Suburban Journal: Say Goodbye to Collom Street

Three years ago, Newtown Square’s Jackie O’Connor met Nicole Austin-Hall, a mother of six from Germantown. It would end up changing both their lives

COLLOM STREET IS ONLY a 40-minute drive from Newtown Square. But as Jackie O’Connor pulled onto the Germantown block, the neighborhood seemed foreign, a place she never would have found without MapQuest. The street was lined with rowhomes, some of them abandoned, their faces crumbling. As she parked her Toyota Sequoia in front of 48 East Collom, the baseball cap and casual clothes incapable of hiding her white skin and the diamond on her left hand, people watched from their front stoops, their black faces holding the same question: Why are you here?

Jackie looked over at her 15-year-old son, Grayson, and for the first time felt nervous.

GET HER NUMBER.

Jackie stared at the back of Nicole Austin-Hall’s head, the din of the conference swirling around her, three words whispering across her mind. A consultant for Weekly Reader, Jackie was working a booth at an anti-violence conference in University City on November 5, 2005, running focus groups for a new classroom magazine. “Surely these can’t be all yours?” she’d asked the young black woman with the kind, bright face who’d walked up to her booth, nine children surrounding her.

In the time it took the kids to fill out raffle cards, Jackie learned that only six belonged to the woman. The other three she had taken in, was looking after for her sister-in-law. As they turned to leave, Jackie felt a strange impulse to call to her.

Get her number. Three little words.

“I think I’d like to stay in touch with you,” Jackie said, almost before she realized she’d spoken. “I think there might be some way I can help you.”

Nicole stared at her, hesitant for only a second. And then she rattled off her 10-digit number, almost certain this would be the last time she ever saw the pretty woman with a sweep of dark hair.

THE LINE RANG BUSY. Jackie tried off and on for weeks, but each time, her ear filled with the same grating tone. Months passed. A year. The young woman Jackie couldn’t forget seemed lost. And then, in December of 2006, Jackie called one more time.

Nicole picked up, and Jackie learned that since the conference, she’d given birth to a boy, Ian-Micah, carrying her total number of children to seven — all under the age of 12. Nicole, then 30 years old, was married, but her husband worked long hours as a parking attendant in Center City, and he was absent from the house often. Almost every night at 1 a.m., Nicole would bundle up her new baby and two- year-old Zachary and drive to Wayne Junction in Germantown to pick him up. Nicole, who’d been at the conference as a working volunteer for AmeriCorps’ ­EducationWorks, only earned $334 every two weeks, after taxes.

“I just kept thinking to myself: ‘How are they surviving?’” says Jackie. As the women talked, Jackie gently began to ask questions. So where do the kids sleep? What kind of diapers do they wear? Do you have a TV? She learned that the family was on food stamps, that Zachary had a feeding tube, and that each night Nicole would attach a bag of nutrients to his belly before tucking him against her body, holding him close as she prayed for his frail limbs to grow. She learned four of the children had chronic asthma and that the four-year-old twins, Jeremiah and Elijah, had epilepsy. The family was at CHOP so often that the doctors knew them by name — visits so frequent and draining that this mother of seven was forced to drop out of culinary classes. Jackie also learned that Nicole had a deep-rooted faith in God and, despite her troubles, cooked dinner for all of her family and friends once a month, packing her already-cramped house to the brim.

Finally, after speaking with Nicole a few times over the phone, Jackie asked: “Would it be okay if I came to visit you?”

Nicole agreed, then added: “Don’t be scared by the neighborhood. I feed everybody, so you won’t get shot.”

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  • Beth

    Philadelphia Magazine seems to be suffering from schizophrenia. On one page, you decry racial stereotyping (Ku Klux Cabs) while on another, you perpetuate it, writing about Germantown as a poverty-stricken, all-African American neighborhood where outsiders are sure to be shot ("Say Goodbye to Collom Street). Ms. Austin-Hall no doubt lived in deplorable conditions and absolutely deserved the help that Ms. O'Connor selflessly offered, but leaving the city was not the only way for her improve her condition as the article suggested. Philadelphia Magazine needs to get its head out of the suburbs and accurately report about the diverse neighborhoods of the city it borrows its name from.

  • virginia

    Jenna Bergen has captured this story beautifully! The humble spirit of Jackie's efforts and the gratefullness of Nicole's new blessings will change those kids'lives for ever! One has to wonder how they would have survived in their old neighborhood…They should never look back & should strongly grasp this opportunity and never let go!

  • Karmella

    This article is so racially driven it's insane. The young lady Nicole spoken of here is my cousin. There is no doubt that Nikki's situatiion was not great and yes she did need help. However, there are plenty of black people in the hood who are making it. Would this article even have been written if she started out living in "white surburbia" with the same issues. This is a load of BS the white comes and saves the black again. Well the last time I check there are plenty of wealthy black people. So where does Jenna Bergen get off wrting something as outrageous as this. Does she think all black people are incapable of living without being on welfare or in poverty. This articlae not only shows how much racism still exists it shows how it is accepted. as long as the black is down and the white is up evrything is ok right??????

  • Carlienne

    Where do I even begin? After reading this article I asked myself several questions like what is this article about? Is it about Nicole or is it about Jackie? What exactly is the point of this article? Did you want to inform the readers about a woman who had been blessed out of a bad situation, or did you want to demean a woman who already had it rough? Or maybe the point of the article is to prove that the Main Line area is so rich and the Germantown area is just so poor. Whatever your point was it was badly presented and very offensive. I think it was really nice that Jackie took the initiative to be a help to someone because a lot of people just talk about societal issues and never make a stand. (if that was your true motive) I guess we will never know the truth with confessions like "I had to put over $500 in her tank today,I have to move them here but I have no idea how and I really wanted to help this family have a chance." Jenna are you sure you did not want to name this article

  • carlienne

    continued…
    Saint Jackie the Mainline miracle worker.

