Suburban Journal: Say Goodbye to Collom Street

Three years ago, Newtown Square’s Jackie O’Connor met Nicole Austin-Hall, a mother of six from Germantown. It would end up changing both their lives

NICOLE GREW UP IN South Philly, spending her teen years in clubs and staying out late. But when she felt the first flutter of life within her womb at age 19, she settled down, trading the clubs for church, building her life around God and a quickly expanding family. Nicole and her husband moved to Collom Street in April of 2002, hoping the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s 1,200-square-foot house would be a home for them and their children. But Nicole soon realized that no matter what color she painted the walls, they were still rampant with mice, the scratch of their running feet enough to keep her awake at night. One night, as Nicole slept with Zachary tucked against her, she awoke to something wet on her skin. A rat had jumped into the bed and eaten through the feeding tube.

Then there was the violence — the heated arguments that took place right outside the front door, the guns flashing, shells littering the sidewalk. At the first sound of gunshots, Nicole and the kids would run up to the third floor, cowering in the bedroom farthest from the street. As Nicole looked at her children’s faces, waiting for the police who might never come, she would pray.

It got so bad that late at night, when it was finally quiet, Nicole would walk down the center of Collom Street drizzling holy oil across the cracked pavement, her lips forming the same prayer over and over: God, protect our block. Protect every household. Allow the chaos and confusion to stop.

At the end of the street, she would slowly pour oil across the white lines of the crosswalk, dividing the block from the rest of Germantown. A message to evil: Stay away. And then she would walk slowly back through the shadows, praying in tongues.

"IT WAS MUCH WORSE than I expected,” says Jackie, recalling the December day when she first saw Nicole’s house. “There were no curtains on windows, closets for clothing, suitable beds or bedding. Their backyard was a trash dump.”

Jackie and her son didn’t stay long, leaving soon after unpacking all they’d brought with them — clothes, video games, items for the baby. The overlapping of worlds was draining for everyone, and they said their goodbyes. As they hugged at the door, Nicole whispered in Jackie’s ear that things weren’t going well with her husband. Jackie grasped Nicole’s hand as tears filled their eyes, the differences of race and wealth melting away. Finally, she turned to go.

It’s going to snow.

“Do your kids have snow boots?” Jackie asked. Looking back, she says this moment was the first time she realized God was at work. Nicole shook her head, confirming what Jackie already knew. Jackie dug into her pockets for whatever cash she could find. “Do me a favor,” she said, pressing the crumpled bills into Nicole’s hand. “Go right now. Put the kids in the car and go to Payless. There’s a sale. It’s going to snow.”

Then she left, and Nicole watched her go, this stranger who was becoming a friend, who had tucked $120 into her palm. She swallowed her pride, bundled the kids into the car, and drove to the Payless off Germantown Avenue.

That night, Nicole scrubbed her kitchen counters and wiped down the walls of her house, unable to sleep. Around 2 a.m., she peeked out the window. Tiny flurries were drifting down from the dark night sky.

And when Jackie sat up in bed the next morning, 20 miles away, a shiver ran down her spine. The trees were dusted with white, with black limbs peeking through.

Over the next few weeks, Jackie learned that Nicole was ready to go back to school. The daughter of a single mom, Jackie grew up in a small apartment in Northeast Philly. She saw education as Nicole’s one shot at changing her life. Her own hard work had led to a full academic scholarship to Gwynedd Mercy Academy and, eventually, college and a 20-year publishing career. But after her first marriage failed, she was left a single mom, raising her son alone. It wasn’t until she remarried in 2002 that life eased up for her. If Nicole went to school somewhere on the Main Line, Jackie told her, she could help her even more.

Nicole’s mind wandered to the application to Eastern University that she’d been holding onto for more than a year. She wanted to become a minister, and her old pastor had written her a recommendation for the private Christian university in St. Davids. But Nicole had always thought of that as a far-off place. How would she get there? And besides, what school would accept a black mother of seven with only her GED and a few culinary classes on her résumé?