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Change Comes To Lawncrest

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By Elizabeth McGinley

My mother once told me that people get friendlier as they get older.  Or is it that the social filter that guards our tongues loosens as we grow older, and perhaps lonelier?  Whatever the reason, many a senior citizen has chosen me as a confidant in many a waiting room.  Today, as I sat in a small waiting room of a dentist's office in the Lawndale neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia, a spry 80-something gentleman struck up a conversation with me.

We had covered the weather (would the winter never end?), the patient information sheets (what a bother), and new procedures in the dentist's office (why did we have to show IDs?), when the gentleman asked me if I lived in the neighborhood.  I told him I've lived in Lawndale for 22 years; he mentioned that he had worked at the nearby Lawncrest Recreation Center.  

Of course, he told me, he was there in the center's glory years (his as well, no doubt)--the fifties and sixties.  The recreation center wasn't what it used to be. Things in the neighborhood had changed, too, he lamented.  "Lawncrest used to be like a village; look at it now.  Lawndale's going down, too." 

Thumbnail image for Lawncrest Seopia.jpgI replied, mildly, though bristling inside, "Oh, Lawndale is still a good neighborhood."

"No," he said, "It's changing.  I can see it."

So we had come to a crossroads, or at least the possibility of cross words on my part.  I chose an oblique approach, "Well, that shooting at the jewelry shop on Rising Sun Avenue certainly was terrible.  But then, the robber wasn't from the neighborhood, was he?"

With been-there, seen-it-all assurance, he replied, "That's how it starts; they come into the neighborhood because it's nice...."

I realized my error:  I had inadvertently slipped into code.  To some white people, "not from the neighborhood" means "black."  But what I had meant was that the robber involved in the shooting literally was not from the neighborhood--he had escaped from prison shortly before the robbery.  There was no way that he reflected the hard-working, law-abiding people, African-American or otherwise, of our neighborhood.

I started to explain myself, just as the dentist's receptionist called me in.   More immediate issues--Novocaine and drills--grabbed my attention. The unfinished conversation bothered me, though, as I walked home. Who likes to hear that your neighborhood isn't "good" anymore; does the phrase "a changing neighborhood" ever mean "an improving neighborhood"? 

True, physical changes abound on the main commercial street, Rising Sun Avenue.  The bakery and pharmacy are both gone, replaced by rival cell phone stores.  The furniture store is a day-care center, one of a half-dozen lining the street.  What was once a real-estate office now sells cheesesteaks; the former card and gift shop sells locks and alarm systems. Did the older gentleman see those thriving enterprises themselves as signs of decline, or was he simply reacting to the fact that now many of the people owning, working, or patronizing those businesses do not look as if they could be his German, Irish, or Italian cousin? 

Surely, larger market forces, not the color of the residents' skins, are responsible for how the neighborhood has changed.  After all, when the Lawncrest Rec was in its heyday, mothers answered phones that hung on kitchen walls while their kids played in the driveways out back.

For many, the American Dream has gotten bigger--a row, twin, or single house in a well-maintained city neighborhood no longer seems a destination, but a stepping stone in the quest for the bigger, better life. But perhaps the people who move into--or who do not move out of--this changing neighborhood have a different definition of what makes a better life, a definition that doesn't include the racial isolation of the far suburbs--or the Lawndale of 50 years ago. 

As I turn the corner from Rising Sun Avenue to my side street, I notice that the trees our neighbors planted a few years ago are starting to bud.  The daffodils on our lawn should bloom soon, enjoying their own, brief, glory days.  A wave of schoolbag-bent kids--white, black, Hispanic, Asian--sweeps through the streets as the parochial school lets out. Perhaps the older gentleman from the dentist office, so convinced that the past was the way things should be, would look at these children and still not see what I see:  This is a good neighborhood.

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