Philadelphia confirms a suspicion long held by many. Not much has changed in Black America
Chinki Sinha Chinki Sinha | 21 Jul, 2012
Philadelphia confirms a suspicion long held by many. Not much has changed in Black America
“As long as we can hit the gas, and duck our heads, and drive away, we should be fine,” an anthropologist friend suggested. “In case something happens.”
On Hunting Park Avenue in North Philadelphia, we were at ‘the wall’, as it is called. It has 406 names of victims—children included—of the 2006 street violence. Dedicated to the departed by local artist Michael ‘MIC’ Ta’bon and his friend Lionel Dunbar, the wall has no faces, only names against their ages.
‘0’ against ‘Baby Boy’.
A pole wrapped with stuffed toys nearby paid homage to the children who died that year.
On the streets of Philadelphia, one runs into memorials all the time. Sneakers hang from overhead electric wires. And then there are the city’s famous murals. No one can look past the murals. Some celebrate, others grieve. In its poor quarters, the dead leap off the walls.
We saw faces of two Puerto Rican children painted on the side of a wall that belongs to a bereaved family. Outside, drug peddlers shouted “wet, wet, wet” to describe their wares as they hung around the street corners, resting against murals that mourn those who died young—or old, or unrealised.
It was a sneak peek into the inner city, a landscape smouldering with violence and anger, an anger fed by racial discrimination. Philadelphia, in many ways, is what Black America signifies. Rot and decay. Hopelessness and abandonment. In its streets, there is melancholy, and on winter afternoons, there is a lull.
Philadelphia, with its history, the fact that America’s Declaration of Independence was signed here, is a sort of microcosm of a country that prides itself in the freedom and dignity it assures its citizens. This is a city that looms large on the map of every presidential campaign.
“Farmers and scholars, statesmen and patriots who had travelled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their Declaration of Independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787… These people are a part of me,” declared US President Barack Obama in March 2008, reading out a speech in Philadelphia. “And they are a part of America, this country that I love,” he said, “A lack of economic opportunity among Black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of Black families… And the lack of basic services in so many urban
Black neighbourhoods—parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement—all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us. For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.”
In 2008, an estimated 90 per cent or more of America’s Blacks supported Obama. Most still do. But some surveys indicate that his popularity is going down. Even so, African-Americans by and large do not blame Obama for their plight. They have a sense of the forces aligned against him. It is a hard fight, the one against racism, and they had already been hit hard by the outsourcing of factory jobs to lower-wage countries when the Great Recession stalled the US economy.
Not much has changed in Black America.
Two cities exist. The one with its shiny towers that define the Philadelphia skyline and its luxury condos, the other with its closed factories with chimneys that don’t billow smoke out any longer. They are leftovers from another time, a time when the poor had jobs, a reminder of what once was.
Deindustrialisation has hurt the city’s poor the most. It has pushed them further to the periphery. The city has among the highest murder rates in the country. It also has a reputation for racial segregation that few others can match. Its story is a chronicle of America’s inner crisis.
In Philadelphia’s notorious North Philly, I spent many evenings and days trying to decode this sense of gloom. I came across tales of violence and drugs, of prostitutes in their fishnet stockings, and of inner-city lumpen ‘shooting and reaching the sky only to surrender’, as Johnny Cash sang in a song about the homeless.
A local journalist called Steve Lopez has written a book called Third and Indiana (1994) on what’s allegedly the most dangerous corner in Philadelphia, famous for its drug dealings and homicides. Lopez writes about Ofelia Santaro, a mother who cycles up and down the inner-
city streets to find her runaway son Gabriel, who has become a drug dealer, pushed by a lack of opportunities and dreams and sustained in the trade by fears and dreams. She passes by a folk art memorial created as a tribute to children killed in the city’s numerous drug wars. The streets of the City of Brotherly Love come alive with these murals. The inner city is also a graveyard of factories that once anchored its poor. After these jobs went overseas, the poor went on welfare. With their dignity lost, some of them turned to drugs and crime in despair. Then came the infamous crack epidemic of the 1980s. It’s still visible on the streets. Women and men, high on crack and reeking of alcohol, walk listlessly, rummaging through garbage and asking passersby for change. Prostitutes walk in fishnet stockings, soliciting customers. Schools achieve very little, falling apart as they are—and ravaged by campus violence. Students walk into classrooms via metal detectors. Perhaps they had expected more from the Black man in the White House.
On 26 February this year, a 17-year-old African-American teenager carrying iced tea and Skittles was fatally shot by a neighbourhood crime-watch volunteer in Florida. Flayed as a racial killing, Travyon Martin’s death sparked protests across America.
That night, Martin had worn a hoodie. The man who shot Martin, George Zimmerman, as reports suggest, already had a record of calling 911 on fears of African-Americans acting suspiciously, as he thought.
Many African-Americans wear hoodies. “You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” President Obama said almost a month later, “All of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen.”
