Best of VoxPop: City Life
By Susan Toland
It is no coincidence that I now live only a few blocks from Independence Hall. When I was a toddler, I was determined to do everything by myself, so my grandfather dubbed me the Declaration of Independence. The name still suits me. To appreciate this, you need to know that I am legally blind. That means that I have minimal sight in one eye and none in the other, and no depth perception. While I can get around without the assistance of either a guide dog or a white cane, I can't read street signs or facial expressions, and I hold printed matter inches from my eyes to read it. You will be relieved to learn that the state of
From 1956 to 2007, my family and I lived a suburban life within the city limits, in the Torresdale section of the Northeast. A car was required for everything, and walking was looked on with some suspicion.
I returned from college in the Midwest in 1973 to find myself drawn to all that Center City had to offer--galleries, theatres, libraries, universities--and the people who animate them. The challenge was to find my way into and around this new landscape alone. My parents prepared me well for this. My mother, forward-thinking woman that she was, made sure that I learned how to take the Route 66 trackless trolley and the Market-Frankford line into town and I memorized the underground stops. My Dad explained the genius of Thomas Holme's design for William Penn's Greene Country Towne; laid out between the
From shopping trips with Mother, I already knew how to find my way to Bonwit Teller's at 17th and Chestnut Streets. For some time, I went everywhere starting at the clock embedded in the sidewalk there. I'd hear Mother's directions in my ear, "Face 12. Now walk two blocks to your right..." This system worked, but became cumbersome and a little silly. I began to develop a personal geography of landmarks based on the width of certain streets, the distinctive shapes of specific buildings and glimpses of trees in one of the squares. These became the shorthand that anchored my understanding of the city. That's not to say I didn't get hopelessly turned around or end up blocks from my destination. I did, but then discovery is often a hit or miss process.
Gradually, I became confident enough to venture into town in the evening. That meant that I had to develop a new lexicon of nighttime landmarks--the configuration of lights on the skyscrapers, the street lamps that defined a square as distinct from a street, the subtle changes in traffic noise, and the flow of headlights toward or away from me.
My low vision frustrated my efforts to find a full-time job for nearly 10 years after graduation, but finally, I went to work at a
Though I might have envied the
We lost Mother and Dad within 10 months of each other. When they were gone, my family home became a house of ghosts and, without a car, my life there threatened to isolate me and keep me dependent on the kindness of willing relatives and friends. Gradually, I began to see past my grief. Though my roots were in Torresdale, transplantation started to seem possible. Encouraged by my family, I lifted my head and looked south, toward town. I knew that in
I love going to the suburbs to visit my family and friends, but I'm always happy to come out of the Market East Station onto the familiar streets of my neighborhood; always glad to be home.