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

The Latino glances over, sneers. I look away, willing the light to change. Mom hides behind her sunglasses, saying nothing, though I know she can hear the lyrics because for Christ’s sake people buried in Holy Sepulchre can hear the lyrics. And it strikes me that this is now the soundtrack of her daily life, the loud, awful, abrasive noise she weaves in and out of every day, trying to preserve some sense of order.
And a certain heaviness, felt on my parents’ sidewalk not a half-hour ago, seeps back into my heart. It comes each time I now find myself in the “old neighborhood,” see what it has become, what it’s still becoming. Each time I visit, there’s a little more grime on the recreation center where I worked as a teenager, one more fence peeling and unrepaired, one more car stuffed with thugs blaring god-awful music the whole neighborhood has to endure. Tales of random shootings, in my youth confined to the “bad” neighborhoods of North and Southwest Philly, are now at the corner of Summerdale and the Boulevard, a slow, unctuous ooze of civil chaos creeping its way toward the house where I grew up.
Such is life in urban America. Neighborhoods rise, they fall, if you’re lucky some eventually come back. You deal. Which would seem a particularly easy task for me, someone who never felt connected to this place, who from the age of six seemed to always have his eye on the door and his foot on the gas, who grew into a restless young man eager to find fulfillment in more cosmopolitan, metropolitan locales. Yet it’s odd, this grip in my gut, this feeling that I, like my parents, can’t face the fact it’s time to move out, move on. I feel slightly bewildered, wondering why the one thing I couldn’t wait to go away from is now the one thing I can’t let go.
The light turns. The first carpet place, Mom says, should be four blocks up on the left.

NOBODY KNOWS MUCH about the Northeast, and fewer people than that understand it, including me. As part of the city’s identity, as a section to help define it, bring it texture and vibrancy and shape, the Northeast has always been the odd neighborhood out, the real estate equivalent of “and the rest of it.” It’s a huge swath of amorphous terrain that for the last half of the 20th century existed in a kind of suspended state of contented blandness, a big lumbering caboose of workaday white people tacked onto the train that was the city.
It can actually claim some snooty roots, given it was first settled by William Penn back in 1682. Through the better part of two centuries, the Northeast developed into a region of farms and industry — mills for flour, textiles, grain and calico; iron foundries; the famed Disston Saw Works in Tacony — with a few scattershot villages in between. It also snagged some wealthy folks who loved its wide-open spaces, and who built imposing mansions on its roomy, unspoiled tracts.

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  • Mrs.

    thank you for very appopriately making me cry on new years eve as i read that, while i sit here up IN the northeast after moving back here to help my own 76 year old mother, who also WILL NOT move offa street where she knows not a one of her neighbors anymore, they dont say hello or ask how she's doing at all whereas she used to spend every day with one of her fellow neighbor/best friend/housewives at her kitchen table, or at theirs, (now they have all passed away) and they were all Aunt somebody to me…its a street where i get in fights with the new neighbors from the new houses that take up the big lawns we played, (since whoever passed away, their house was sold by their children and 2 new houses were built in their place) we fight over them taking my late fathers parking space on christmas because no one all the years he and the working class guys like him would never do that, they had an unwritten loyalty about it. i sit here and realize why i wanted to leave so bad in my teen ye

  • Mrs.

    my very soul feels like its being suffocated by the lack of culture and openmindedness. but yes it was safe, and a nice place to grow up, made me dream big, yet now here i am sending my daugther to the same school where i went, all to have my mother have her golden years not alone. am i truly saving her? not if im sacrificing my own breath, or perhaps giving my daughter the same future destined with isolation and fear that the neighbors will gasp if she brings home a black or gay friend. yes the new neighbors may be alittle over my own age, but they still gasp. i dont know why. our section of the northeast hasnt gone down, its gotten snootier, and to me this is a decline all its own, one where racism and bigotry never died, yet helping the old lady next door (my mom) with her groceries or shoveling the snow off her driveway are unheard of. the new guy next door turned his garage into a weightlifting arena, once where my Uncle so and so used to work on whatever dads who came home from w

  • Mrs.

    whatever dads who came home from work would work on and hammer away at, now has mirrors and music, and a big hulk of a guy who literally leaves a straight line of snow where my mothers driveway stops and his begins. its a street where we were taught that to move to an apartment meant someones parents got divorced, so it was also normal for the kids to live at home til marriage, yet since i moved out when i was 18, and now come around, even these new younger neighbors talk, and say "she has no husband, how will she expect to send a child through school up here??!!", and think i cant hear them through their screen windows. luckily thats no longer the case, i am married, and iw as paying for school before that! but the fact that i even think that way is a result of the Great Northeast in all its finest "we're better than you" attitude. one neighbor was a music teacher at my daughter's preschool. we didnt say hello. nor do we when i see her at church. our daughters wave hello. i refuse to

