By Robert Hamilton
There's something about being a Philadelphian that becomes indelible within one's character. Something about the experiences that makes you sort of shock proof. I've got my stripes, that's for sure. My family has lived in My. Airy, Southwest Philly, Germantown and, for the past 13 years, West Philadelphia. Because I've lived in West for most of my life, I've taken to explaining to people that I was born and raised here.
Saying that you're just from Philadelphia is too vague, and saying that you're from a bad part of town puts people off. Typically, I get a response like "Isn't that where Will Smith is from?" I usually reply "Yes, he went to my rival high school, actually." A true Philadelphian is not timid. Timid goes out the window when you live in neighborhoods riddled with violence. Timid disappears when you attend elementary, middle, and high school with inner-city kids. And, truth be told, you're better off for it.
Of the places we've lived in the city, Mt. Airy was incontrovertibly the most beautiful. We'd moved there one summer when I was a child and we were gone by the next. It was a mild winter that year, so I'll always remember the place as being graced by eternally favorable weather. It was the only time in our lives we, --my brother and I -- were safe enough to play outside. We had friends. Children up and down the block. We were privileged enough to play with a different child every day if we chose. It was the 1997-1998 school year. I'd started kindergarten late, my birthday falls in November so I'd missed the September deadline to be 5 years old by almost two months the previous year. I didn't cry on my first day. Edmond's elementary was my escape from long days being babysat by my Grandmother, who was only fun until her noon nap, at which point I was left to entertain myself. Looking back, it was the only time I have ever attended school in an environment where the children were not hostile, too young to be jarred by the city they lived in. Protected. Loved.
Our leaving Mt. Airy was sudden and unexpected. We had only ever visited my Grandmother's house in West Philly once, on the way to The County Fair in nearby Fairmount Park. This time, she'd collected my brother and I from our house and taken us to her home to spend the weekend. We bid our friends farewell, off for whatever adventures awaited us in this new placed we'd never stayed the night at. We never saw them again. Not in passing, not years later on Facebook. It turned out that our mother and stepfather's lease on our Mt. Airy apartment was not renewed because the landlord had family he wanted to rent it out to. With such short notice, we had no option but to rent an apartment from my Grandmother. She owned two duplexes right next door to each other. During the 12 years we lived there, we would live in each of those apartments at some point.
I remember how odd it was that my parents and my baby sister had come to visit us during that weekend, bringing bags and bags of clothes. It was later explained to us that this was our new home. I didn't know how to feel. I'd never seen a street like this one before. Our next door neighbors were a huge, highly dysfunctional family who would sit on their front porch with various characters from the neighborhood on all but the coldest days of the year.
My brother and I became fickle friends with their two boys. Our days spent playing with them would usually end with them hitting us or stealing our toys. School was also a huge adjustment. Heston Elementary was overcrowded, with an average of 32 kids in each class. Learning how to read was a struggle, the teacher couldn't adequately address each issue while breaking up fights. I was bullied. I laughed about this as I got older, thinking, 'Well, she could have either taught you to read or kept you alive'.
Until moving to West Philly, we never knew what it was not to be safe. I recall not being able to go the playground without an adult because the older boys who played basketball would often get into disputes involving guns. I remember walking to the store in the dead of winter with my older brother. This guy just came over to us and snatched the hats off our heads. We knew better than to attempt to get them back. All we could do was cry.
It was one of the first times we really realized where we lived and what it meant to reside in this part of our city. All this being said, we've all but made it. As I write, my brother is waiting to ship out for boot camp as he recently enlisted in the Navy and I'm a student at The University of the Arts earning a B.F.A . in Writing for Film and Television. We're on our way, and for all of it's negativity and cruelty, a childhood spent in West Philadelphia has so much to do with wanting more.