  • Marsha

    When I heard that the Sept. 2008 issue of Philadelphia Magazine would carry an article about a young woman that I know, I could hardly wait to purchase my copy. Reading Ms Benner's article made me wonder if this was possibly the draft for a Lifetime Network Original Movie. Ms Benner writes a the style the reminds me of the "true confession" magazines with that romantic flare; making the real life efforts of a family struggling to make ends meet in today's economy. The article is full of stereotypical, racist and elitist references. For instance, Ms Benner speaks of Mrs. Hall receiving Food Stamps. Are we to assume that no one in Wayne, Pa has an EBT card or are the farmers in Delaware County the only one's getting government subsidies? Ms Benner made reference to Mrs. Hall's religious convictions. Was she making light of the fact Mrs. Hall like many other mothers, black, white, rich, poor, married and single pray for the safety of their children and the other youngsters in the neig

  • Marsha

    borhood. Mrs. O'Connor made a statement that she hoped the Nichole would pay this forward. Well Mrs. Hall has been paying her charitable efforts forward for years. She has opened her heart and her home to friends, relatives and strangers; offering them safety, the Word of God and a good meals. Even now, many of her fellow students from Eastern find friendship and mentoring in her home in Wayne. How sad that Ms Benner missed the opportunity to show the real story of two women who both want the best for their families can work together to improve the lives of others. It not all about money; it is about genuine compassion.

  • Carlienne

    I have read this article and I am so disappointed in Philadelphia Magazine. I have known Nicole Hall for many years and after reading this article I find that it has not captured the real Nicole. Some people may be moved by the events of this story but I think it is just the media being the media. The purpose is to paint a specific picture for people to see. There has been a racist and stereotypical picture painted here. I hope that the views of Jenna Brenner are not the views of Philadelphia Magazine because the undertones are vicious. Jenna Brenner I hope your goal in writing this was for controversy because you missed the mark in compassion.

  • William

    After reading this article in this month's Philly magazine, I felt inspired by the lengths one woman would go to help out a total stranger. Its stories like these that still give me hope about the human spirit. I hope this article inspires others to go out and help in anyway they can to those less fortunate, regardless of race. As for those commenters complaining about the 'stereotyping,' I think your oversensitivity blinds you from seeing the beauty in the writing and the story told.

  • Julia

    I just don't get why so many people are so offended by this article. Shouldn't we help any of our neighbors in need, no matter what their race? This story is NOT about race and we shouldn't be reading into it like that. I would hope that if I were having a tough time of it with my kids, someone would be willing to help me, just as I would gladly help anyone that I met in the same situtation. It should simply be about a human being helping out a fellow human being.

  • Mark

    I have read this article and all comments. Quite frankly, anyone can read anything they want into this article because we are all different with different perspectives. The bottom line is that the article is about two giving people who have given what they have to make the lives of others better (regardless of their ethnic background, journalistic approach or other). This article is about two "selfless" women who are both well deserving; Nicole (and her children) in receiving a better "opportunity" at a better life and Jackie in receiving the recognition of a job well done. I think if everyone followed their examples, our world would be a much better place.

  • Cherie

    First and for most I know this young lady in this article. I attended one of her family functions and Truly when I was in her residence it was not taj mahal but it was not nearly how it was described in this story. If so I personally would have never stepped foot in that house let alone eaten there. I am appalled by this article casue the first thing that struck me wrong is what the hell is BLACK PPL FOOD.. I did not know that food had a color! Some ppl just seek help so bad. when they dont know when there are a charity case. I am so pissed at this article that I refuse to continue to comment.. Oh one thing for certain us in the "HOOD" Have goals and dreams also that we work hard for and struggle to accomplish. Its so sad when african american women don try hard enough.

  • Anne

    This is the woman from North Wayne. If these are her kids and she is on the up and up, why does anyone only see her and kids M-F afternoons after school? Where does she really live? Is she running a cash daycare? Why sell chicken dinners on street? Are her kids in Radnor Schools? What is the Germantown Can there all the time? Take a 2nd look

  • Jennifer

    I think this is a wonderful story and these two women are special. It touched my heart. And to read how jealous all of these readers are is ashame. So Nicole – hang in there and be strong! There is a special place in heaven for Nicole and Jackie.

  • nikki

    This article doesn't give the actual story justice. It's not supposed to separate blacks and whites saying one race is better than the other. It's supposed to show how people can truly help each other. Have you ever heard of "Pay it Forward"? If one person does something to help another person, it will hopefully inspire that other person to do something nice for someone else. And that's how love and peace spreads throughout everywhere, and if you can't see that, then you need to take a step back and reread this article. It shows that no matter how much violence there is right now, there is still hope for harmony in this world. So do something nice for someone and watch how they will be motivated to do something nice for someone else. It's probably one of the best feelings ever.

  • Jackson

    This article was done on a friend of mine, and the person who is helping her is very controlling. She talks to Nicole any kind of way, she and a few of her friends send her emails talking about how incompetent she is as a mother and woman of faith. Someone really needs to make it clear for society that when God tells you to help, make sure you help for the right reasons. Not because you want to be known on the MAIN LINE. This woman insults Mrs.Nikki on a regular and it is rude and disrespectful. Why do people who”have money” talk to others any kind of way. How Godly is That!!!!