  • Mrs.

    i refuse to be fake, ive spoken my mind to these people and they dont like it, or me, or my mother. to them her house is an eysore since she no longer decorates for Christmas since my dad's not around to hang the lights. im sure they're waiting for her to die so 2 new houses can be built with younger people to move in. where did they all come from?! who are these new people?! why are they so callous to my mother and so judgemental being from this generation?
    Oh the Northeast has changed my friend, but from my view, at the corner of Glenloch and Arrendell, its a neighborhood where if i got locked out, or my mother fell down some stairs and called for help, theres no one who would want to or has a spare key to help out. In fact, she wouldnt have anyone to call. The new man across the street who once told her to "check herself into and old age home already" for looking out her screen door every time he walked his dog across the lawn, would probably walk right over her. Remember when peop

  • Mrs.

    when people would look out their front door to see if everythings alright? Sure they are called busybodies, but when i was little, they always bought my girl scout cookies or invited me in for cookies of their own. My mother still makes trick or treat bags up every year for the kids who live on the block with all their names on it and insists on taking it to them if they dont come to the door. my daughter ends up with most of them at the end of the night now. Sure not EVERYONE on our street is bad, but its sure not the Northeast that i grew up on. We were orignal owners form 1963 when this was a dirt road. I'm 38 now and i beg my
    mother every day to move, not becasue shes in danger of someone walking into her kitchen, but of someone NOT. She spends her holidays lonely and heartbroken with no neighbors to talk to or hang out with. They were like family. I drag her out now when i can. Where has the respect for the elderly gone?!

  • Mrs.

    It doesnt live in this part of the Northeast. Its a different kind of decline.

  • Camille

    As a board member of the Tacony Civic, I head the Quality of Life, and we in Tacony take the issues effecting our communities seriously. We also are working on a REAL Marketing Campaign for the entire North East to educate people what we have to offer. NO where else in the city can you play golf, ride a horse, go fishing, sailing, boating, hiking. No where else can you have a yard and still walk to the doctors or the grocery store. FOLK, it's a glass half full story here, and we know that the macro economics of the city are against us, but we also KNOW if we united we will be able to OVERCOME and deliver a nice place to live and work, and if you every go on the Phillyblog you will see for years I have said it's not about RACE, but it is about Class. I can speak for alot of people in our GREAT Community, if you are living your life auditioning for the Jerry Springer Show then we generally have a problem with you.

  • Mike

    Hey Callahan,

    You are a self titled liberal, with a 'diverse' support base who has experience negotiating 'integrated' neighborhoods. You seem quite open minded as well, with a true thirst for knowledge.

    I was expecting a paragraph at the end with your moving plans. Are you moving back to the great NE?

  • mark

    After reading the article I was a little upset. Yes, the northeast is changing. Yes, it was better years ago (soon as 10 years ago). However, I think that the people that lived here years ago are responsible for it's appearance today. Children moving away to raise families is a normal thing for any area. Who replace them is the issue. If you truly care about where you grew up, then you should try to keep it that way for the next generation. Moving is one thing, moving and not caring what you left behind is another. I grew up here, went to school here (St. Tim's, Father Judge, Drexel) and have incredible memories of my childhood and neighborhood. I can't imagine a better place to grow up, than what I had. I Also think the reputation of our area is exaggerated. Again, it is changing, but where else is there a better stretch of area that is safe for your kids in Philadelphia. My street (3400 Shelmire) has 20 kids playing out front, parents who know and hangout together and look out f

  • Irene

    I am an almost lifelong NE Philly resident – OLC gradeschool, Mount St. Joseph Academy (NOT in the Northeast, and yes, most of the girls there, natives of Chestnut Hill and Montgco, would not even speak to me), and Temple U Class of '85, BA Journalism. In fact, I think we may have taken a journalism class together at some point.

    I grew up thinking of Northeast Philly much as I thought of my parents — boring, ultra conservative, plastic and polyester and kitsch — now I am a Mom myself and I look back and see what a nightmare I must have been for my parents, like a female Stewie from Family Guy, sitting in my room paging through Vogue magazine and feeling so superior to everyone who loved the Philadelphia Iggles and ate fried kielbasa on Sunday mornings ("My God, woman! Are you trying to drown me in cholesterol — and after you just received Communion, what a scandal!"-typical comment I might make). I spent quite a few years wandering, my favorite time being the 3 years I lived in

  • Irene

    Greenwich Village, NYC. However, with maturity, I see there is good and there is bad in most things we create, including our neighborhoods. I am living in the NE again (Mayfair), and my parents are still alive, and I am so grateful that I get to still see some of the people and places of my childhood remain. Hey, I can walk to the corner WaWa alone at 11 PM on a hot summer night — how many neighborhoods can boast of that anymore?

