Being White in Philly

My younger son goes to Temple, where he’s a sophomore. This year he’s living in an apartment with two friends at 19th and Diamond, just a few blocks from campus. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. Whenever I go see Nick, I get antsy and wonder what I was thinking, allowing him to rent there.

One day, before I pick him up for lunch, I stop to talk to a cop who’s parked a block away from Nick’s apartment.

“Is he already enrolled for classes?” the cop says when I point out where my son lives.

Well, given that it’s December, I think so. But his message is clear: Bad idea, this neighborhood. A lot of burglaries and robberies. Temple students are prime prey, the cop says.

Later, driving up Broad Street as I head home to Mount Airy, I stop at a light just north of Lycoming and look over at some rowhouses. One has a padlocked front door. A torn sheet covering the window in that door looks like it might be stained with sewage. I imagine not a crackhouse, but a child, maybe several children, living on the other side of that stained sheet. Plenty of children in Philadelphia live in places like that. Plenty live on Diamond, where my son rents, where there always seem to be a lot of men milling around doing absolutely nothing, where it’s clearly not a safe place to be.

I’ve shared my view of North Broad Street with people—white friends and colleagues—who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple. I think they’re blind, that they’ve stopped looking. Indeed, I’ve begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.

At the same time, white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.

Take a young woman I’ll call Susan, whom I met recently. She lost her BlackBerry in a biology lab at Villanova and Facebooked all the class members she could find, “wondering if you happened to pick it up or know who did.” No one had it. There was one black student in the class, whom I’ll call Carol, who responded: “Why would I just happen to pick up a BlackBerry and if this is a personal message I’m offended!”

Susan assured her that she had Facebooked the whole class. Carol wrote: “Next time be careful what type of messages you send around and what you say in them.”

After that, when their paths crossed at school, Carol would avoid eye contact with Susan, wordless. What did I do? Susan wondered. The only explanation she could think of was Vanilla-nova—the old joke about the school’s distinct lack of color, its perceived lack of welcome to African-Americans. Susan started making an effort to say hello when she saw Carol, and eventually they acted as if nothing had happened. The BlackBerry incident—it probably goes without saying—was never discussed.

Another story: Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis’s face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, “boy.”

The student went home and told his stepfather. The stepfather demanded a meeting with the principal and Dennis, and accused Dennis of being racist; the principal defended his teacher. Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term “boy” was and regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist? The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student’s behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.

Confusion, misread intentions, bruised feelings—everyone has not only a race story, but a thousand examples of trying to sort through our uneasiness on levels large and trivial. I do, too. My rowhouse in Mount Airy is on a mostly African-American block; it’s middle-class and friendly—in fact, it’s the friendliest street my family has ever lived on, with block parties and a spirit of watching out for each other. Whether a neighbor is black or white seems to be of no consequence whatsoever.

Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s. A friend who walks to his car parked on Front Street downtown early each morning has a similar running joke with himself. As he walks, my friend says hello and makes eye contact with whoever crosses his path. If the person is white, he’s bestowing a tiny bump of friendliness. If the person is black, it’s friendliness and a bit more: He’s doing something positive for race relations.

On one level, such self-consciousness and hypersensitivity can be seen as progress when it comes to race, a sign of how much attitudes have shifted for the better, a symbol of our desire for things to be better. And yet, lately I’ve come to fear that the opposite might also be true: that our carefulness is, in fact, at the heart of the problem.

Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African-American mayor, Philadelphia remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. And also in well-being. There is a black middle class, certainly, and blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.

What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.

Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. Race is only talked about in a sanitized form, when it’s talked about at all, with actual thoughts and feelings buried, which only ups the ante. Race remains the elephant in the room, even on the absurd level of who holds the door to enter a convenience store.

A few months ago I began spending time in Fairmount, just north of the Art Museum. Formerly a working-class enclave of rowhomes, it’s now a gentrifying neighborhood with middle-class cachet and good restaurants. I went to the northern edge, close to Girard Avenue, generally considered the dividing line from North Philly, and began asking the mostly middle-class white people who live there, for whom race is an everyday issue, how it affects them.

