It's been a little over 10 years since I was a teenager in Northeast Philly. Most of the neighborhoods are laid out on a grid and, back then; most lawns were well tended and uniform. On a cloud-covered day, the grayish light would marry with the gray concrete, transforming it into a world of dull, lackluster gray, which I fancied an appropriate metaphor for my experiences there. But, there was an impressive camaraderie. Though a single parent, my mother had resources. There were genuinely kind and decent people, and it was a place where I learned some questionable, but mostly useful, values and a work ethic. But there are other things about the Northeast worth remembering when I was a teenager.
In the mid-90's, before technology became invasive, being a teenager largely involved occupying physical space and finding a spot to socialize. For me, that was the Roosevelt Mall. I hung out there the summer before and after my senior year in high school, armed with a backpack filled with books and some booze, packs of cigarettes and always a change of clothes in case it rained. I hung out with people who spoke of things that mostly involved alternative music. I delighted in ideas that were foreign to me and that sparked my interest, being spouted out of the mouths of dirty-faced kids, who were certainly branded by Kurt Cobain's influence.
I remember there was a store called 'Way Out,' that sold band T-shirts and we would congregate there to listen to music. Our group was comprised of subsets, gaggles of kids who had known each other since kindergarten, but none of that mattered in front of Strawbridge's sitting in the basket chairs. I would sip vodka out of a Snapple bottle and read things like 'Helter Skelter' and 'Trainspotting,' while others sat in circles chain smoking and trying out ideas about politics and philosophy, and sometimes ideas about each other. At time, there was tension. Still, most returned, as if hanging out at the mall was something important. Something central to our existence, at that time and age.
We gathered at the mall because there were resources -- record shops, people who knew people who'd get us things to experiment with, a pool hall in a basement behind the mall that was like an underground lair. We claimed the whole mall as our own for a few summers, although legally we couldn't stand in one place for too long. We were forced to be nomadic, constantly asking each other what we were going to do that night. Often, it was never answered until the night was over, with the curfew fast approaching.
There were other spots too: The parking lot of the former 'Arnold's' where many of my guy friends made and maintained a makeshift skate park; the island at Cottman and Frankford, usually a meet-up spot or place to find an adult who could be approached to buy us alcohol; the pocket of woods that was part of Pennypack Park off of the Roosevelt Boulevard just before Ryan Avenue, where we would go to slip away from parents, cops and other teenagers, trading the concrete for a thick canopy of green from the trees overhead.
I now live close to Center City, but recently I decided to ride up to the Northeast and take a look at the Roosevelt Mall. I stayed in my car and slowly followed the same loop in front of the mall, now with entirely different stores. I was surprised how much it had changed. There were no more record stores, no more shops owned by the people behind the counter. It is now a collection of bog box chain stores, with no room for a funky pool hall, tucked into a corner. There were no people out, sitting on the benches or walking around. It was desolate.
I don't know if teenagers still hang at malls, but I have a hunch that if they do it is not with the same territorial intensity that my friends and I did. That was the late 90s. We were the first generation in history that could go to college -- all of us, regardless of what monetary means we had.
Hanging out in the Roosevelt Mall as a teenager seemed endlessly dull. It doesn't seem that way today. Looking back, I know the experience helped me carve out an identity - just by hanging out - and this changed the rest of my life. The Roosevelt Mall made me what I am today and some of my fondest memories are of the time I spent there. With long, thoughtful moments that were latent with possibility, with time spent with others relying on our wits and personalities to get us by. This was, for me, an important time and it will remain my lasting and predominant memory of the Northeast.