  • John

    As a kid in the early 80's, my friends and I could walk wherever we wanted without a concern. Friday or Saturday nights at the Roosevelt Mall, stickball or wireball under the streetlights, or just plain walking from friend's house to friend's house. Now, my kids in the same neighborhood have to worry about getting 'jumped' for the sneakers they have on their feet. Even stories from friends about getting jumped simply because they were walking alone. This is the new Mayfair or Rhawnhurst. Listen, Mayfair got so bad the real estate marketers seperated it into east and west mayfair. Now there is a wrong side of the tracks ? I do happen to live on a great block. All my neighbors have been here for atleast a decade, some for 3 or 4 decades, or atleast grew up here. The old school values of pride still exist, however block by block it is eroding. We still sit out on the patio with a slew of neighbors most nights in the summer, but our conversations are often interupted with the sirens of the

  • Tom

    Juniata 20 years was a perfect example of what America should be. Hard working families who cared and looked out for one another. I didn't know of any parents who were divorced, Holy Innocents was packed on Sunday's and about 90% of the neighborhood kids went to school there. The May Procession and opening day of little league baseball were celebrated by all. I knew every family on the block. Most of the dads were blue collar union types and depending upon thier trade, always willing to help. Once you moved into Juniata, you stayed in Juniata because it was safe, clean, family oriented and filled with people who had the same values. Then people with different values started moving into Juniata, they brought with them crime, filth and section 8. It killed me to see a neighborhood that was heaven on earth turn into hell so quickly. Juniata is the most diverse area in Philadelphia, sometimes diversity isn't a good thing, ask anyone who lived there 20 years ago.

  • maureen

    I have lived in Sarasota, Fl for 20+ years now, its beautiful but my childrens childhood memories will be much different than the neighborhood friends and memories I hold dear, yes, cities change even small cities like mine-I was from Morrell Park, my sister still lives near there, there is a kind of comfort coming"home" again-I have no answers for the ensuing changes but I hope some group takes pride and gloom and doom and decay that some posters have talked about.

  • John Bonaccorsi

    Gee, Michael – I guess there are persons like you, who regard the Northeast’s decline as an existential mystery – and persons like me, who, in the face of it, mutter things like, "Section 8…." Anyway – greetings to your brother Tom.

  • D

    I have moved out of the Northeast about three years ago but I still live close enough to visit my parents from time to time. But it doesnt even feel the same. I lived with my mom and then my dads throughout college…they're divorced now…but still live in the same area. I knew during college that the neighborhood was changing when everyone had left and I didnt know many faces on the block. Now I go back and its just sad…and I dont know if my car is even safe to park on the block! I loved the northeast, I babysat for my neighbors, sat on the steps with all the moms even though I was a teen! I walked to grade school, middle school, and high school. And I'm probably the first and only one my block to go to college. But growing up in the 80s and early 90s was great in the northeast…what did happen? Great article, almost put me to tears.

  • Paul

    I miss playing stick ball all day in rhawnhurst school yard with the radio on. we still talk about specific plays, games, and still argue some points. I miss the little things, climbing the roof to retrieve balls, bitching about if the ball hit the edge of the box, was it a ball or strike? big gulps and the sun beating down on a summer day.then coming back that night to have a "SODA" or 12 with the same group plus some female companionship. back then 1984-1989 we were stick ball playing maniacs. we also played hockey there, football,…we also played for Rhawnhurst A.A. but nothing could take the place of the school yard days. I have my own business screen printing if anyone is interested i made a shirts ' stick ball legends with art work email if you want to order.

  • Paul Thanks for the topic and post by all

  • Eileen

    Just had to say what a great article. I grew up here in the Northeast, moved to Delaware County in 1999, and in 2006, came back here with my husband after we were married to purchase my grandfather's home here on Wellington St. He went in on a house with my parents right outside Philly in Abington. I'm glad to say I do know my neighbors and am so glad to be back. I can walk to work. Yes, things have changed, but I don't see things as that bad. I'm happy to have been able to buy this home, and wish more people would stay in the neighborhood.

  • gabrielle

    what a beautiful written story .

