I was a child of the 70s, negotiating an evolving place in society for both my gender and my race. I was born Negro, eventually deemed Black and eventually accepted the term African American. The small South Philadelphia enclave I landed in clung stubbornly to its past, trying against all odds to assure its particular brand of denizens that all would be ok. We were assured by listening to the same music, getting baptized in Grandma’s lifelong church or hanging on corners where doo-woppers harmonized.
As a girl, I would sit on my front steps as the summer days were cooled by the constant release of fire hydrant water — human-made fountains of refreshment that streamed on screaming kids and grateful adults. Cold winters were made warm by pots of food from neighbors, followed by gossipy phone calls between friends.
But I was born an outsider; a permanent visitor to my ‘hood. I felt different.
My arrival into this world came during a tug of war between my estranged parents. My mother, long distrustful of a poor colored woman’s treatment at the public hospital, decided to not inform my father of her contractions until my impending arrival scared my then seven-year-old sister enough to dash in the middle of the night to tell him the baby — me— was coming. I was born on the back seat of his car while crossing the Greys Ferry bridge as my father sped through three a.m. streets.
But mothering wasn’t for my mom. Within months, I was in my father’s exclusive care. Decades later, I’m still trying to figure out why. The little I know: My mother was simply was not into being a parent — birth control was difficult to obtain and she wasn’t the type of person to be saddled with a child. So, she just left.
Many years later, when I was a teenager, I bumped into her. “They wanted you,” she told me, meaning my father and the neighborhood of people around me who would care for me. My father took seriously the charge of raising me to be aware of my circumstances and the role I would play in the world.
I grew up knowing that my neighborhood was all but forgotten by the city, and certainly unacknowledged by residents that lived more than 10 minutes away. Our Black pocket was bordered by railroad tracks to the east, oil refineries to the north and white communities to the south and west. Getting in and out meant some level of negotiation either with a car or a conversation, or both.
These are the people who believed in me and held on to hope, when there seemed to be none at all.
There was drama in learning to survive as a girl child in the Philadelphia promised land, but there so many supportive guideposts along the way. My grandmother, a learned woman from the Deep South, relocated to assist her son, my father. Her job was to smooth the edges of a rough and tumble tomboy while appealing to other members of our village to assist in raising a motherless child. And that disparate community took me into its bosom.
There was Mrs. Howard, who started a Girl Scout troop in her basement and made sure we crafted Valentine’s Day cards for all of our neighbors. There was Miss Wilson, who started a community garden at the end of her dead end street and spent the spring and summer teaching us kids how to grow flowers and vegetables that competed in 4-H competitions next to Amish kids – and won! There was a snuff-dipping neighbor who patiently taught this little left-handed girl to crochet by having me sit below her on the stoop to see the technique. And, there was Mr. Francis, a kindly retired man who collected dozens of old glass-keyed typewriters and held weekly classes to teach us kids office skills. My father slipped me a dollar every week to pay for my lessons, saying, “As long as you know how to type, you’ll always have a job.”
But life happens, and change is inevitable. When the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s took hold and the city’s residents were at odds (just Google “Mayor Frank Rizzo” or “MOVE” for a snapshot of my childhood newsfeed), I packed my bags and hit the road. My travels took me to upstate New York, then Brooklyn, and back to Philly to reside in several areas.
No matter where I call home, my South Philly roots break through the surface. I sweep and shovel the fronts of seniors’ homes because, well, that’s simply what one does. And I always look up at second floor bedroom windows, because that’s where the grandmothers of my youth would be perched and on alert for danger.
All of those memories of a lifetime ago flooded back to the forefront of my mind when I drove through those still-neglected blocks several weeks ago. It had been years since I’d ventured back around the way, and it was still haggard and holding on. This was an area that, despite the claims of being the country’s mural capital, a beautification program hadn’t yet found it.
Within minutes, I saw people from my youth; their once supple skin and dark hair were replaced with wrinkles and gray. They lit up when they saw me. One woman, once a vixen that drew the attention of all the hot guys in the hood, gave a toothless grin when she spied me. She immediately declared that I still walked the same way I had as a child. Her description was one I hadn’t heard in years.
Here were the last members of the village that raised a motherless child. These are the people who believed in me and held on to hope, when there seemed to be none at all. These are the people who survived the white flight, community fights, drug invasions and the city’s inattentiveness – and are still standing to tell the story.
As much as I think I’ve changed, I’m still a pigeon-toed girl writing and sharing my neighborhood lessons —but far away from the place I use to call home.
(Photo: Henry Hemming/Flickr)