-schools the two boys. Meanwhile, Evans’s father is still a drug dealer, and Evans spends time with him for the obvious reason: He’s his father. Tanisha hopes she can steer Evans clear of that world. The odds are not in their favor.
Charise, the Swarthmore sophomore, overcame those odds. She’s a slightly husky 19-year-old with spritzes of braided hair and an immediate gap-toothed laugh. Her father was in prison much of her childhood. He had drug problems and never helped support her. Her mother would beat her over homework; a teacher once asked about the marks on her neck — her mother had thrown a book at her. But doing her homework kept her mother off her back, and Charise discovered she was good at school. Her mother worked on and off; she had two more children with another man, and spent a lot of time holed up in the bathroom smoking pot. Charise won an award as the top student in her middle school, and got into Bodine, a magnet high school in Northern Liberties. During her junior year, her father reappeared; she began to get close to him, then he disappeared again. Charise got depressed and thought about killing herself. Bodine helped her get counseling, and she kept working hard. Her father reappeared a year later and didn’t tell her where he’d gone or why. Charise graduated from Bodine as salutatorian. Her father is back in prison. She’s not sure where, though he writes her letters. Charise doesn’t answer them.
There are other family stories I hear that are much like Charise’s and Tanisha’s, stories with an absent father, or a wayward, drug-pushing boyfriend, or promiscuous girls, at the center of them.
Two things are immediately obvious about the impoverished inner city. One: The lives are so hard, with so many problems, that the children, particularly, need all the help we can give them. Two: The way a lot of the people who have these children raise them makes the problems nearly impossible to solve no matter what we might do.
Unless, that is, a child makes a miraculous leap like Charise’s, though even she isn’t sure where her rock-solid will to learn came from. “I knew I wanted to get out,” she says — out of her home, out of the neighborhood, out into a different world.
I reach back to something else: The problems haven’t changed in half a century.
In 1968, this magazine published the article “Pray for Barbara’s Baby.” Barbara was a 16-year-old black girl living in North Philadelphia. She was befriended by a number of white, middle-class women who were hoping to push her into education and out of her neighborhood. Instead, Barbara got pregnant.
A visit to Barbara’s street — Folsom — suggested why. By 1968, Folsom was:
… a narrow strip of broken paving along which dilapidated houses alternate with burned-out shells and littered vacant lots like teeth in a mouth that got to the dentist 20 years too late. The first thing you notice about Folsom Street is the children. The street seethes with children. … The adults are invisible; perhaps they are inside begetting more.
Failed solutions, not to mention hundreds of billions of dollars, date back just as far, to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Then, at least there was hope, however misguided. Now, the battle lines over just what’s at the root of our city’s poverty and attendant ills seem to be more harshly drawn.
Pediatrician Don Schwarz is Mayor Nutter’s head public-health guy — he implements programs to help at-risk children and families get permanent housing and receive regular checkups and immunizations. Schwarz’s view of our responsibility to relieve inner-city hardship was forged by an intervention program he worked on in 1989, when he visited 1,300 families in West Philly to educate mothers on nurturing their babies. “I sat in a lot of homes, at their dining room table,” Schwarz says. “If they had one.” They told him what was holding them back: a lack of money, a lack of education, a lack of welcome into places in the city where there were jobs. A lack of a car. He learned that many people believed no matter how hard they tried, they could never change their lives. “That changed the way I judged,” Schwarz says.
But a different view of the problem has increasingly ardent backers. A couple of years ago, when she was district attorney, Lynne Abraham said this to me about our inner-city culture of babies born to girls not ready to have them:
“What do you want us to do about your kid that you conceived when you were drunk or high, and you don’t care about your kid, don’t even know who the partner was, and never go to a doctor? You drink, you abuse yourself, you bring this kid into this world, and he’s just a little thing to play with for a couple days, and then you lose interest. You give him to your best friend or oldest kid to take care of. What do you want us to do about that?”
Don Schwarz believes we have a responsibility — as a city, a culture, a country — to help people in desperate straits who see no way out. Lynne Abraham believes it’s high time African-Americans in the inner city got their act together.
I believe they’re both right. The problem is, neither path seems very likely.
THERE IS A POSSIBLE SOLUTION, though it happens to be in New York at the moment. Geoffrey Canada is a longtime educator who conceived the Harlem Children’s Zone a decade ago to take on what’s wrong with kids’ lives comprehensively. Now stretching 97 blocks, the zone includes a charter school, a Baby College offering prenatal care and child-rearing classes, pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds, and after-school instruction. The idea was to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood couldn’t slip through. The results have been impressive — the Zone wiped out the achievement gap in math between its black students and New York’s average for white students, for example — though the expense is enormous. Something on the order of $20,000 per student, per year. Canada spends a great deal of his time tapping deep-pocket donations.
The idea, though, of getting to children earlier, partnering with the parents, and sticking with children despite the parents, if necessary, is now “the gold standard,” says John Kromer, a Fels Institute consultant at Penn and author of Fixing Broken Cities.
It’s a method that would allay a key Don Schwarz frustration: “We don’t have our hands on children until they enter school.” And by kindergarten, a lot of kids in the inner city are already in deep trouble in terms of development, nutrition and basic medical care.
There are pockets of help here, isolated victories like Canada’s Harlem Zone in microcosm. Sister Mary Scullion of Project H.O.M.E. has made a four-block-plus area around Berks Street in North Philly an oasis of counseling and training. Herb Lusk, the former Eagle, is pastor at Greater Exodus Baptist Church on North Broad Street; the church has mushroomed to include a charter school, job-training services and a prenatal center.