  • michael

    juniata used to be a great neighborhood. Everyone on my block knew one another my parents sat outside on summer nights and talked for hours. Our block even planed trips to amusement parks for all of us to go on. I was in the parade for the beginning of the baseball season. i remember how crowded the carnival used to be. now i cant even walk down the street by myself without being afraid and alot has to do with juniata being so "diverse".

  • Fred

    When I first moved into Juniata Park I thought I was moving into a whole new world I can remember when the houses were being built across Hunting Park Ave.My Folks with Friday night food shopping before the Food Fair was built and caddying for my dad at the golf courseto get my spending money bikeridng to Frankford Junction after dinner in the dead of summer Jumping the El and riding back and forth and bikeriding Christmas time was always the best time of the year They were great days and I do miss them

  • Fred

    I remember When I was going to Holy Innocnets there wasa Balck Spring spaniel dog named Blackie he would always sit at the center lane I was coming back from Frankford one day and I was at the center Doors of the "P" Bus and that screwball dog was barking and runnig after the bus I never saw it to fail my Mom Often refered to him, as
    "The Boss Of Hunting Park Avenue"

  • John Rutter

    Like you, I grew up in Rhawnhurst and played ball for AA, we won the city in 1967 or 1968 (Mike Mountain/Steve Dudek were the Star Pitchers). My dad was the 3rd base coach, and I think he enjoyed the season more than we did.

    He is gone, but Happy Father's day to all!

  • Anonymous

    I grew up in South Philly, moved to Jersey for a time, and came back to the city, but to the far NE this time.
    I like it here and don't understand why others don't.

  • Dr. Leona A. Subiel
  • Dr. Leona A. Subiel
  • Fred

    Its a shame how Juniata Park went downhill It was nice to live we had nice neighbors No one got mugged You could walk the streets safely Holy Innocents was always packed to the gills on Sundays
    We were taught respect for our elders All this had died a slow death

  • Roseann

    Hi, Michael: Remember me? I dated your brother Jack way back when and you wrote me a letter (which I kept for years). I told you that you would be a great writer someday and I’m pleased to see that you are. I’m in New Mexico a long way, and a different world from the Northeast, where we grew up.

  • Mark

    I remember laying ball with the teams at Rhawnhurst AA, their intermediate team had some great players like Mike Tenor, Mike Mountain, Larry Serota and Mike Dudek, Mountain was a pitcher and I think he threw 3 or 4 no-hitters that season and they went to Connie Mack for the city chanpionship game-they beat everyone that year, it was a great summer of fun.

  • Stephen

    Just like most of you I have lived in NE Philly my whole life, 31 years now. Grew up in Mayfair and moved to Holmesburgh. I was a kid in the eighties, teen in the nineties and a hard working adult since I graduated high school. The NE isn’t really that much different, the world is changing and the Northeast is reflecting that change. I was robbed at knife point back in the 90’s, a man tried to steal my mom’s purse in the eighties, dealt with the mobs from WOW during the 2000’s so the crime was there back then and always will be. There is crime wherever you live from Hollywood to Harlem. The upstanding residents need to pact together and the NE can stay the wonderful place it is and has been. Please remember that as you look back things always appear better then they really were. Is the neighborhoods of the NE deteriorated certainly but can’t we say the same about the state of humanity in general? To keep the NE great, we all need to get involved and take action or all this talk is for nothing…

  • sharonda

    Having lived in the Northeast for only 5 years I can say I don’t know the neighborhood you are remembering. However as a black women I can tell you that I am having a very different experience and very different fears. As I heard a white men tell a woman and her two year old that he was only giving Halloween candy to the white children and last year having a bar door locked as I was reaching out to open it sounds more like the neighborhood I exist in everyday. No I do not receive section 8 but the stereotypes are evr present even in this article and the comments that proceed. I have never lived in North Philly or West Philly where you say the blacks are from. I hope everyday that my 6 year old does not notice or experience the racism and bigotry that I have simply because she is black in the northeast. I moved here because I liked the area and had no clue that people could be so cruel. I cannot imagine hating someone because of their skin color and I hope to live to a day where white people are not afraid…

  • Fred

    Juniata Park was nice back in teh day I can remember sitting on the patio conversing with my parents
    ANd Down by The Railroad I can remeber the hum of traction motors of the Electric Motors on a warm summer night and waiting to rde he 56 trolley on Erie and Stting on Lintons At K & Erie and watch the 56 trolly coast to a stop

  • Fred

    Juniata Park was nice back in teh day I can remember sitting on the patio conversing with my parents
    ANd Down by The Railroad I can remeber the hum of traction motors of the Electric Motors on a warm summer night and waiting to rde he 56 trolley on Erie and Sitting on Lintons At K & Erie and watch the 56 trolly coast to a stop