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My Philadelphia: Lawndale

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By Elizabeth McGinley

"Am I in need of a fix-up?" I wondered, 24 years ago, when a co-worker offered to introduce me to a young Philadelphia lawyer she knew.  In my mind, I pictured an urbane Rittenhouse Square denizen.  Having left my parents' house in the Northeast neighborhood of Wissinoming about seven years before to be closer to work, I was living in quiet Ambler. My heart, however, still belonged to Philadelphia, especially lively downtown Philadelphia.

Turns out the Philadelphia lawyer lived in the Northeast neighborhood of Lawndale, a mere 15 minutes from my parents' house, and I had passed (and admired) his house many times on my visits home.  During our courtship, that admiration turned sour-apple green when I realized the faded Victorian was my one serious rival. Before he proposed, Rich confessed he had dreamed of owning this particular house as a boy, on his way to Sunday school at the
Lawndale Presbyterian Church down the street.  After I agreed to at least begin our married life there, a mere three blocks from his parents' house, he crowed, "Now I've got the girl and
the house of my dreams."

But talk about needing a fix-up.  The house's original
owner, son of German immigrants, was a successful rug designer, artist, and
photographer. In 1887, he settled his wife and seven children in Lawndale, then
a small rural area bordering Montgomery County.  Frail and unable to keep up with house repairs, the last two of his five unmarried daughters sold the house to Rich in 1983. We sometimes joke, in between sighs, that our big old house was an unofficial scholarship
program for the children of the plumbers, roofers, painters, carpenters,
asbestos removers, and tile-layers who have made the house livable for us and
our two now college-age daughters .

People say when you marry, you marry your spouse's family, too. Well, I got Rich's solidly-built house and his closely-knit neighborhood as a bonus. Having parents/in-laws or siblings living close by remains the norm in Lawndale.  Coming from the anonymity of being single in the suburbs--oh, the nights I dined alone, undisturbed, at the Montgomery Mall--I found the close ties at times a little binding, especially when my in-laws commented that their friends on our street were keeping an eye on us:

 "Doris said you had a tough time inflating the girls' pool. Here's a pump you can use...."

 Oh, really? What else did Doris see/hear/report?

But I soon recognized--the next, scorching-hot, day-- that the pump was a blessing, and so was having neighbors who felt connected to their neighbors.  That sense of connection may be fraying, as older neighbors (like my wonderful in-laws) pass away, or "transition" into retirement/care facilities such as the nearby Philadelphia Protestant Home, where my parents spent their last days.

Some younger neighbors have moved away as well, not because they are racist, as they will explain over and over, but because they are convinced that more diversity in Lawndale will mean more crime.  "Aren't you afraid?" one former neighbor recently asked me, after she commented that she saw few white faces among the children playing on her old block.

Should I be afraid of Franklin and Harry, who spent hours helping other neighbors dig their cars out of the snow last February, or of Kedeisha, my younger daughter's classmate, or of
Malcolm, the five-year-old whose mother was afraid his heart would break when he learned my mother-in-law, "Miss Helen," had died? 

I would rather enjoy living in a neighborhood where children sell lemonade on tree-shaded sidewalks, and passersby take time to purchase... a neighborhood where seniors can age at home because their middle-aged neighbors drive them to the local Acme or Shop Rite or to their doctors' offices, or remember to "send over a plate" at holiday time... a neighborhood where teenagers offer to tote down heavy trash bags or to shovel a path when it snows.

As in many city neighborhoods, Lawndale neighbors get along by recognizing certain unwritten laws. Parking spaces in front of a house "belong" to its owners and should be empty when they return from work, especially if they work the night shift. Noisy, special-occasion (graduation, First Communion, Fourth of July) outdoor parties should not spill into the street and must end at an hour people who have to get up for work the next day consider reasonable. Lawns require mowing; dogs, leashing; kids, watching.  

These basic civilities aside, what makes me most hopeful about Lawndale is that when problems occur, the neighbors still rally to help.  On Mother's Day, a neighbor's son was robbed at gunpoint at the Lawndale train station as he waited in the early evening for a train to take him back to Temple University.  Before his mother and younger sister pulled away from the parking area, they saw five young men surround her son. When the terrified mother leaned on the horn,neighbors--African American and white--came running, dialing 911 on their cell
phones, and the miscreants took off. (How many suburbanites get out of their patio chairs when they hear a neighbor's car alarm?)

Maybe Lawndale could use a fix-up--or at least better policing near the train station.  But, as for me, I plan to adapt to neighborhood living some marital advice I read years ago. Instead of thinking about your husband's flaws--not that my husband has any--the columnist advised
asking yourself, "Would I like to be married to me?"  Then, concentrate on being the spouse you would like to have--and watch what happens.

 So as I pull weeds or pick up litter from the curb, I greet the young teen with the headphones and admire his Siberian husky, agree with the elderly gentleman that it's not the heat, it's the humidity, and acknowledge with a smile or nod everyone who walks by.  I'm not sure what will happen, but I plan to be the neighbor I would like to have...the neighbor my Lawndale
neighbors, past and present, taught me to be.  


Cover Photo: The McGinley home.

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Robert Lybeck is a prolific and skilled Philadelphia photographer who roams the city looking for small and intimate photos of places and things.  But he also does cityscapes -- broad and unusual views of the city as seen through the lens of his camera.  Here is a sample of Lybeck's recent work.  All photos are copyrighted and can be used only with the permission of the photographer.



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