Having had a Philly childhood (“youthood” sounds more accurate) I have gained:
1. A certain indefinable sarcastic sense of humor intertwined with a constant fear/expectation of violence that I think protects people but only puts everyone else on edge.
Because of Philadelphia I have lost:
1. My ability to take people from South Jersey seriously when they pretend they are tough or have street-cred.
Philly is world famous for:
1. O.V. Catto
This is classic. One thing you won’t know unless you’re from the area is that the neighborhood they’re in is extremely wealthy and the older tow-man’s accent is very working class. No clip embodies the Philadelphia attitude more than the older guy here. He IS Philadelphia in a nutshell.
Report from CNN on gun violence in Philly from 2007 and specifically the fight between the city and the state of Pennsylvania over gun laws. Vince Fumo, the cocky state legislator featured in the film clip is now in jail on corruption charges.
Local news report on a murder. Imagine watching this every day and imagine what the psychological effect is for the people growing up there and then walking out on the street and staring at everyone wondering if they’re armed.
Onto a much happier topic, here’s a great piece on the Philly Cheestake and the famous Pats vs. Genos rivalry. For the record Genos has better steaks but I don’t eat there because of the politics of their founder Joey Vento. Plus, there’s a steak-shop in Roxborough called Delasandros which has the best chicken steaks on the planet.
Below is my high school’s TV program. It gives an excellent feel for what the place looks and feels like. 2,600 students attend in a building designed for half that many. We have seven lunch periods to fit everyone in.
Central High School is one of the city’s “magnet schools” and along with Boston Latin and Stuyvesant in New York is one of the three best and most prestigious urban public schools in America (for my foreign readers: unlike in England public in America means a government funded school, a private school is one parents pay for). A magnet school http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnet_school is an American public school in which the school takes the best students from all over the school’s home district. It is given additional resources (better teachers, added funding) with which to provide a better education than the neighborhood schools. Philadelphia’s magnet schools (Central, Girls High, Masterman and Carver, my brother’s alma mater) are a literal life-line for the city’s working and middle class residents. Without them many middle class people (especially many middle class black families, not to mention most of the cities whites) would have abandoned the city a generation ago.
In plain English most Philadelphia public high schools are shit. While in most bad suburban or rural schools kids are just bored, in Philadelphia they fight. And if the students don’t end up incarcerated from the fighting, they get sent to so-called “disciplinary schools” which are basically dry-runs for prison. The kids are locked down, not taught anything (as of 2007 when I last knew someone who attended one of these “schools” they didn’t even permit pencils because they could be used as weapons so the students were given crayons to write with) and then sent home on a secure bus (they’re banned from public transportation because of previous violent incidents). They don’t even have backpacks. Granted, the vast majority of students in regular neighborhood schools aren’t fighting or trying to disrupt classes. But just enough are disrupting class to keep learning to a minimum and make the majority of even the most committed teachers give up trying to get the students to learn anything (which is undoubtedly why they misbehave in the first place, i.e. a catch-22). So in short little learning gets done in most neighborhood schools. My neighborhood high school, Germantown High, was known for being particularly violent. A survey of students in the late 90s found that after ten years twice as many people who walk in on the first day are in prison than have completed a college degree. The dropout rate in the district is around 50% and Germantown is even worse. The few (and it’s usually between one and two dozen) who get into a college rarely are prepared well enough to make it through. Another painful truth about Germantown High School, along with many schools in the district, is it’s simply not safe for white students to attend. Outsiders often scoff when I mention this (so I try not to) but anyone growing up in Philly today or with children in the public schools knows that there are really only a half dozen neighborhood high schools that whites still attend. I’m not going to try to explain it or justify it, that’s just reality. What’s absurd is that one of the feeder neighborhoods (Chestnut Hill) is nearly entirely white, and the neighborhood I grew up in (Mt. Airy) was mixed (67% black, nearly 30%white). So if everyone went to my neighborhood school it would be 1/3 white.
Needless to say, every white family, as well as most of the black families in the neighborhood don’t want their kids going there and exhaust all options before they step foot in the place. Students who do well and don’t come from money go to Central. Students from families with money either go to Central, another magnet school or a private school (many actually go to private school because they didn’t do well enough on standardized tests to get into Central!). Students from families with no money who didn’t do well enough to get into Central try for magnet programs at other schools, then try charter schools, then parochial schools. In short, the strategy is “anything but the neighborhood school.” So Central really is a lifeline. The vast majority of Central graduates not only go on to college but finish with a degree. Which, under normal economic circumstances (not now for instance) means a job and no need to participate in Philadelphia’s biggest employer, the drug trade. And many of us get an extraordinary education to boot. Not only did I learn to write properly, but I also gained my love of foreign languages thanks to two extraordinary Spanish teachers. My confidence with Spanish got me into Yiddish, which in turn got me into sociolinguistics, ethnography, non-profit management, and literature, all things I would have never imagined myself doing five years ago. (Although with all the hanging clauses and run-ons in this blog post my 9th grade English teacher who taught me how to write properly would flunk me for this post, because it’s not exactly “written properly.” Ah well. But the point is if it weren’t for five of my teachers at Central I wouldn’t be half the person I am today intellectually speaking.) Central was also not only the most diverse high school in the city but maybe the most diverse high school of its size in the entire country. (I couldn’t find the figures but it was along the lines of 35% black, 25% white, 25% Asian, 5% Latino when I attended).
This is an old commercial from the 70s with a priceless Philly accent. Nothing made me happier than when I ran into a woman my age here in Valencia (Spain!) who had that exact same exact. She was a Puerto-Rican from Kensington visiting family.
^6 The first shooting I witnessed I heard the gunshots but didn't see the shooting because both the shooter and the victim were in the middle of a melee involving nearly 100 people. This was in Germantown. I was on a bus about thirty yards away. Nearly 300 people were in the immediate vicinity. The second shooting took place right outside of Central. A man who had murdered a police officer was hiding in an apartment building. I waited for the bus every day outside of this apartment building, really a set of buildings. As I was standing there waiting for the bus, police backed up by a swat team, stormed the building and a gunfight ensued. I could see people running inside of the building but I didn't see much because I ran for cover along with everyone else (including a news-crew from WPVI, our ABC affiliate) inside the store in the building. When the gunfire stopped after a few minutes I came out just in time to see the cop-killer taken into custody. He had been shot a few times and was driven to a hospital, where police officers famously beat him as doctors tried to bring him into the hospital on a stretcher. After killing a cop in cold-blood (and in this case it was completely senseless premeditated murder) and opening fire outside when two thousand students were coming out of school I really couldn't disagree with their action.