That was a gated colony. But not much has changed in ghetto America either, that forbidden territory for most of the rest. In Philadelphia, you see rows of crumbling blocks. The ones that are inhabited are in a shambles, with broken window panes and garbage bags piled high outside doorsteps. Everything looks broke, broken.
America was founded here, the city of the Liberty Bell, the city that first held a beacon for freedom, meritocracy and democracy, the city where ‘inalienable rights’ were agreed upon for all. But in its inner city, they’d tell you the system does little but perpetuate racism.
Our exploration of the inner city began in a small bookstore owned by Hakim. An African-American man who went to prison like many others, he decided he didn’t want to be jailed again, and opened a bookstore on Broad Street in North Philadelphia, stocking its shelves with ‘Black power’ literature, urban fiction books written by locals, and CDs of neighbourhood voices, apart from African-American jewellery and soap and so on. It even holds book reading sessions.
In trying to create a space for Black literature, a reflection of real lives in their own language, Hakim has recorded a history left largely unrecorded.
That is how we went looking for the Philadelphia story. That’s how we met the city’s writers, rappers and movie-makers—documenters of a reality that is all too real. This is a city with a distinct rap culture, even if it took its early impetus from the street-fiction hip-hop of New York City’s Bronx area, which isn’t far. It is also a city with its own voice in literature.
The shelves of Black and Nobel on Erie Avenue are packed with scantily-clad models on book covers, either brandishing weapons or in provocative poses. Street slang, graphic sex and violence are in abundance. Like the music, the fiction is about the gritty ghetto realism that defines inner-city lives.
Such fiction has come a long way. Today, much of this is to be found on library shelves, and some city writers have even secured book deals from publishers on six-figure advances. Successes like North Philly Hustla by Kenneth Williams, a former drug lord in Philadelphia, speak to those who live the ghetto life, who have experienced the street life, dealt drugs, suffered financial hardship, incarceration and worse.
Black and Nobel is a window to a world of pimps and thugs and redeemed men, of drug dealers and adult prostitutes, of addicts and murderers, of gangbangers and no-gooders, of sugar mamas (women who hold their partners in nice standing with money, food, an apartment and without conforming to the institution of marriage) and baby mamas (another ghetto term for women who’re not married to their children’s father).
‘Philly is small but crowded with a lot of smart black people who over populate the Pennsylvania Penal system upstate … Back to the block, everybody is down with the syrup and pill game,’ writes David Hammock III in his debut novel 17th & Jefferson. The title refers to an intersection that is ‘dead smack in the middle of North Philadelphia’. It is a story that has never been told, says the author on the cover of the book. ‘Open your mind to Philly’s best kept secret,’ it urges. The book documents the city’s descent into drugs: ‘Mid ’80—It’s coke on the block now, crack houses are in almost every apartment building, that’s where my cousin Dale made his mark … Dudes was pulling up in Benzes, trucks and Caddys, dropping off four or five bricks at a time. He would cook them and bring it to damn near double, he even put the coke in caps. He would cap up 60-65,000 off one brick, and for cooking up a brick and capping it up, he would charge 5 stacks. Needless to say, business was booming.’
There are other stories of loss, guilt and redemption, stories of African-Americans who survived the drug wars of the 1980s. Ex-gangsters and women who were once high-strung on drugs and walked the streets looking for sex and money have taken to writing about their lives, packing everything they have seen and experienced in racy novels they prefer to call fiction.
In this parallel narrative lies an American story that few beyond its borders know of. Of conflicts. Of battered inner cities. Of homicides. Of shoddy schools. Of violent rap lyrics.
Not very far from those badlands is the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League institution that exists in a bubble. It is a protected space. Two sets of policemen—one deployed by the City and the other, a private posse—guard its periphery. Beyond the square, it’s “the jungle”, in the description of a policeman on the 40th and Market Street intersection. Even the internet has warnings against venturing into North Philly.
But here in the bubble, I was intrigued by the world outside. If it was dangerous, we would find out.
Foster care, systematic jailing…/ Did I forget to mention we were very poor…/ She now takes trips that drove her soul to the feet / It is just a vicious cycle of shame…/ They found her body in an abandoned building…/…took my sister for an eternal ride / I sing for you sister Julie…/ My soul is in bondage. / Tied up, tangled up. / Emotionally and physically.
Tied up, tangled up. / Emotionally and physically.’
This is the poetry of Mary Pitts, an attractive woman of 5 ft 11 inches with grey glassy eyes and glossy lips. She had stood up at a book-reading session at Black and Nobel, and read out from Ode to Julie, a poem dedicated to her sister who she lost to the usual suspect—drugs. It’s a poem from her upcoming novel, which she hasn’t yet titled.
