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

MY BROTHER PAT and I are in his car, traveling west on Cottman toward the folks’ place. We’re coming from the Phillies game, and I’ve left my car at Mom and Dad’s. We cross Bustleton Avenue, and I see the boarded-up Bennigan’s. “Did you know Gearo’s closed?” I ask him.
 
“The one by Grandmom’s?” Grandmom Callahan lived in Mayfair. My brother Tommy bought her house when she died in ’84, before his exodus to the ’burbs.
 
“Yeah. The one up by Welsh is still open. But they closed the one at Longshore.”
 
“No kidding” is all he can say. Silence. This is something we do fairly often anymore. A rattling-off of what is gone or burned or closed, a Bataan death march of our childhood icons. Gearo’s was our favorite pizza joint. Among the four of us, we took so many dates there that we labeled it The Official Restaurant of the Callahan Girlfriends. Now it was gone, after 41 years.
 
We pull up to the light at Castor. On the right is the old Lit Brothers, which then became Clover, which was then J.C. Penney, and which is now, like so much else, dark, empty. “I just don’t understand it,” I say in the stillness of the car.
 
“What?” Pat says.
 
“Why it turned out this way,” I say, shaking my head. “Why it’s going down the tubes.”
 
Because it is, and I know it and he knows it and Mom and Dad know it, even though none of us want to admit it or even talk about it. I asked Mom recently: “How many of your neighbors do you know?” There are 20 houses on our block. Five, she said. No, six. I doubt anyone is walking down that street anymore, naming everyone who lives in every house.
 
Pat talks about building an addition onto his house, says Mom and Dad can sell St. Vincent and live there.
 
“That’s not fair to Jean,” I say.
 
“She’d do it,” he says. She would. She’s like that. But it doesn’t matter. The folks aren’t going to go for it. So it continues, this circular conversation we’ve been having, talking around the truth and never getting anywhere, the fraternal version of the conversation I had with Mom before the rug escapade. Pat, like me, can’t face what their moving would really say. What it would really mean. No matter how much we’d like Mom to live in a place where Ice Cube isn’t telling her to fuck off.
 
Because rescuing them means we have to write off the neighborhood, write off our childhood, say it didn’t matter, that it certainly doesn’t matter now. Which at least for me should be easy. I was 24 when I got my first apartment, outside of Atlantic City, and from there I bounced around like a pinball — up to North Jersey, then to Boston, then to New York. Flustered, Mom began putting my apartment info on Post-its so she didn’t have to keep crossing out the old listings in her address book.

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