But these are tiny islands of success. Even Lusk, a paragon of optimism, shakes his head over twin problems: “Time and the times,” he laments. He needs more time for job-training with folks who, often, can barely read — more time than the government will now pay for before they’re shooed back out on the street. And the times, well, we all know about that: the economy. Where are inner-city black people with no work history and slim skills going to find jobs?
While the city’s public schools — with half the students below grade level in reading and math, with truancy and violence unabated — remain a disaster, a few noble experiments have bubbled up: The KIPP charter school on North Broad, and Penn Alexander, the K-to-eighth-grade school ex-Penn president Judy Rodin bequeathed to West Philly, and seven charter schools run independently by Mastery have all made impressive strides in student achievement through strict behavior and dress requirements, long hours that include Saturday and summer classes, and rigorous homework.
What those schools also share in common is dedicated parents who are seeing that their kids meet those demands. Though the sad truth is, they — the dedicated parents — seem like a tiny island of success as well. Which begs a question: Where is the leadership in the black community demanding that parents do better, in educating their children and otherwise?
In mid-September, Barack Obama came sweeping into Masterman, the city’s high-end magnet school at 17th and Spring Garden, to kick off the school year. “Your life is what you make of it,” he told the kids. “And nothing — absolutely nothing — is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education.”
Sure. Wonderful, inspiring — but he was preaching to the already converted. Where’s the challenge to the parents and kids who really need it?
Well, when Obama tried that — saying in a Father’s Day speech while he was running for president that blacks need to take more responsibility for their families and education — Jesse Jackson responded with, “I want to cut his nuts off. Barack — he’s talking down to black people.” Jackson was caught muttering that sentiment into a microphone he assumed wasn’t live.
“That’s what happens, when you speak out,” says Juan Williams, an African-American author and Fox News commentator who has done exactly that and been labeled an Uncle Tom for his trouble. (Williams was recently fired from NPR for saying on The O’Reilly Factor that seeing passengers on planes in Muslim garb makes him nervous.) “There is a lockstep mentality that amounts to censorship when black leaders begin to address central issues.
“I think if Dr. King were alive, he would, more and more, need to speak to poor black people about being our own worst enemy. I think it takes someone who is really fearless to speak the truth to people. The enemy isn’t them — some white guy in City Hall, or a corporation. The enemy is us.”
It’s not hard to find a different opinion among black activists.
“When you look at poverty in America, the solution is very simple,” Philly lawyer Michael Coard argues. “I say to America, stop being so fucking selfish! We’ve gotta stop saying, I did for myself, and you do for yourself. America is wealthy! We need education for those in need. Job training. We need a modern WPA!”
Coard, the most genial outraged activist imaginable, points out that our selfishness isn’t even in our best interest. “We spend more money jailing poor people — I call it a modern debtors’ prison — than we would helping them.”
Yet Coard, too, is frustrated that black leaders don’t speak out more: Bill Cosby was right to demand an up-by-the-bootstraps mentality within the black community, yet so were Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in denouncing him, he says. Because blacks have to keep self-criticism on the QT, to avoid giving Limbaugh and Beck and other conservative loudmouths ammunition.
So goes the debate, all over the map. Who’s talking about the children?
THAT EARLY EVENING in September, when I reach the street deep in West Philly where Charise, the sophomore at Swarthmore, lives, I walk up her block kicking through bottles and discarded paper like they’re autumn leaves. A few doors from Charise’s house, a guy maybe 30, heavy-lidded, nodding, half conscious, sits with a woman who murmurs to him in a voice cut deep with cigarettes or booze or both. Across the street, a house is boarded up.
It’s like a deadly and horrendous game of chicken that all of us are playing. One side is pitted against the other. Do we — outsiders, the middle class, white people — take on the challenge of our inner cities, especially the plight of children there? Or is it their problem, removed from our consciousness by half a century of abuse and neglect and outright betrayal of their own children?
These are horrible questions, though not because they risk insensitivity or worse. They’re horrible because we know who loses.
And as the problems roll on, as we’re now almost three generations into inner-city families falling apart, pediatrician Don Schwarz’s observation only becomes a deeper historical truth: More and more of our poor people can’t even conceive of better lives.
So we find ourselves perpetually starting over, trying to come up with solutions. It seems clear to me that two things have to happen. Black leaders, both here and nationally, need to push poor parents to take more responsibility for their own betterment. At the same time, if children growing up in horrible circumstances simply deserve better — anybody going to argue with that? — the rest of us have a challenge, too. It’s not so much in picking a new social program to try or in anointing a school czar or in anything specific — it’s more a shift in mind-set: We need to believe the inner city is our problem, too. We can no longer turn away.
Most likely, one of those kids playing touch football that evening on Charise’s street is her half-brother. His father doesn’t live with Charise’s mother anymore. One evening a few months ago, a kid on the street was talking trash about Charise’s mom. Her brother went inside, got a steak knife, and went back outside. Charise’s half-sister stopped him from stabbing the other kid. Charise’s brother is eight years old.
Charise worries that her brother’s -punishment — grounded for a month that morphed into two weeks — was hardly sufficient. And her sister — who’s 10 — is getting interested in fashion. She likes high heels. Charise worries that her mother won’t pay attention to her sister roaming outside, either, and then one day she won’t be outside, but somewhere inside, getting herself in trouble in another tried-and-true way.
At Race, the top of Charise’s block, I turn: A half-moon has risen. There are three trees. The kids yell in their game of football. They are an island, the children.