Dedicated to her kid sister, a girl with beautiful hair that wasn’t a weave but natural, her poem reclaims the dignity she was stripped of. The media had reduced her sister’s death to a police blotter, a statistic and five sentences. “Police found the body of a woman badly burned in a vacant Parkside row home early Friday morning. A fire was reported at the home at 4987 West Girard Avenue around 5:50 am. The body was found on the third floor of the house. Police are investigating why the woman was in the empty house as well as what started the fire. They have not released the victim’s name or age … “ reported NBC on 6 May 2011. Pitts posted a comment on the online story of the TV channel’s website, and gave “the woman” a name. Julie Butler. She said ‘Rest in Peace’. And then wrote her poem.
She got a rousing reception at Black and Nobel, a store that ships books to prison inmates—mostly African-American as they are—as a matter of policy. Tyson Gravity, who mans the store, says this is a space where Black youth can find role models, where their rage can find expression in works of art, and where they can think about what being Black means to them.
Pitts grew up in North Philadelphia. With a sister hooked on drugs and a mother who had to provide for many children, her childhood wasn’t easy. She fought back, got herself an education, a job, and yearned to tell her story. So she started writing. She calls herself ‘True Serum’. She also owns an artistic production company called Prophetic Presentations, which organises book and poetry readings of works by upcoming African-American writers (among others).
After her poetry recital on that cold February night this year, she slumped into a chair. A discussion ensued on how Black men and women were struggling to keep their marriages intact, on abuse, and on the other realities of being Black in America—with boyfriends and husbands at risk of ending up in prison for hustling or gang-fights (or, simply, dead).
In this part of town, everyone wants to save somebody, if not everybody. Offer a sliver of hope, and they want to squeeze through it. But the slivers offered by the US government were just too narrow. So loan sharks and others found their perfect prey; unpaid mortgages, bank foreclosures and reclaimed homes are part of the town’s tale of recessionary misery.
It’s a city of vivid contrasts. Even as its walls spew out Philadelphia’s anger, advertising billboards hang directly above them, celebrating the Great American Dream, unmindful of all the teenage pregnancy, unemployment and lost love.
Heartaches can be deadly here. Abandonment can have serious consequences. Once, long ago, the famous Black singer Erykah Badu had been abandoned too.
Now everytime I ask you for a little cash / You say no and turn right around and ask me for some ass / Oh, Well hold up / Listen partna / I ain’t no cheap thrill…
So sang Erykah Badu in Call Tyrone, a song that hit heavy rotation in the city’s community of African-Americans. It is a song about the end of her own relationship, about how she told her partner it was over and he had better “call Tyrone”.
Call Tyrone has become an anthem for Black women in abusive relationships since, and across town, young African-American males are being forced to negotiate their ‘Tyroninity’. No one knows who Tyrone really is, if anyone, but the name has come to signify a ubiquitous friend. Tyrone is ‘perhaps an infamous friend, foe, or otherwise indeterminate figure in our lives and active imaginaries’, writes AH Bugg, a doctoral candidate at Duke University who researches African American popular music.
Jomo Johnson, a young pastor who runs an open air church in a rough North Philadelphia neighbourhood where he tries to lead youngsters away from vice, has even used the name in the title of his controversial new book: Call Tyrone: Why Black Women Should Remain Single. His research is based on personal observation. A large number of single African-American women here, he found, were unable to hold on to relationships.
We needed a safe place to park our car. Across a set of row houses on Diamond Street, one of the most notorious places in the city’s north, we entered yet another of those neighbourhoods that Chance, a character in North Philly Hustla describes as ‘a mouth of an old drunk with empty gaps where teeth used to be’.
This was the street where Beirut, the drug lord who took in almost half a million dollars a week, reigned until the book’s other character Tarik kills him and drags his body out of the high-rise and dumps it in the street. Out here, it’s all about respect. It didn’t matter how many one kills but who one kills.
The author, Kenneth Williams, walked us through the streets where his racy novel is set. The 18-storey high buildings here were torn down in 1995 after they gained a reputation of being dangerous places to live. But hundreds of low-rise houses remain.
“Who are you? Chance or Tarik?”
“Chance. More like him, I mean.”
“How many people did you kill?”
Kenneth is now studying psychology at Philadelphia Community College and lives in one of the city’s suburbs. Instead of the drugs he once peddled on street corners, he now pushes his self-published book and its recently released sequel, Ashes to Ashes.
This, after having spent several years in federal prison. Though it had pool tables and microwaves and other comforts, he knew he was in for the long haul. He’d made his first foray into drug dealing when he was just a teenager. He used to run errands for his mother and was impressed with this 16-year-old guy at the corner store who walked with a swagger and wore jewellery. He rose through the ranks to control streets and drive big cars.
“It is a drug dealer,” he said as a 745 BMW whizzed past in the ghetto.
“How do you know?”
“This is the badlands. Really poor parts. Who would afford to drive that car? That must be $50,000 at least.”
At Oxford Street, Kenneth stood under the building he once lived in as a child. Like many others in this part of town, this one is boarded up.
A few people waved at Kenneth. A man in an SUV even hollered at him.
“I think he now controls these streets,” said Kenneth.
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