Strangely enough, a number of them answered. Their stories bring home just how complicated white people’s negotiation with race and class is in this city, and how varied: Everyone does have a race story, it turns out, and every story is utterly unique.

The Charges Against District Attorney Seth Williams

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams

“You’ve got me fucking all the women in the office.”

Those are close to the first words out of Seth Williams’s mouth when I meet him in June, after paying my 50 bucks—the lowest amount that would get me in the door—to wander around incognito at his “Seth and the City” fund-raiser, in a conference room atop Two Liberty Place.

For a little while I stayed lost among the D.A.’s political friends, the swank hors d’oeuvres, a deejay’s dance offerings, beautiful women. But I knew it wouldn’t take long for someone to tell Williams there was a reporter in his midst, and sure enough, I soon saw Philly’s bow-tied, slightly rotund district attorney staring at me and the political adviser I’d just been chatting with. So I went up to Williams and introduced myself. That’s when he lets loose: “You’ve got me fucking all the women … ”

The D.A. is apparently referring to a blog post that a staffer at this magazine wrote about a party planner Williams hired to the tune of $76,000 a year, and how paying that amount for something so frivolous when first-year assistant D.A.’s make all of 48-something had the office in an uproar. In fact, the blog said nothing about Seth Williams’s sexual activities on the 18th floor of the district attorney’s office, a stone’s throw from City Hall.

So I’m silent as Billy Miller, Williams’s political adviser, stares openmouthed at the D.A., as mesmerized as I am by what he’s just proclaimed. Williams, 45 years old, is much better-looking than he appears on TV or in photos, and he doesn’t really seem all that worked up: His skin, which he calls “butterscotch” (his biological mother was white, his biological father black), fairly glows in public, as if spotlighted; his eyebrows arc in near half circles around his large brown eyes. The careful mustache that looks pasted-on from a distance is real enough. And now the D.A., nursing a Jack Daniel’s, quickly recovers. It’s natural “that some people are angry,” since he had to make changes when he came on as D.A. in January 2010 and clean out the deadwood. It gets people—there are some 300 assistant district attorneys in the office—saying things. Then Seth Williams segues:

“Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “It’s like with Abraham Lincoln.” At the end of the Civil War, Williams explains, when it was time for Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox, Union general Ulysses S. Grant saluted Lee and his defeated troops. This is a somewhat grandiose way for Williams to make another point—which is that he has, in some fashion, honored his predecessor, Lynne Abraham. Although he then goes on to tell me how much he has accomplished in two and a half years fixing what was wrong under “the death-penalty D.A.,” as he calls Abraham, with her terribly low conviction rate.

Finally, after all this flows vigorously from Seth Williams, he stops, considers me for a moment, and wonders what I am doing there, what I am after.

I’m here because Williams, as district attorney and an oft-mentioned mayoral contender, is a very powerful guy. I’m also here because of the rumblings of current and former prosecutors about the way he’s running the D.A.’s office.

And when I reach out to them, over the next few weeks, they give me an earful, telling me that Williams’s leadership is so loose—or nonexistent—that the feel and function of the D.A.’s office is at risk.

“I’ve been waiting for this call,” one says. “I’m heartbroken about what has happened.”

This prosecutor—who works for Williams in a senior position—says Williams is a terrible boss: “His Achilles heel is that he needs to be liked. He’s very juvenile. He’s like a wayward two-year-old, with no thought of appearances.” The prosecutor alludes to whispers of inappropriate relationships between Williams and women who work in the office—although the D.A. has been separated from his wife for a couple of years. He claims that Williams allows friendships to affect his decisions as D.A.; that he’s hired political pals for dubious community outreach positions; that he’s so focused on his political future, he doesn’t really know what’s going on in the office. “The joke in the office is that Seth will either leave us in handcuffs or run for mayor,” says this prosecutor.

A former high-ranking assistant district attorney who retired on the heels of Williams coming in agrees to meet me in an out-of-the-way West Philly bar. “He’s an articulate black man. That’s what the machine wanted and what it got,” she says, sizing up the political atmosphere. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Other current and former prosecutors say similar things, offering a harsh indictment: that Seth Williams has upset pretty much everything Lynne Abraham built over two decades, damaging a place they grew to love. Which certainly does not bode well, they say, for the future of criminal prosecution in this city.

