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West Philly, Born and Raised

We can't pick where we are born. We see images of little kids playing in bombed out shells of buildings, on discarded mattresses in vacant lots, and we wonder how they can be amused in such bleak surroundings. I never thought of where I lived as a ghetto. Everyone on our block owned their row house, and as far as I knew, my world was within that block. In the early 60s a housing project was put up in the next block. It was not a high rise that piled thousands into the neighborhood, it was the new age of public housing. Two story buildings were suppossed to give the tenants a sense of space. The brainiacs would say this makes one feel more like they are part of a community. It was a lesson in community, alright. It doesn't take much to trigger the "flee" response, and the whites that got up and left sold cheap and left quick. It's an old story, and as American as Apple pie.

This was the place where America started. To hear about the Constitution and then go on a class trip to Independence Hall, or the story of Betsy Ross and the flag, and then go to her actual house, these things really brought history alive for me. It was the foundation of what kept me interested in school at all. By the time I was leaving Elementary, my friends were already starting to stray into negative aspects of life in the hood. Since the start of this nation was right downtown, I use to go walk around down there, covered every inch of the historic district, all of center city, and even the University of Pennsylvania's campus many times over. I was fascinated at the contrast between these places, and my own neighborhood. Everyone wonders what their role would have been if they lived in the historic times they are studying. It was hard to reconcile as a kid that, as I read about my great American leaders, Washington, Jefferson, all those who signed the Declaration of Independence, that they were also slaveowners, and the "all men are created equal" did not apply to my ancestors. Philly, like all the major cities, had very different, segregated neighborhoods, and still do today. Of course, the legal segregation had stopped, but people are strange animals. Wrapped up in all the pride and love of tradition that one's ethnicity inspires, there's a paranoia that it will be disrespected, diluted, and that drives a fear, in all cultures, that we still don't quite know how to handle. God saw it fit to help me keep my head down and my wits about me to survive the most violent era in urban street gang violence. The newspapers kept a counter of the gang-related casualties right next to the Vietnam War ones. The "inner-city" was where I was given life, it was a tough environment for a kid, but it gave me a backbone, and with all the outside stereotyped opinions, it developed an intense sense of pride in myself, with a desire to prove them wrong. And prepared me for the real world by showing me that I was NOT a part of it. That is unless I studied hard, not let negative influences get to me, and not give those seeking to suppress me any excuses. And, if I was just plain lucky, I can take advantage of opportunities at the brief moments when they arise....and I was. A program came along that picked teens to become after school tutors, summer camp counselors, and gave me two saving elements, a little job for some change in my pocket, and an outlet for a lot of idle time. It is painful to see the neighborhoods like my old one packaged and marketed in the popular media like it is. It's no joke, and there damn sure was no funky remix playing when I was running for my life. The hood claimed a couple good friends in the process. If you were raised in similiar surroundings you're probably nodding your head right now. I look at the decay of the inner-city with sadness, with contempt for those that are cheering it's demise or profiting from glamorizing (yes, rappers, glamorizing!) it's worst aspects, and with guilt because I am among those who got out when I had the chance, but haven't returned to help improve anything either, but also with respect for those that continue to swim upstream, against the odds. ( I can throw a run-on sentence and a half, can't I?) In many discussion about what should be done to improve the inner-city, I am constantly painted as an elitist, that is, one who looks down from the suburbs with no sense of how bad it really is in the city streets. This continues to drive a wedge between the African Americans of different economic levels, and is the first of many frustrations that have to be conquered for progress to take hold.


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