Making Sense of the Fear Over Germantown H.S. Closure

Wounds from an old neighborhood turf battle are reopened.

When the School District of Philadelphia announced at the beginning of this year that it was closing 37 schools—a number later whittled down to 29—parents whose children attended schools on the hit list raised a hue and cry all over the city.

Such outrage is only natural. Some of it had to do with community cohesion—schools have historically been neighborhood anchors—and some of it had to do with safety: Many parents worry about sending their children long distances to school.

But the outrage was especially loud in Germantown, where the neighborhood high school will close one year short of its 100th anniversary. And safety loomed large in the minds of the protesters.

The trouble, it seems, has to do with longstanding turf rivalries among the smaller neighborhoods of Germantown and West Oak Lane. Martin Luther King High, which most of the students currently at Germantown will likely attend, is in the latter neighborhood.

I recently moved to the area. My neck of Germantown has seen better days, and the crime stats show plenty of it in the area—mostly people taking things from other people or their houses—but it doesn’t feel particularly dangerous to me.

Little do I know, apparently.

A friend of mine a few days back asked me if I could help him make sense of the turmoil over the decision to close Germantown High. After digging a bit into the history that underlies that turmoil, it doesn’t make much sense to me either.

It seems that what I’ve just called “East Germantown” is actually a thicket of small neighborhoods whose younger residents have been fighting each other for decades: Haines Street. Dogtown. The Brickyard. Somerville. Each with its own gang that defends its turf fiercely.

Back in the early 1970s, when King opened, it was paired with Germantown in an experiment that sent students throughout Northwest Philadelphia to King for 9th and 10th grade and Germantown for the final two years. The idea was to bridge the territorial and socioeconomic divides that define much of the Northwest still.

The experiment quickly fell apart. Students didn’t like the idea of being uprooted in the middle of high school, and the gang rivalries the plan was intended to quell simply moved inside the school walls. Parents from the more affluent parts of the district also soon began agitating to split the two schools into separate attendance districts.

The kids who were fighting then are parents themselves now, and their memories of those years inform their thinking today. The streets of East Germantown and West Oak Lane may be fairly quiet now, but they could erupt again if their children are forced to pass through alien territory on their way to and from school, they say.

All this seems strange to both my friend and to me. But neither of us are from here. He grew up in an affluent African-American neighborhood in a Hartford suburb, and I hail from a middle-class district of Kansas City, where residents resemble those of West Oak Lane. Neither of us recall having to watch our backs if we walked just a few blocks from home. The need to “rep”—to define your territory and defend it with violence—I just can’t understand. Nor could he. Nor do I really want to.

And the strange thing is, it seems that many of those who once repped themselves don’t want the tradition to continue either. Yet almost all of them, when they talk to reporters, sound as though they consider themselves powerless to stop it. Surely this can’t be the case.

Sandy Smith, editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog, is a veteran reporter and editor with more than 30 years’ experience in journalism and public relations under his belt. In addition to launching award-winning newspapers at the University of Pennsylvania and Widener University, he has written articles and essays for the Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and numerous regional and global online publications.