Yet as I probe deeper, something else becomes apparent. That maybe making big changes is not such a bad thing. That the way Lynne Abraham’s office went about prosecuting criminals in Philadelphia—one of the most violent big cities in America—wasn’t working. Not when defendants escape conviction on all charges in almost two-thirds of violent-crime cases. Or when just one in 10 charged in gun assaults is convicted of that charge. Or when two in 10 accused of armed robbery get convicted of armed robbery.

That’s what the Inquirer found, in a four-part series on the city’s judicial system published on the eve of Seth Williams taking over as D.A.

There’s a lot to be said for Abraham’s legendary toughness: Indeed, during her tenure, the rate of murder convictions in Philadelphia surpassed the national average. But even Abraham’s acolytes admit that by her last term, she was stuck in her ways, mailing it in. Change was long overdue.

Williams has come in with big ideas and a big presence, and both are a threat to the status quo. He has reorganized prosecution across the city from horizontal to vertical, which means his ADAs are assigned to one area of town instead of bouncing around all over. He has upgraded his charging unit with more-experienced prosecutors, so that lesser crimes are dealt with faster and charges are often negotiated downward, which is designed to decrease the backlog of cases—long a huge pro­blem—and to focus prosecution on serious violent crime. He has created diversionary programs to get nonviolent offenders—es­pecially drug ab­users—help instead of punishing them.

Are these changes working? We don’t yet know, in large part because the criminal justice system has been such a mess for so long that change happens slowly.

But one thing is certain: The district attorney in any big city—especially one as besieged by violent crime and as beleaguered by problems of race and poverty as
Philadelphia—sets a standard. His tone and stance and personality send an important message. Not just on who he is, but on how criminal justice will be served.

And this is the point many prosecutors make: that the district attorney’s office should be different from other city government entities. That its standards of conduct should be “untouchable,” says the senior prosecutor who is heartbroken over the current regime. “We don’t want to fall like PHA or the school district, but if our house is not in order … Good ADAs are leaving because of money, but also in disgust.”

Confessions of Philadelphia’s One Percent

One-percenters. We’ve been hearing a lot about them lately, ever since wall street became not just the seat of finance, but a place to hang out and get angry. In demonstrations and in large swaths of the American psyche, rich people have been vilified, as if the economy going SPLAT back in 2008 meant that anybody with a certain lifestyle still intact must have had a hand in the takedown.

And it seems like everybody has weighed in on what’s wrong with America these past four years—everybody, that is, except one-percenters themselves. (Warren Buffett doesn’t count; he’s got too much money.) So we thought, let’s hear from a few. How are rich people around Philly doing? What’s on their minds? And do they care what everyone else is saying about them?

We found five local one-percenters quite happy to talk, after we promised anonymity. They had a few things in common: Nobody wants to pay more taxes. Everybody has issues with the Occupy movement. Nobody’s happy with Obama. And all five are rich. That, though, might be the extent of what they agree on.

Confessions of Philadelphia’s One Percent: click here to hear from The Inheritor.

The Sins of Penn State: The Untold Story of Joe Paterno’s Fall



IT’S A WEDNESDAY IN EARLY JANUARY, a gray afternoon, but not bad by State College standards. It’s not too cold. There’s no snow. And there’s smoke drifting up into the bare oak trees out of a chimney toward the back of the rancher on McKee Street, a couple blocks north of campus. Sue has got the wood-burner going, so I know the Paternos are home. I walk up a wood ramp—built a few weeks earlier for Joe’s wheelchair­—to ring the bell at the front door. Nothing. I ring again.

Through the narrow vertical window next to the door, I see someone coming. The door opens, and there’s Sue Paterno. She’s normally as willowy and blond and handsome as Joe is swarthy and hook-nosed and nearsighted, but now she’s wearing a gray sweatshirt, with no makeup, her hair up in curlers. Four very large red curlers, to be exact: two on top of her head, two along her temples.

