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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Philadelphia.. Or what the madhouse has given me

I’m from Philadelphia, that energetic madhouse known internationally as the “city of brotherly love” and to locals as anything from “killadelphia” to “whiz-town” (after our pension for cheese whiz). I’d be able to write about life in Philadelphia and its culture endlessly for a year if I only knew where to start. Growing up in a place like Philly (which is what locals call it) you can’t help but be molded by the insights, traumas, culture and attitude gained from being raised in a city that constantly offers the very best and worst of humanity delivered in a style all its own. I don’t know where to start with Philadelphia because I wouldn’t be anything like I am if I had grown up elsewhere. It’s always there. During the first eight years of life minerals collect under a child’s gums so that when an autopsy is done on an adult the pathologist (or archeologist) can tell where the person grew up. That’s what Philly is like for me, always present, engrained under the surface, omnipresent in my character. It’s too important for me to know how to attack as a writer and yet too influential for me to ignore. So I’ve decided to make some lists and find some Youtube clips that capture a lot of what Philadelphia is to me.

Having had a Philly childhood (“youthood” sounds more accurate) I have gained:

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.

2. A weird accent along with the words “jahn,” “wooder,” “gravy,” “budda,” “hoagie,” “pav-ah-ment”, “ac-ah-mi” and “inst-ti-tuu-shin.”

3. A longing for tastykakes no matter where I am in the world.

4. The ability to effectively read peoples’ intentions along with the inability to ever fully trust them despite knowing that they mean me no harm.

5. A love of the underdog and a hatred of people with money.1

6. The ability to root against an individual player while rooting for his team.

7. A semi-rational fear of raccoons and possums.

8. An irrational hatred of all authority and a rational fear of the police.

9. A belief that all mayors are corrupt and some are murderers (see mayors Rizzo and Good) and if they are neither then they aren’t doing their jobs. 2

10. The ability to distinguish between all sorts of drugs by sight, types of gunshots by sounds, and levels of authenticity by smell3.

Because of Philadelphia I have lost:

My ability to take people from South Jersey seriously when they pretend they are tough or have street-cred.

2. My love of firearms. 4

3. Neighbors, acquaintances, and schoolmates to gun-violence.

4. Any respect for people who grew up on the Main Line or in Cherry Hill and say they’re from “Philly.”

5. A good deal of what others would call manners.

6. Any sympathy for racists, especially black ones. 5

7. Any respect from most people at Rutgers whenever I say “hoagie.”

8. Any desire to ever do drugs.

9. The ability to root for any national league team other than the Phillies.

10. Any respect for Bill Cosby (believe me: you don’t want to know!/266 WOOT).

11. The sense of innocence people from other places seem to have.

12. The ability to watch a debate on gun-control and say “it’s not my problem.”

13. The desire to eat any packaged desserts but tastykakes.

14. The blurring between fear and respect. I know that people are usually not worth respecting if you have to fear them. If only most people in urban areas knew this too. 15. Any idea of what “real-American food” is supposed to mean. To me “real-American” food growing up was Chinese, soul food (hushpuppies, collard greens, candied yams) pizza, shoofly pie (from the Amish who sell it in Philly), and spaghetti with gravy (what we called tomato sauce). I never thought Jewish food was American food growing up but people in NYC think differently! I’ve encountered New Yorkers who have no idea that knishes, bagels, bialys, pastrami or lox are all Jewish foods even though they were eating them as I was speaking to them.

Philly is world famous for:
1. Cheesestakes.

2. The declaration of independence/the liberty bell.

3. Having the first fire company in the world.

4. Having the first electronic computer in the world.

5. Inventing the Stromboli and popularizing the soft pretzel.

6. Being the American capital and America’s most populous city in the 1700s.

7. Having the rudest sports fans in America.

8. Random murders sparked by chance encounters between strangers as well as the Philly coined “parkby murder” (when someone is murdered over a parking spot, a variation on “drive-by” shooting) and just plain loads of violence.

9. Having some of the best colleges in America (UPENN, Temple, Drexel etc) as well as some of its worst high-schools.

10. A fictional boxer named Rocky and a fictional gay lawyer dying of AIDS played by Tom Hanks.

11. The mummers, American bandstand, Will Smith, Grace Kelly.

12. Ben Franklin.

Philadelphia should be world famous for:
O.V. Catto

2. Tastykakes/butterscotch krimpets!!!!!

3. Being the most corrupt major city in America. (I’ll never forget that day in 2003 when an FBI planted recording device was put in mayor John Street’s office and the mayor went on television and announced that any city employee who cooperates with the government’s investigation would be punished. This took place 27 days before a mayoral election which Street won handedly).

4. Having the best Lacrosse team in the world.

5. Having the best park system (practically a nature reserve) of any major city I’m aware of. You can walk from near my house to Center City (downtown Philadelphia, 8 miles away) while staying completely within the park system and almost entirely within deep wooded forests. Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Commission maintains an astounding 9,200 acres of land within the city, including the beautiful Wissahickon Valley Park.

