Where Center City Meets North Philly

Can the divide ever be bridged?

I had a conversation a couple days ago, with the owner of this magazine. We’ve had this conversation a thousand times, about the inner city, and what to do about it. It keeps coming to this: There is nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing anyone can do about it.

That gets me thinking about Ray. Yesterday, I went up into North Philly to ask him how he’s doing.

I met Ray when I was taking a walk in Kensington, just for the hell of it. This was a year ago, July 4th to be exact. I was talking to people on his street. He sidled by in his pickup truck, and smiled, and I went to him.

He’s in the used furniture business. Ray’s 50 years old; his family came here from Puerto Rico when he was seven.

He pointed to his house, on a side street off 4th, a sharp row that he rehabbed. “They just sold that house for 250,” he said, pointing to a neighbor’s. “Used to be 60, 70 here. Compared to what this neighborhood was seven years ago, it changed.” He meant drugs and trouble, of course. I asked him where the drugs are now. He said 5th and York. “That’s a heroin corner.”

“You won’t have a problem there unless they think you’re a cop,” Ray told me, a year ago. “You look like a cop.”

Fifth and York–it’s a block or so away from Ray’s furniture store. Before he owned it, Ray had done a little of everything. He sold cars and had his own construction business and took a brief turn as a coke dealer. He helped raise the son of the woman he married 25 years ago, and they took in the baby of his niece and raised her, too, and now she has a baby and moved back home, and his stepson has two children with two different women. His stepson doesn’t pay much attention to his kids. That doesn’t sit well with Ray.

“His friends,” Ray explained, on why his stepson is a lousy father. “He doesn’t do drugs, but he hangs out with drug dealers.”

Yesterday, when I pull up in front of Ray’s store, way up on 5th, there he is out front, ratcheting a strap over a mattress to hold it down in the back of a pickup truck.

We shake hands–he remembers talking to me. I ask him how he’s doing. “Uh … okay,” he says. He doesn’t sound okay.

“This neighborhood sucks,” Ray says, as he keeps pulling at the strap. “I do a lot for it, and don’t get any support. I’m going to get out of the furniture business.”

I ask him what he’s going to do instead–it sounds like he’s moving on.

“Produce,” Ray says. “I’m going to try produce.”

Right here, out of the same warehouse. Ray owns it. He’s not going anywhere. I ask him if that isn’t risky, up here in North Philly, a produce business. It doesn’t strike me as a moneymaker.

Ray smiles. “I’m a gambler,” he says, and turns away, securing the mattress. He’s got work to do. I get in my car and head back downtown, to my office.