I tell Sue my name, then say: “I’m an old Penn Stater—I went to school here back in the ’70s, and lived around State College for a decade. … I wonder if I can have a conversation with Joe.”

These things are true, though of course I will have to tell her I’m a reporter—but not yet.

“He’s resting right now,” Sue Paterno tells me. Joe, I’ve heard, is exhausted from the chemotherapy he’s been getting for his lung cancer.

“Could I come by later?”

Sue Paterno thinks for a moment. She has, I know, an enormous amount of influence on Joe. She actually seems to be considering that her husband might make time to speak to a onetime PSU student who shows up at their door, and given everything that’s happened in the past two months—starting with the allegations that over many years former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused eight young boys, which led to Joe Paterno’s swift dismissal­ as coach—I’m amazed. Not to mention the lung cancer, and the broken pelvis from a fall heading to the bathroom …

“We have an appointment at four,” Sue tells me. A chemo treatment.

“Would tomorrow be better?”

Sue Paterno considers. “Why don’t you call first?” she suggests.

“The number in the phone book?” As everyone knows, it’s listed.


“I hope Joe is doing well … ”

“He’s … ” She hesitates. Sue Paterno looks tired. Her face is lined. She’s physically fragile herself, with a bad back. “He’s getting there.”

In fact, her husband is gravely ill. That next morning, when I call, Sue answers, and before I tell her what I’m really up to, she beats me to it. “Are you a reporter?” Sue asks. “I am.”

She tells me, pleasantly, that they aren’t talking to the media just now.

Which Eagles and Phillies Are Gay?


It’s a long, thin room inside the NovaCare complex, where the eagles peel off their uniforms after practice.

Lockers line both sides. As they strip, players toss shirts and socks and jocks into big mobile laundry baskets before heading to a wide opening in the middle of the room, the doorway that leads to the showers, off-limits to everyone but them.

Mike Patterson is a load of a man, chunky, 300 pounds. He anchors the middle of the Eagles’ defensive line. He’s still in his uniform pants and a t-shirt when I stop at his locker to ask him a question:

“How would you feel about having an openly gay teammate on the Eagles?”

He smiles. Coach Andy Reid has already warned his team that I’d be coming in to ask some questions. He told his players not to be offended, that they shouldn’t take it personally. Patterson has a long, dark, wispy beard and appears young—he’s 28. He looks almost cherubic.

“Would it be a problem?” I wonder.

“I don’t know, man,” he says. “Probably be an issue at first, probably—going to be uncomfortable at first, I should say. I don’t know, kind of tough to say. It could work out, most definitely, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy. … ”

“What would be hard about it?”

“Just the fact that, guys worried that he’d peep down, and stuff like that, make people uncomfortable … ”

“‘Peep down,’ did you say?”

Patterson smiles. Yes, that’s what he said. Guys checking out guys. “I don’t know—I mean, people just feel uncomfortable.”

“Would you feel uncomfortable?” I ask him.

“Makes an uncomfortable situation—makes me uncomfortable.”

“Have you ever played with a gay player?”

“Not that I know of,” Mike Patterson says, laughing.

It’s kind of an amazing thing, I tell him, that there are currently 3,400 men playing in the four major sports—football, baseball, basketball and hockey—and not one is openly gay. That’s pretty strange, when you think about it.

Mike Patterson just laughs.

Frank Zappa Didn’t Like to Bathe

Thanksgiving, I flew to London for five days to see my older son, Sam, 22, studying there this fall. I found his tube stop—Farringdon—easily enough, but from there, the walking directions to his flat that he’d emailed were sketchy. I had to find Sir John’s—that was his key landmark. A bar. Read more »

Privacy Is Evil

The tabloid hacking scandal in Britain is beginning to put a new spin on Janet Malcolm’s neat little thesis on journalistic ethics. Malcolm is the New Yorker writer who began her book, The Journalist and the Murderer, thusly: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Read more »

A Month at the Melrose Diner



I like him immediately, a waiter who keeps whizzing by, his serving tray spinning on a finger. Nick looks like a young Ed Rendell, a pocket-size version. He has the same thinning hair—though a short spritz of Nick’s, narrow as a comb, runs down the middle of his head. the smile, the charm, the energy, the five-o’clock shadow …

“Hello, my friend,” he says the second time I walk into the Melrose, “how are you tonight?” That could be Fast Eddie. Though Nick’s Irish-Catholic, born and bred right here in South Philly, one of nine children raised in a four-bedroom row. He’s got a story to tell.

