Being White in Philly

Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said.

Most Fairmounters, of course, aren’t trying to push up into Brewerytown, and their concerns are a little more pedestrian. In early December, I go to a civic-association meeting. On the agenda: the upcoming house tour, the winter social, patio planter boxes to help lessen rainwater in the sewers, and the neighborhood scourge: parking! I talk with Eileen and Bruce, who’s the association’s head, in the cozy glass-enclosed back room of their rowhouse on 25th Street. They’re both retired Philadelphia schoolteachers; we discuss neighborhoods.

Brewerytown residents tend to stay above Girard, they tell me. “At Halloween,” Eileen says, “that’s the only time we see them. Lot of little kids from the other side of the tracks—African-American kids. People still give them candy.”

“People get upset,” Bruce says. “We used to have a parade on Sunday afternoon, kids would get nicely dressed up, and kids from up there”—he points north—“would come barely dressed up.”

Eileen says, “People say—”

“At least dress up,” Bruce says. “Unless they’re working here, most of them don’t come in this direction. They seem happy to stay in their little lot, as it were.”

In a way, that sounds an awful lot like the Philadelphia of half a century ago. Before the race riots of that era, before Frank Rizzo, before race relations became openly tense and violent, the old rules applied. Black people knew their place. The difference now is that white people seem to know their place as well—white people stay in their little lot, too.

Jen tells me a lovely story: She discovered a public pool at 26th and Master in Brewerytown two summers ago. A beautiful pool, with cool slides. There were maybe 60 kids there—black kids—on the day Jen took her young daughter; the kids ranged in age from about five to 12, and there was only one other pa-rent around. Jen stood in the pool holding her hands out, teaching her daughter to swim. Eight or 10 girls surrounded Jen—they all wanted to show her how good they were. One said, “I am the luckiest girl in the world.” And why was that? “Because I live across from the pool.” She pointed to her house. It was a beaten-down row.

“These kids were so happy and sweet,” Jen tells me.

She is warning me, with this story. I’d told her about driving up North Broad Street and how miserable I believed living there must be. There’s a certain arrogance in my judgment, Jen is telling me. I might not know what people are truly experiencing.

As she was leaving the pool that summer day, Jen saw three or four older girls modeling her, with their hands out, teaching the younger ones to swim.

Engage, Jen is saying-—engage people, connect with them, without assuming what their lives are like, or judging them. It’s good advice. Because she’s right—the gulf is so wide that there’s much we don’t know about each other.

But we do know some things. To cite just one daunting fact among many: 50 percent of the kids in Philadelphia public schools don’t graduate from high school. What chance does a child have, not even getting a diploma? There’s a great deal of suffering—and disconnection—in facts like that, facts that align with what I see when I drive to visit my son in North Philly.

The problems seem intractable. In so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist. And so white people are stuck, dishonest by default, as we take a pass on the state of this city’s largely black inner city and settle for politely opening doors at Wawa, before we slip back to our own lives.

We’re stuck in another way, too. Our troubled black communities create in us a tangle of feelings, including this one: a desire for things to be better. But for that sentiment to come true—for it to mean anything, even—I’ve come to believe that white people have to risk being much more open. It’s impossible to know how that might change the racial dynamics in Philadelphia, or the plight of the inner city. But as things stand, our cautiousness and fear mean that nothing changes in how blacks and whites relate, and most of us lose out on the possibility of what Jen has found: real connection.

What, I wonder, would that look like? Claire, the widow I talked to in Fairmount who was walking her terri-poos, doesn’t worry about saying the wrong thing in her neighborhood, about offending her black neighbors, because she’s confident of her own feelings when it comes to matters of race. But like many people, I yearn for much more: that I could feel the freedom to speak to my African-American neighbors about, say, not only my concerns for my son’s safety living around Temple, but how the inner city needs to get its act together. That I could take the leap of talking about something that might seem to be about race with black people.

I wouldn’t do that, though, because it feels too risky. In fact, I would no more go there than I would stand out on the sidewalk some Saturday and ask a neighbor how much money he has in the bank.

But this is how I see it: We need to bridge the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia—white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks—but a city in which it is okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step.

Meanwhile, when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape.

Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that?

 

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