Scenes from Germantown Avenue
“See anything down there?”
Lena wonders what I’m looking at, from the overpass on Germantown Avenue, just west of Hunting Park Avenue.
“Just trash,” I tell her. So much trash—tires and clothes and bottles and chairs and glass and mattresses and much, much more—that I wonder how trains squeeze through on the tracks down there.
Lena and I walk a couple of blocks together. She lives in Opportunities Tower, a HUD-financed senior citizens apartment house over our left shoulder. I’m walking Germantown from Broad into Mt. Airy, where I live, because I think I know what the Avenue is and how it changes—everyone thinks they know this stuff—but on the other hand, I want to see it up close and personal.
Lena says the neighborhood is getting better:
“It’s going up now, Bob. I lived in North Philly all my life, don’t have no problems. It’s friendly, with some knuckleheads. If you live in North Philly for ten years, you can live anywhere. Why? The experience of dealing with nothing, then you have something, things happen, then you don’t have nothing, then more money comes in.”
Lena’s attitude is, life goes on.
“I lived until there was a black president, didn’t I?” Then she laughs—a giddy “heh, heh, heh”—which sounds like Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert. “I thought I’d see a woman be president before a black man.”
Lena ducks into Papi’s Mini Market for dinner.
Every city is one thing, then another. But it’s miraculous and weird to see it so fast. I started on this end of Germantown for a reason. The reason is, it’s still light out.
It was a good choice:
A guy in extremely long jean shorts wearing a sports shirt with GHETTO stitched on the back wants to know “Where storage at? I’m from Baltimore.” I have no idea. He heads back toward Broad, but then returns to me, passes me. Another guy passes close, the drift of Gauloise sweet. I pass a stoop with three guys hanging out, and one yells after me, twice, “Let me see your notepad!” When I turn—
I come to Nicetown Park, just east of Dalkeith Street. A good-looking guy in his early 20s says something as he passes. Close.
“Buy smack?” he says, as he keeps walking away, as if he could claim he never said a word if I turn out to be a cop or something. Women with strollers and men alone sift through the soupy heat of the park. I don’t venture in.
A very short woman with a big green shoulder bag and the saddest eyes I have ever seen passes by, slowly.
The women of Germantown Avenue, I notice, pretend that I don’t exist. The men, they give me a look in order to ignore me.
Near Roberts Street, I chat with two women sitting side by side on stoops. “I don’t know nothing about no drugs,” says one with very short salt-and-pepper hair when I ask about that. She’s wearing a long exotic-print yellow dress. “This is what I do. I turn my drink up”—a can of her favored beverage is wrapped in a black plastic bag—“and I talk to my neighbor.”
Just past Berkeley, a very red-faced guy about 35 says the neighborhood is “Always good. I’m Corleone—because I do what I do.” He doesn’t offer what that might be. “I’m lit. My Mom is the bomb. See that white SUV”—coming out of a side street almost a block away—“from there, back to that pole behind you, there’s never any killings. Not on this block. It’s a good block.”
Corleone heads up Germantown with his companion, a silent black guy.
At Abbotsford, there’s a huge lawn and immense old house—completely out of place. I walk up the curved driveway. A man behind a tall, open wrought-iron fence is stuffing lawn trimmings into bags. I slip inside the gate and I tell him I’m walking Germantown Avenue, and—
“You’re walking in this neighborhood? Alone? Don’t you know that their thing is about to start?”
He means drug dealers.
“The neighborhood transforms at night,” he says. He’s an African-American with a large, open, smiling face. He says he lives in the house, which is a mansion. Later I look it up, and find out it has a name: Loudoun. It’s a federal-style house, once owned by the Logans, who donated it to the city in 1939; now it’s refurbished and lovely, especially at dusk.
“You hear a firecracker, it’s not a firecracker,” he assures me. We’ve walked, together, outside his gate, and now he moves inside it, alone, and begins closing it. “It’s after 6. Come on, Bob, for your safety,” he says, urging me off of Germantown Avenue. “It’s night. This isn’t Chestnut Hill, Bob. What’s your definition of night, Bob?”
His gate is closed. “I’m the man behind the gate,” he says.
And what if somebody comes over it, which wouldn’t be too hard to do.
“You don’t want to know.” He’s still smiling. “You should hustle, Bob.”
So I climbed the hill to the lord of the manor overlooking Germantown Avenue, and he looks at me like I am crazy.
I head west.
I pass Logan. At Seymour, I cut through a group of Muslim folks spilling out of some meeting.
Garfield. A lot of barbershops!
Queen Lane. I stop. An old stone house right on the street, a plaque:
John Wister’s Big House
Schedule an event or house and garden tour
A gate is open, I follow a path back to a garden, where I wave to a young woman in a lawn chair smoking a cigarette. She waves me to her.
“Did you come for the movie?” she asks.
“We’re showing East of Eden”—the Orson Welles classic. The woman and her husband live in the cottage next door—they’re caretakers of the Wister property, a national landmark, where kids learn to grow plants from seed and make candles and run a Saturday farmer’s market; every Wednesday is community movie night, in the backyard, though no one has arrived yet.
She gives me a tour of the gardens, of the oldest fruit-bearing ginkgo in the country, predating the Revolutionary War.
Wister rented his house to Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson spent some time living next door. And during a yellow fever scare, George Washington lived nearby too.
We sift among the old trees—her husband tells me that a huge old red birch has bark that, when it rains, looks like elephant skin. The mosquitoes are out in droves. I pick purple Concord grapes from a vine that’s over 100 years old.
“A woman came here one movie night from just up the street, in Nicetown,” the caretaker tells me, “and she said, ‘There’s warfare in my neighborhood. This is such a retreat.’”
When I get back onto Germantown Avenue, it’s dark. Really dark. No matter.
I think of something Lena said, when I told her I live in Mt. Airy. She put a finger under her nose, and tilted her head back. Where the snotty people live.
ROBERT HUBER is Philly Mag’s features editor.