Being White in Philly

Robert Huber, Philly Mag, March 2013

My younger son goes to Temple, where he’s a sophomore. This year he’s living in an apartment with two friends at 19th and Diamond, just a few blocks from campus. It’s a dangerous neighborhood. Whenever I go see Nick, I get antsy and wonder what I was thinking, allowing him to rent there.

One day, before I pick him up for lunch, I stop to talk to a cop who’s parked a block away from Nick’s apartment.

“Is he already enrolled for classes?” the cop says when I point out where my son lives.

Well, given that it’s December, I think so. But his message is clear: Bad idea, this neighborhood. A lot of burglaries and robberies. Temple students are prime prey, the cop says.

{snip}

I’ve shared my view of North Broad Street with people—white friends and colleagues—who see something else there: New buildings. Progress. Gentrification. They’re sunny about the area around Temple. I think they’re blind, that they’ve stopped looking. Indeed, I’ve begun to think that most white people stopped looking around at large segments of our city, at our poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, a long time ago. One of the reasons, plainly put, is queasiness over race. Many of those neighborhoods are predominantly African-American. And if you’re white, you don’t merely avoid them—you do your best to erase them from your thoughts.

At the same time, white Philadelphians think a great deal about race. Begin to talk to people, and it’s clear it’s a dominant motif in and around our city. Everyone seems to have a story, often an uncomfortable story, about how white and black people relate.

{snip}

Another story: Dennis, 26, teaches math in a Kensington school. His first year there, fresh out of college, one of his students, an unruly eighth grader, got into a fight with a girl. Dennis told him to stop, he got into Dennis’s face, and in the heat of the moment Dennis called the student, an African-American, “boy.”

The student went home and told his stepfather. The stepfather demanded a meeting with the principal and Dennis, and accused Dennis of being racist; the principal defended his teacher. Dennis apologized, knowing how loaded the term “boy” was and regretting that he’d used it, though he was thinking, Why would I be teaching in an inner-city school if I’m a racist? The stepfather calmed down, and that would have been the end of it, except for one thing: The student’s behavior got worse. Because now he knew that no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly he behaved.

Confusion, misread intentions, bruised feelings—everyone has not only a race story, but a thousand examples of trying to sort through our uneasiness on levels large and trivial. I do, too. My rowhouse in Mount Airy is on a mostly African-American block; it’s middle-class and friendly—in fact, it’s the friendliest street my family has ever lived on, with block parties and a spirit of watching out for each other. Whether a neighbor is black or white seems to be of no consequence whatsoever.

Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s. A friend who walks to his car parked on Front Street downtown early each morning has a similar running joke with himself. As he walks, my friend says hello and makes eye contact with whoever crosses his path. If the person is white, he’s bestowing a tiny bump of friendliness. If the person is black, it’s friendliness and a bit more: He’s doing something positive for race relations.

On one level, such self-consciousness and hypersensitivity can be seen as progress when it comes to race, a sign of how much attitudes have shifted for the better, a symbol of our desire for things to be better. And yet, lately I’ve come to fear that the opposite might also be true: that our carefulness is, in fact, at the heart of the problem.

Fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement, more than 25 years after electing its first African-American mayor, Philadelphia remains a largely segregated city, with uneasy boundaries in culture and understanding. And also in well-being. There is a black middle class, certainly, and blacks are well-represented in our power structure, but there remains a vast and seemingly permanent black underclass. Thirty-one percent of Philadelphia’s more than 600,000 black residents live below the poverty line. Blacks are more likely than whites to be victims of a crime or commit one, to drop out of school and to be unemployed.

What gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color. Of course, it is black people who have faced generations of discrimination and who deal with it still. But our public discourse ignores the fact that race—particularly in a place like Philadelphia—is also an issue for white people. Though white people never talk about it.

Everyone might have a race story, but few whites risk the third-rail danger of speaking publicly about race, given the long, troubled history of race relations in this country and even more so in this city. {snip}

A few months ago I began spending time in Fairmount, just north of the Art Museum. Formerly a working-class enclave of rowhomes, it’s now a gentrifying neighborhood with middle-class cachet and good restaurants. I went to the northern edge, close to Girard Avenue, generally considered the dividing line from North Philly, and began asking the mostly middle-class white people who live there, for whom race is an everyday issue, how it affects them.

Strangely enough, a number of them answered. Their stories bring home just how complicated white people’s negotiation with race and class is in this city, and how varied: Everyone does have a race story, it turns out, and every story is utterly unique.