6. Having environmentally conscious residents. This is due in no small part to the presence of the aforementioned parks and societies that protect it.

7. The Mummers Parade

8. Strombolis.

9. Jim Obrien (News Anchor/Weatherman, most beloved Philadelphia television personality in history. Although best remembered as the funniest weatherman ever, he was a serious journalist who did on-air interviews and editorials that made or broke political careers. He might have become a major national celebrity as a nighttime talk-show host were it not for his death in a parachuting accident in 1983).

10. Being the “hometown” of Quakerism and being founded as the world’s only Quaker city.

11. Being America’s premier city of neighborhoods. Although it’s been dying out for as long as I’ve been around, Philadelphia has always been a city where people know their neighbors and where individual neighborhoods have their own characters. Many families (and their extended families) have lived in the same neighborhoods and even the same houses for 4, 5, or even 6 generations. This may be normal in some parts of Europe but in the USA it’s something that is unheard of outside of Philadelphia and maybe Baltimore. This gives the city interesting enclaves based on race, religion, ethnicity, social class and even kinship networks of extended families and groups of extended families that are traditionally friendly with one another. Like London individual neighborhoods have their own traditional accents (well at least the white neighborhoods, Philadelphia black English is much more uniform). I can still tell to this day if someone (especially someone now middle-aged) is from Roxborough, the North-East, South Philly, Kensington or Olney (pronounced “All-uh-ni” by the white residents). Much of this has died out since the slow death of light-industrial factories (1970s-early 2000s) led to the loss of the city’s working class jobs and crack cocaine destroyed much of the city’s social fiber (1986-late 90s with the height around 90-92). Philadelphia’s population has decreased by nearly 500,000 since the 1960s. That figure is deceptively low, however, because nearly a million people have left the city in the past fifty years. This mass-exodus was made up of the city’s middle class residents who were “replaced” with wealthier newcomers from all over the country. The cultural traditions of individual neighborhoods begin to die as families who had lived in the same neighborhoods for generations were replaced by people who typically stayed no more than a few years in one place. Even worse for the city was that as the neighborhoods died as distinct units people didn’t “look out” for each other and their kids as much. Where each neighborhood used to feel like a small-town unto itself (socially at least), Philadelphia now feels much more like a jungle city where everyone is out on their own.

Here are some films from or about Philadelphia on Youtube that I selected because they highlight prominent aspects of the city’s character.

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.

This is an in-depth piece from the BBC about the effects of globalization on Philadelphia in the year 2000. Most of the talking heads aren’t too impressive but the film gives a wonderful sense of Philadelphia’s working poor (or in this case “formerly working” poor) through interviews detailing the impact of plant-closures. The documentary highlights the efforts of the extraordinary Kensington Welfare Rights Union and its dynamic leader Cheri Honkala. You can hear a classic Roxbourough accent at 2:25. What’s freakiest about this piece today is that when it was filmed ten years ago most people in Philadelphia thought of the era as a boom period. Now, with the current global financial crises unemployment has exploded in Philadelphia and affects people in all industries. Even the service industry which was viewed as being recession proof is no longer a sure bet. Unemployment among African American males my age is around 50% in Philadelphia. You can get the gist of the program from just the first 5 minutes but the scene at 15:00 is also an extremely revealing look at the “third-worldization” of the US. Also of note is the fact that the dotcom bust took place just a few months after this documentary was released, taking with it the absurdly overvalued Verticalnet featured in the program which was recently estimated to have been overvalued by 10 billion dollars. Everyone involved with that venture went bankrupt.

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.

About 13,000 people were shot in Philadelphia between 2000 and 2010. 406 people were killed in 2006, my junior year of high school. That, along with 2007 (392 murders), were the scariest years I remember. During those two years I witnessed two shootings and was mugged once (I was mugged my sophomore year as well)^6. The murder rate has dropped off a bit in the past two years. 305 people were murdered in Philly last year.

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 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.

1 Philadelphians hate wealthy people or the “Nuevo-rich” but like all Americans love money. Go figure.
2 Again, Philly sarcasm.
3 There is a cold truth behind the phrase “I smell a rat.”
4 I’m a very good shot with a .22 and have junior marksmanship from the NRA to prove it.
5 Many liberal whites who grow up in the suburbs believe that pointing out black racism is somehow racist against blacks. Nothing could be further from the truth. Enough run-ins with the (violent) clowns at the West Philly New Black Panther Party will teach you that. Note: The NBP has nothing to do with the old one, which was not a racist organization whatsoever. It should also be noted that racism is much more overt among blacks than whites in Philadelphia. Any white racist with a choice would live far away from a mostly black city so it’s quite rare to encounter one.
^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.

1 comment:

  1. "Don't get frantic, call Atlantic." Wow...I totally forgot about those commercials. She really does have one of the quintessential Philly accents.

    And how did I not know that strombolis were invented in Philly? I had no idea...they were just a standard part of my childhood.