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My Philadelphia: West Philly

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By S.R. Grant

I moved to Philadelphia in 1989, leaving my parent's home in Pittsburgh to establish my own household. I was 25,
idealistic, and excited about moving to a major urban center. Since coming here
I have always lived west of the Schuylkill. My first apartment was at 42nd
and Baltimore. My first impression was how dirty it was. Pittsburgh is a clean
town, and though I had been blessed to literally travel the world and had gone
to college in Atlanta, I was struck hard by the debris that seemed to be
everywhere. Soon, I would realize that I had no real idea how nasty
Philadelphia streets can be.

On the plus side, I would also come to appreciate the diversity of the area that is West Philadelphia, defined as a
triangle going from 42nd Street west to the 60's and Market Street
south to Baltimore Avenue. In the 20-plus years I have lived here I have seen
tremendous changes in the community, all of them fueled by the people who have
come and gone in this mini metropolis. It has been a veritable kaleidoscope of
humanity. When I think about my neighborhood, I don't think about the buildings
or the businesses, but the people. I define them into four loose
6008949847_a02fcc512a_z.jpgcategories,
each with sub-groups, many with elements that overlap: the indigenous African
Americans, the Muslims, the immigrants, and the European Americans.

African Americans have lived in West Philadelphia for 50 years or more, but now many are being pushed further and
further west due to gentrification. They can be divided into three sub-groups:
the traditional, working/middle class; the Black Nationalists; and an
increasing number of poor and disfranchised.  The working class folks are the ones who go to work every
day and are striving hard - as they always have - to maintain a decent standard
of living and provide opportunities for their families. Beginning in the 50's,
West Philadelphia was the neighborhood these people came to when they "moved
up" from North and South Philadelphia. They were drawn by the neighborhood's
large row homes with substantial porches on wide streets with vibrant shopping
corridors like 52nd and 60th Streets.

Later, in the 60's and 70's, the nationalists arrived: men and women who responded to the turmoil of the Civil Rights Era
with a deepening identification with the international African diaspora. They
are often identifiable by their modified African dress and natural hair, as
well as an elevated air of intellectualism and cultural and political
awareness. Some are more radical than others; they range from the lauded House
of Umoja to MOVE.

Poor people have always lived in the neighborhood, but this urban underclass has become especially visible to me --
multiple generations epitomizing the decline of vital urban cores. Heavily
tattooed young women abound, with inkings that have little artistic value,
heavily weaved with the hair of Asians sewn on their scalps, pristinely
manicured toes, and a slumping carriage that somehow serves as a beacon to
their deprived station in life. The young men are sometimes scruffy, sometimes
freshly shaven and cut, but all wearing the same uniform - oversize white tees
or wife beaters, jeans, and Timberland boots,  with generous amounts of their asses dangling out from above
their jeans or shorts. Overwhelmingly they are jail birds, felons, men living
their lives with multiple strikes.

6009498622_0e69a16129_z.jpgThere is a large Muslim population in this community, many who are quite observant. If you happen to be on 52nd
Street around noon you will hear the Arabic dhuhr prayer, beautiful and
haunting and blasting from a loudspeaker from a building near Market Street. In
addition to the African-American Muslims, there are huge numbers of immigrant
Muslims from Southeast Asia and West Africa. They can be found along the 52nd
Street corridor, in shops and at vending stations along the sidewalk, selling
oils and clothes and accessories of every kind. There are several mosques in
the community. In these sacred places, people come together from different
parts of the world to worship Allah, and more and more are intermarrying, as
evidenced by the mixed children commonly seen on the hips of their
African-American mothers. Among these women one can see a range of expression
in their clothes. Some are quite modern, wearing the hijab as well as stylish
American clothing, using the head dress as an anchor for their cell phones as
they prattle away in very urban and sometimes gauche conversations. Others
cover their faces, reflecting identification with a culture not native to them
or their circumstances. The Black American Muslim men can be spotted by their
triangular beards, kofis, and Middle Eastern-esque attire.

Then there are the imported, the immigrants, substantial in their numbers and their influence on the community. In addition
to the various West African and Southeast Asian tribes, there are the blacks
from the Caribbean, East Africans mostly from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and shop
owners from places like China, Korea and Cambodia. Most recently Latinos have
made their way into the neighborhood, namely Dominicans who own bodegas and
hair salons along 52nd Street and other areas. Among all these
immigrants, as time goes on, there is a clear delineation emerging. The first
generations raised in America are different from their parents, in their
clothes and communication styles. Though still connected to their ethnic
origins through language, culture and tight family bonds, they stand out as odd
extensions of their clans. Not quite foreign, nearly American.   

Then there are the white folks, and their various sub-groups. A half a century ago this neighborhood had many white
residents; they moved on as the blacks moved in. The Anarchists have seemingly
always been present, living so far off the grid that they cannot even be
considered an underclass. They live and traverse in groups, with dogs in tow,
dressed in tatters, looking as if they could benefit from soap and water and
some healthy food. Their dogs, too. Then there are the college students, who
live in the neighborhood while they attend Penn or Drexel or the other schools
to the east.  But, once you get
into the mid- and upper-40's, there are more and more young professional
couples and families in greater numbers. Buoyed by Penn's insidious and
relentless gentrification process, it is now not uncommon to see young women
jogging in shorts with headphones, walking their dogs, or strolling their
babies all the way up to 52nd Street often late at night, a sight
that never would have been seen 10 years ago. By far this population is
characterized by their sheer arrogance. They seem oblivious to how their
presence has displaced so many, and they seem to have forgotten that though it
may appear bucolic, this is still the hood. It is true that security patrols
and police presence have increased incrementally with their arrival (along with
the value of the houses!), but it is stupid to forget where you are and what
absolutely can go down. In the 11 years that I have lived at 50th
and Spruce Streets, there have been at least five murders within blocks of me -
including one just across the street at 5 p.m. on a Sunday. There is the
grunge-hipster set, walking around in novelty tees, multiple piercings and ink,
some with beers in hand. They have moved into the heart of the neighborhood,
way past 52nd Street. They live communally, being typical young
people who like to party and partake. Their attitude seems to be less one of
hubris than a sense of kindred with the indigenous.

I have chosen to stay in this part of the City of Brotherly Love all these years because there is no other place like it. From
Chinese food stores to delis and pizza shops, from boutiques to coffee shops
and designer restaurants, from neighborhood bars and pubs, from the pitiful and
tragic curbside memorials for murder victims to the exclusive swim club off of
Spruce Street, from black to brown to yellow and white, the careful and somehow
collaborative existence that all these components bring together is an
attractive mix for a small-city girl who was looking for a metropolis.

S.G. Grant's last essay for Metropolis was titled At Last, I Am In Love.

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Photographer Robert Lybeck has created a YouTube slideshow about the architectural ornaments on city buildings that we are in danger of losing, due to demolition and the wear and tear of time.  He calls it Vanishing Treasures.  (All photos copyrighted by Lybeck)




 


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