Early on, during my walks around northern Fairmount, I’m surprised by a couple of things. One is the international flavor. On a warm Sunday in October, I buttonhole a woman I’ll call Anna, a tall, slim, dark-haired beauty from Moscow getting out of her BMW on an alley just south of Girard College. Anna goes to a local law school, works downtown at a law firm, and proceeds to let me have it when we start talking about race in her neighborhood.

“I’ve been here for two years, I’m almost done,” she says. “Blacks use skin color as an excuse. Discrimination is an excuse, instead of moving forward. … It’s a shame—you pay taxes, they’re not doing anything except sitting on porches smoking pot … Why do you support them when they won’t work, just make babies and smoking pot? I walk to work in Center City, black guys make compliments, ‘Hey beautiful. Hey sweetie.’ White people look but don’t make comments. …”

{snip}

American whites I talk to in Fairmount have a decidedly different take. Our racial history, as horrible and daunting as it is, has created a certain tolerance of how things operate in the neighborhood, an acceptance of an edgy status quo.

One Fairmounter blames herself for her grill being stolen from her backyard, because if you don’t fence it in, she tells me, you’re asking for it. A pumpkin gets lifted from her front stoop in the fall, she buys another. That one gets stolen, she gets one more. It’s called city living. Flowerpots, even trash cans—they don’t stick around. Porch chairs have to be chained together. Your car window is likely to get smashed every now and then.

The danger can be a little steeper. One afternoon, at Krupa’s Tavern at 27th and Brown, a guy named Bob tells me about working in the mailroom at Rolling Stone magazine years ago and shows me an anthology of Beat-era writers he’s reading. I can’t resist asking him about his wire-rim glasses, which are way down on his nose and twisted at an absurd angle—there’s no way he can see out of them.

“Oh,” he says, smiling, “I went home one night from the bar and two guys smashed my face into the cement steps of my house”—that’s what messed up his glasses. “A few days later I got my wallet back in the mail—they had thrown it in somebody’s mailbox.”

He acknowledges that his assailants were black. “Not that that matters,” he says.

{snip}

In 1950, Philadelphia was a predominantly white city, with blacks comprising about 20 percent of the population. A decade later, that number had risen closer to 30 percent, and four years after that—in the summer of 1964—racial unrest flared in North Philadelphia, largely over brutality against blacks by white cops. Hundreds were injured or arrested, and more than 200 stores in North Philly were damaged or destroyed in three days of rioting, with many never reopening. White flight only accelerated in the next decade, and today blacks make up 44 percent of the city’s population, and non-Hispanic whites 37 percent.

John, who lives on Woodstock, a leafy side street between Poplar and the northern stone wall of Eastern State Penitentiary, has seen the city’s demographics shift firsthand. He’s 87, and has lived on this block since he was five. Since 1930.

It was a different place then, before the war. You could walk home from the Blue Jay restaurant, at 29th and Girard, at any hour. Or up to Ridge to the Amish Market.

John worked in the offices of local long-distance haulers. {snip}

Milk and bread and ice delivered to your door. A city worker coming by every evening to climb a ladder to light the gas lamps that cast a beautiful glow. There were four nearby houses of prostitution, and tailors and drugstores, a butcher, barbers, a candy store—a self-contained world. Everybody had a laundry tree in the alley out back, and every Monday there’d be a snow of white—until shirts and towels and sheets began disappearing, right after the Second World War.

That’s when blacks from the South, with chips on their shoulders, John says, moved North. They moved into great brownstones above Girard and trashed them, using banisters and doors to stoke their furnaces instead of buying coal. Before long, it looked like Berlin after the war. Whites moved out.

I ask John when he was last above Girard Avenue. He thinks for a moment. “To a football game,” he says. When? “In 1942.”

Over the years he’s been mugged twice, once for a hundred bucks, once for the bottle of liquor he’d just bought. His house was once broken into, and he lost coats and money and Christmas presents and his father’s gold watch. A steel-tipped arrow once shot through his rear kitchen window, impaling a chair just after his nephew had gotten out of it. He watched as four or five black men appeared on the block one afternoon and tried to break into his brand-new Chrysler Imperial. John stood at his door—they walked away when they saw him. Last summer he was sitting on his stoop in a lounge chair and went in to use the bathroom, and when he returned, there was no chair—a neighbor watched a black kid on a bike zero in to lift it.

There’s more. But John doesn’t express sweeping bitterness or anger. “Oh, I have no problems with blacks,” he says. He was once quite friendly with black neighbors on Poplar, whose alley garages he can see from his porch. “They were working people, nice people, lovely people. I hated to see them move.”