Nick flunked out of seven schools as a kid, private and public. Or he was kicked out for fighting. He was very quiet, almost silent, which is now hard to believe, and he got picked on, but he had his breaking point. Once, he threw a chair at a bully and punctured his lung. Other times he’d show up at school after two weeks on the lam, drinking and smoking pot; he’d ace a test, but flunk anyway for non-attendance. The story of his youth.

But there’s another story he tells me one night, the story:

He was 20 years old. He got a job in A.C. as a busboy at the Trop. He spent a summer partying with two girls he met, from Bulgaria. Two weeks after they went home, he got into a fight with his boss, and even though he’d never been outside of Pennsylvania and Jersey, even though his family wondered what language­ they might possibly speak in Bulgaria (Bulgarian?), Nick flew to Sofia to see the girls.

All he had were their first names—Daniella and Stanimira—and, on a piece of paper in his bag, their cell numbers and the name of their town. Except when he got to Bulgaria, the piece of paper wasn’t in his bag.

He didn’t panic. In short order, Nick remembered where the girls lived when he saw the city’s name on a beer bottle: Yes, he knew that was their town—Haskovo! Nick managed to find his friends. He would end up staying with Stanimira’s family for six months, and learn to get by in Bulgarian, and even write it a little. He became the toast of Haskovo, in fact, because they almost never see Americans, and he would walk down the street, visiting cafes, and then move on with a loaf of bread under his arm, a diminutive America’s Mayor— His story ends there—partly because Nick has tables to wait on, mostly because it is the end of his story. It happened when he was 20.

He is 32 now, a waiter at the Melrose—he’s quit twice, been fired once—not far from where he washed out of those seven schools. On another night, he tells something to me, something that he whispers confidentially:

“I spent the last two weeks homeless.”

Riding buses half the night down Broad, catching a couple hours of sleep on a sister’s couch. A guy who works up to 60 hours a week.

What’s going on in his world? I mean the world of the Melrose and of South Philly, but I also mean the greater world that is all of us. That’s why I’ve come to the Melrose, in the heart of working-class Philadelphia, to hang out for 30 straight days, a full month of talking to customers and workers. Because lately it feels like we’ve come to a sort of crossroads in America. The problem is no longer just the economy. It suddenly feels much broader, a collective realization that we’ve lost our way, with the messes of huge public debt and big-business malfeasance and constant Congressional infighting and failing schools—the list could go on and on. Ideas that we all cut our teeth on—the American Dream, for example—are starting to feel like quaint memories.

I Don’t Care About PSU Football

It may seem like a pretty crooked train of thought to start out wondering who the hell Joe Paterno is and work through Muhammad Ali, but that’s where I’m going. I’m thinking about myth-building.

Paterno, well, it’s pretty obvious why I’m thinking about him. And I didn’t realize it, not until the Sandusky mess hit, but I’ve been obsessed with the JoePa thing for about 40 years, from the first day I landed at Penn State. There were two goons in the dorm room next to me. One was an offensive guard. The other, the more lively of the two, was a linebacker with a bad back. Eddie couldn’t play. He was in JoePa’s doghouse a lot. He also liked to tell me if I was going to smoke dope, I better be sure I put a towel under my door, because RA’s were sniffing out guys like me. Read more »

Deja Vu for Catholic Penn Staters

It is the same story. The Penn State scandal is identical to what we’ve been learning about the Catholic Church over the past decade. Not in scope, of course, but in its fundamental nature. When an institution becomes larger—more important—than the ideals it is supposed to stand for, that’s when the institution is in dire trouble. Because those at the top, and those who work for them, will do everything they can to protect that institution, which fundamentally corrupts those ideals. That’s the story we’re seeing again, out at Penn State. Read more »

« Older Posts  |  Newer Posts »