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

“Where did you go?” she asks. “I heard the car pull up 15 minutes ago.”
 
“Took a little walk,” I say. I stoop down to hug her, inhale her scent, a mix of cold cream, Jean Naté and fabric softener. She is, will always be, the best hugger I have ever known, soft and warm and round.
 
From the clippings, our itinerary would appear to consist of a mad dash to every rug retailer in the Northeast. I look at her, bring up the question I always bring up, after she and Dad have decided to repave the front steps or plant a new tree: “Are you sure you should be putting this kind of money into the house?”
 
She plays along. She always does. “Why not?”
 
“Because you might not be here that much longer.”
 
And away we go. The stiffening of the back, the schoolmarmish peering over the tops of the glasses. “And where am I going?”
 
I recite the familiar litany, explain, as I have before and will again, that she is 77 and shouldn’t be living in a house with narrow stairs and a washing machine in the basement. It’s hard, I say, I know it’s hard. But she and Dad need to move to a condo. Need to be somewhere between Pat and Jean in Southampton and Tom and Shirley in Huntingdon Valley.
 
In one ear, as they say. Fifteen minutes later, we’re in my Bug convertible, in search of the rugs. We’re stopped at a light on Harbison Avenue when a beat-up Camaro pulls up to the left, packed with four young men. One white, two black, one Latino. A Benetton ad of insolence. Ice Cube blares from the speakers: “I keep it gangsta and why should I change that … Fuck you old motherfuckers tryin’ to change rap.
 
Oh, the new neighbors, the new face of the Northeast. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty one. And not because of the complexions. Old City, Mount Airy, Fairmount — all of them are pricey neighborhoods stuffed to the gills with people who come in all kinds of hues. And not because of some weird snobbery, either. When we moved in back in the ’60s, our family was as struggling and blue-collar as any of those coming here now. (“Shanty Irish,” Mom’s cousin Re-Re once joked.) Neighborhood “shifts” always end up devolving into debates about race and class, when really they’re about neither. The woman who bought Aunt Gerri’s house next door to my parents, for example, is an African-American nurse who could not be lovelier. The debate really needs to be about civility, about some sense of community pride, about caring about not only where you live, but the people who live there with you.

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