Given the monumental changes he’s seen and his declining health, John no longer risks venturing alone beyond his block. There is a monumental spread, too, in his thinking, when he considers the range of black people who have entered his neighborhood.

He tells me about the time, a Saturday afternoon more than 10 years ago, when he came downstairs to his living room to find a stranger had come in through his front door—“It was a nigger boy, a big tall kid. He wanted money.”

It’s a strange moment, not only because of the ugly word, but because of John’s calm in delivering it, as if it is merely fact, one that explains the vast changes in his world.

Fairmount is now a destination of choice for a certain breed of young professional. And among them I discover a tried-and-true test of racial comfort.

Jen lives on Mount Vernon with her husband, an architect, and two children, eight and six; she’s been in Philly since she came to Drexel from Egg Harbor Township on a basketball scholarship two decades ago. Four years ago, Jen began looking into where Sebastian, now in third grade, would start school.

There’s a very good elementary school in Rittenhouse: Greenfield. And that’s the school the parents in Fairmount—the white, middle-class parents, which is Fairmount—shoot for if they’re going public.

Jen took a look at Bache-Martin, the public school four blocks from her house and 74 percent black: Teachers engaged. Kids well-behaved. Small classes. Plus a gym and an auditorium and a cafeteria, a garden, a computer lab. She enrolled her kids there.

Jen was not in the majority. Other mothers told her, “There is a lot of Greenfield pressure.” That pressure is from fellow Fairmounters: pressure to send their kids, collectively, to the right school. Greenfield test scores are a bit higher. It’s also not nearly so black.

Another mother told Jen: “I didn’t want to be the first”—in other words, the first to make the leap to Bache-Martin. “It takes a special person to be first.” Another told her: “Not everybody is as confident as you.”

Sipping tea in Mugshots on Fairmount Avenue, Jen rolls her eyes over the nut of the problem: Unfounded fear. Groupthink. A judgment on a school without even setting foot in it. “I wouldn’t like to imply that it’s about anything else,” Jen says, but of course it is: race.

{snip}

Most Fairmounters, of course, aren’t trying to push up into Brewerytown, and their concerns are a little more pedestrian. In early December, I go to a civic-association meeting. On the agenda: the upcoming house tour, the winter social, patio planter boxes to help lessen rainwater in the sewers, and the neighborhood scourge: parking! I talk with Eileen and Bruce, who’s the association’s head, in the cozy glass-enclosed back room of their rowhouse on 25th Street. They’re both retired Philadelphia schoolteachers; we discuss neighborhoods.

Brewerytown residents tend to stay above Girard, they tell me. “At Halloween,” Eileen says, “that’s the only time we see them. Lot of little kids from the other side of the tracks—African-American kids. People still give them candy.”

“People get upset,” Bruce says. “We used to have a parade on Sunday afternoon, kids would get nicely dressed up, and kids from up there”—he points north—“would come barely dressed up.”

Eileen says, “People say—”

“At least dress up,” Bruce says. “Unless they’re working here, most of them don’t come in this direction. They seem happy to stay in their little lot, as it were.”

In a way, that sounds an awful lot like the Philadelphia of half a century ago. Before the race riots of that era, before Frank Rizzo, before race relations became openly tense and violent, the old rules applied. Black people knew their place. The difference now is that white people seem to know their place as well—white people stay in their little lot, too.

{snip}

The problems seem intractable. In so many quarters, simply discussing race is seen as racist. And so white people are stuck, dishonest by default, as we take a pass on the state of this city’s largely black inner city and settle for politely opening doors at Wawa, before we slip back to our own lives.

We’re stuck in another way, too. Our troubled black communities create in us a tangle of feelings, including this one: a desire for things to be better. But for that sentiment to come true—for it to mean anything, even—I’ve come to believe that white people have to risk being much more open. It’s impossible to know how that might change the racial dynamics in Philadelphia, or the plight of the inner city. But as things stand, our cautiousness and fear mean that nothing changes in how blacks and whites relate, and most of us lose out on the possibility of what Jen has found: real connection.

{snip}

But this is how I see it: We need to bridge the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia—white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks—but a city in which it is okay to speak openly about race. That feels like a lot to ask, a leap of faith for everyone. It also seems like the only place to go, the necessary next step.

Meanwhile, when I drive through North Philly to visit my son, I continue to feel both profoundly sad and a blind desire to escape.

Though I wonder: Am I allowed to say even that?

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