Danger in South Philly

The trip from funhouse to gentrification to wasteland in one afternoon walk

I’m a checklist guy. I take inventory on how I’m doing, and it starts from the bottom. That’s kinda my worldview, too. The bad stuff looms. You have to know it and touch it. So yesterday afternoon I take the elevator down from the 36th floor at 19th and Market and head due south, on 19th, through Rittenhouse Square. It’s 83 degrees, summer in the city. I walk.

Just north of Fitzwater: A black guy in a wheelchair is pulling himself up the wood ramp to his rowhouse door. “How ya doin’?” I wonder. “All right,” he says. But it’s a check-me-out all right. There’s a guy on the sidewalk, with his pants to the bottom of his ass—just saying hello to him would be stupid.

But I stop, at Fitzwater, where two churches are catty-cornered, and talk to anybody who comes by.

A young guy wired to his iPod. Long dreads, and he’s dressed all in black except for sneakers with white stripes; he’s sporting a necklace with big beads, a padlock dangling from it. He won’t tell me his name. But he says he works at Dave and Buster’s as a cook. He lives with his family a few blocks away, his parents and sister and brother and niece. He asks me what this is for, these questions.

I tell him I don’t know, which warms him up. He’s just come from a voice lesson—he’s into gospel, jazz, R&B, and he’s been recording stuff he’s written, at friends’ studios—“I’ve been blessed not to pay.” He’s all of 24, on the cusp.

Then I stop Amanda. She’s short and blond and pretty, and bought a three-bedroom row at Christian, a block away. “Spotty”—that’s her word for the neighborhood. Amanda grew up in the suburbs, and now, at 31, she’s an ER doc at Chestnut Hill Hospital. The choice was here or NoLibs—two areas she could afford, with rising value.

Don is 58, and very, very thin, with a gray mustache shaved into the shape of a Tootsie Roll around his upper lip, and he’s walking three dogs. Don’s a photographer, does web design. When he moved into his two-bedroom row 11 years ago, it was “pure ghetto,” but he never had trouble beyond his car getting broken into. Last night, he says, the cops showed up on his street, Pemberton. Some sort of domestic dispute; they took a whole family away. “It’s not as gentrified as people think.”

Then Fabian. From Paris, he came to the States to study at Penn. Now he’s a dentist. Fabian’s owned a row here for five years, and when he first moved in, his car out front got shot, because it was in the way of two guys having a spat. Back then, he wouldn’t walk his spaniel alone at night. Now, his family from France visits him and his daughter.

There are more stories walking by, a crazy variety all passing one corner, and it feels like I’m at the exact spot, where a little danger meets possibility and change …

Then I’m across the street talking to Whitney, who’s in grad school studying biology, when a guy, a black guy, bumps me walking past. Not hard but hard enough. He doesn’t say a word, keeps moving. It’s weird—there’s plenty of sidewalk, so it was intentional. Safety, says Whitney, is all relative. Then she’s off with her little dog.

The guy in the wheelchair has emerged, half a block away, has come down his ramp to talk to a neighboring couple sitting in lawn chairs, catching some sun. I go there.

“What’s this about?” he wonders.

I tell him that I’m just checking out South Philly. “I’ll talk to you,” he says. “I’ll be right back.” He wheels off, to the alley on the side of his house. So I talk first to the couple: It’s Johnny Goodtimes! The guy who hosts Quizzo events at bars. His companion, Colby, teaches kindergarten at the Prodigy Learning Center. Now the guy in the wheelchair comes out again, smoking a thin cigar, at the top of his ramp. I walk up.

His name is Keith, and he’ll be 30 in June. He’s got a wispy beard, he’s missing a front tooth. Nine years ago, Keith got shot in the neck—“wrong place, wrong time,” which paralyzed him. Happened south of Washington, not far away. He doesn’t know who did it. I tell Keith that I am sorry.

“Everybody goes through their life-changing thing,” he tells me. He takes a little puff of his cigar. “I feel blessed. I see guys 15, 16 carrying .45s … ” He shakes his head. He’s relieved he’s no longer like them. “I make do,” Keith says. “Going to try to find a job, and a house where I can live peacefully”—this is his mother’s place. He’s done a little motivational speaking at the Y. It doesn’t seem like they listen.

“I don’t want to sound racist,” Keith says, “but the neighborhood was 95 percent African-American. It was a lot of empty lots, crack houses, drug houses. White people came in and did what they had to do. But you don’t change folks. Still have crackheads, and altercations with white folks.”

Just then, Fabian walks by with his daughter, a mixed-race five-year-old he’s just picked up at daycare.

I go where Keith suggests I don’t: south of Washington. It’s not surprising, and completely shocking. At 19th and Wilder, I look both ways: It’s a wasteland. Like a tsunami has ripped through, though nobody has left. I make it down to Tasker, and then turn back. Coming through Rittenhouse Square, it now looks like a fairyland, a lost-in-the-funhouse ride of make believe.