Being White in Philly

Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said.

Early on, during my walks around northern Fairmount, I’m surprised by a couple of things. One is the international flavor. On a warm Sunday in October, I buttonhole a woman I’ll call Anna, a tall, slim, dark-haired beauty from Moscow getting out of her BMW on an alley just south of Girard College. Anna goes to a local law school, works downtown at a law firm, and proceeds to let me have it when we start talking about race in her neighborhood.

“I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she says. “Blacks use skin color as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward. … It’s a shame—you pay taxes, they’re not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot … Why do you support them when they won’t work, just make babies and smoking pot? I walk to work in Center City, black guys make compliments, ‘Hey beautiful. Hey sweetie.’ White people look but don’t make comments. … ”

That’s the other surprise: If you’re not an American, the absence of a historical filter results in a raw view focused strictly on the here and now. I meet a contractor from Maine named Adrian, who brought his Panamanian wife to live here, at 19th and Girard, where she saw fighting and drug deals and general bad behavior at the edge of Brewerytown. It all had her co-nvinced there is a “moral poverty” among inner-city blacks.

American whites I talk to in Fairmount have a decidedly different take. Our racial history, as horrible and daunting as it is, has created a certain tolerance of how things operate in the neighborhood, an acceptance of an edgy status quo.

One Fairmounter blames herself for her grill being stolen from her backyard, because if you don’t fence it in, she tells me, you’re asking for it. A pumpkin gets lifted from her front stoop in the fall, she buys another. That one gets stolen, she gets one more. It’s called city living. Flowerpots, even trash cans—they don’t stick around. Porch chairs have to be chained together. Your car window is likely to get smashed every now and then.

The danger can be a little steeper. One afternoon, at Krupa’s Tavern at 27th and Brown, a guy named Bob tells me about working in the mailroom at Rolling Stone magazine years ago and shows me an anthology of Beat-era writers he’s reading. I can’t resist asking him about his wire-rim glasses, which are way down on his nose and twisted at an absurd angle—there’s no way he can see out of them.

“Oh,” he says, smiling, “I went home one night from the bar and two guys smashed my face into the cement steps of my house”—that’s what messed up his glasses. “A few days later I got my wallet back in the mail—they had thrown it in somebody’s mailbox.”

He acknowledges that his assailants were black. “Not that that matters,” he says.

Not all the crime in Fairmount, of course, is perpetrated by black guys from Brewerytown, the neighborhood north of Girard. But that’s the perception, and it’s generally correct: Another day, I chat with two cops sitting in their car outside Henneberry’s, a drugstore on 24th Street, and ask them who commits crimes here, large and small. Mostly, they say, black guys from North Philly.

One early evening, just as light is fading, I chat for half an hour with a short, middle-aged woman named Claire who’s walking two terri-poos at 26th and Poplar. She’s a blunt-speaking widow who’s lived a couple blocks south for 30 years. I ask Claire if racial dynamics have changed over time. “It’s mostly white people,” she says, “so there’s no dynamic to change.” I motion Claire down 26th a few doors, out of earshot of a black guy standing at the corner, to ask:

“Do you find that you need to treat African-Americans any differently, to tread lightly, to worry about what you might say?”

“No,” she says. “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” A black woman comes out of the rowhouse behind us, and Claire adds, certainly loud enough for the woman to hear, and probably the guy on the corner, too, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.”

As Claire heads home with her terri-poos, I sit on a stoop for a minute to consider her. Three decades on these streets have given her a level of comfort—Claire is not afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Though that stance has certain limits; she doesn’t venture above Girard with the terri-poos.

The same Sunday morning I talk to Anna, I move half a block up the alley and get a decidedly different perspective.

Paul is working on his Yamaha—it’s got a balky carburetor. He’s 29, a chunky, pleasant guy with a short goatee and black-frame glasses. When we met, Paul was renting a house with three buddies. He studied architecture at Temple, but he’s bounced around, rehabbing houses, waiting on tables, getting freelance design jobs here and there. It’s a tough economy for architects, though he recently latched on at a firm in the city.

The morning after he moved in three and a half years ago, Paul says, he came out to the alley, and a young black kid—12 or 13—was standing there.

“Hey, what’s up?” the kid said, like they were friends. “You go to college?”

“No, I graduated.”

“Still have some friends in college?”

“A few.”

“You want some OCs?” Oxycontin. “Your friends want some?”

Paul told him no. The kid moved on down the alley.

I ask Paul if that gave him pause, whether he thought he’d moved to the wrong neighborhood.

“No,” he says. “I got laid off in October ’08 and was out of work for six months. I had to find money—it gave me a different perspective. And it seemed this kid was just trying to make money. He was just trying to get by. I come from a different world—I don’t think I’ll ever have to sell drugs. I did have to beg for a job as a waiter at 25—that’s as low as it would go for me.”

A man of perspective, Paul, a very evenhanded guy. But that night, something dawns on me: Confronted with a drug dealer in his new neighborhood, Paul understood that the guy had to find a way to get by. That he was struggling. That he had made an economic decision. But the “guy” who wanted to sell Oxycontin to Paul was a child—one probably in seventh grade.

What’s his life like? Who’s he working for? A few weeks later, I have dinner with Paul in South Philly and ask him if he’s ever thought more about the kid who offered him Oxycontin.

“No,” Paul says. “It’s easier to put it out of your mind and not think about it. The truth is kind of a dark thing.”