Congratulations to the 2019 winners of the Grit & Beauty contest!
By: Lucienne Nowak
By: Monica Pagán
Kensington Snow Angel
By: Jared Seletsky
By Amanda Carey
By: Emma Krampe
“Get the fuck off the street, ya dizzy bitch!” the man yelled from his boat of a pickup truck, the kind my mother would describe as “compensation for something else.”
Terrified, I sprinted the rest of the way across the asphalt as he throttled the truck back into drive and tore away. I looked around; should I hide? Part of me expected him to come back around the block. Honestly, it was my fault. I had cut him off, using what I like to term the “pedestrian advantage” for reckless running. Vowing to be more careful in the future, I continued running for several more blocks before slowing down.
Then a strange thing happened. Peals of laughter overcame me until I had to stop completely. And there I was, gasping in giggles, mumbling “ya dizzy bitch” until I was bent over sideways, smiling from ear to ear.
If there is a list somewhere of “things yelled at me while running”, then this is in a class of its own. I might even dare to suggest it was a compliment of sorts. And to this day, I believe this was the “welcome home” I had been waiting for from North Philadelphia.
Eighteen months prior, I stood bewildered in boxes, carving out my side of the dorm room cell I would call home for the next nine months. My dad rolled up the blinds. “Stop Shooting People,” he read from a trailer in the parking lot, “Nice.”
When I announced my decision to go to Temple University, it was met with both congratulatory handshakes and the ever present, “you-better-watch-it-down-there’s”. My mom consulted her dossier of mothers of Temple students. “Brian said his friend was mugged last year, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with you walking around off campus. There’s certainly a lot of drugs over there. And weird people. Watch out for them. And don’t go out at night.”
She wasn’t wrong either. Despite boasting the largest university police force in the United States, there was no shortage of bad situations one could find oneself in. Armed robberies. Shootings. Heroin. And the ever revolting, horny fraternity brother. All broadcast in succinct TUAlerts, sent to every Temple student whenever something noteworthy happened—usually once or twice a week.
Needless to say, a change was in order when I first moved in. Gone were the days of summer campouts in my backyard or leaving the backdoor unlocked. Even if I chained up my bike, I might come back to find only the frame left. During my freshman year, I recall watching a renegade band of children pillaging for seats and tires, stuffing them inside a suitcase bigger than their bodies.
After a few weeks, I was feeling uninspired and still hating everything about the place. The sirens wailed at all hours of the night and motor bike gangs on Broad Street screeched through red lights, always looking over their shoulders to make sure everyone noticed. One night, a youth riot broke out, injuring several students and sparking national media attention. Friends from home asked if I was safe.
To me, it all seemed lawless and chaotic. Still having not come to grips with independence either, I wished for family dinner conversation and falling asleep in front of the television. I counted down the days on fingers, toes, and calendar pages.
Eventually I had to turn to the one coping mechanism that has always worked: running. The idea of charting a path over mottled sidewalks and piles of litter through even more of the surrounding neighborhood though, seemed daunting. I knew the city got better within a mile or two, if I could get beyond city hall, I would feel normal. The aesthetical colonial alleyways and begonia window boxes were worthy of cobblestone tourism. Trendy young professionals forked up egg whites, sipped mimosas, and worshiped avocados. They thought about conceptual art and fired out social justice esotericism. Instagram was alive and well.
For a time, I enjoyed this side of Philadelphia. I liked watching couples carry blue tissue-papered gift bags to baby showers and confident healthcare workers reporting for duty at the hospital. I liked thinking about ice skating at Penn’s Landing or eating brunch. I tried to spend as much time as possible running on pretty streets, but there was always a need to turn around and go back up Broad Street. The receding “T” for Temple pinned to the tallest building played optical tricks with my mind, never seeming to get any closer until I was right underneath it.
Temple’s campus rises out of the rowhomes with self-proclaimed vindication. Started in 1884 by Russel Conwell to provide education for ambitious members of the working class who might not otherwise have access to education, in the beginning, tuition was free and educational background was unimportant. As the institution grew, the concept of an affordable postsecondary school for the surrounding neighborhood steadily slipped away.
Today, the locals seeking education typically flock to the Community College of Philadelphia on Spring Garden Street while the suburban youth of Pennsylvania and New Jersey have all but overtaken the area. The irony is not lost on me that I am the one now receiving free tuition—the upper-middle class teenager gifted with every childhood resource necessary to achieve an academic scholarship.
It is one thing to live on a college campus and become enlightened in the powerful messages of liberalism and feel the urge to chain yourself to something. It is quite another to run down 15th street every morning and watch the quiet chore of a mother dropping her children off at the daycare with the crusty sign. Or to sidestep the homeless man sprawled across the entire sidewalk, no longer even bothering to slink underneath a highway overpass. To lay with your back upon the original hardwood floors inside a rowhome, feeling the gnarls and depressions beneath your elbows, the grit run deep between the slats, knowing that at one point this place might have been a family home, not a futon-laden beer-can-clinking apartment.
I try to put myself behind the eyes of people sitting on their stoops. Smoking a cigarette in the morning, my eyes half-open, half-closed, the curls of a beard brushing my neck as I raise my head to say, “Gud morning missus” to the girl passing by. I push a shopping cart in the grocery store, my two-year-old screaming his head off before I finally snap because everything at this store is too expensive. I am the old widow who opens her window at a quarter-past two to curse at the drunk acapella group singing Lady Gaga in the middle of my street while I’m trying to sleep. I am the drugged up guy in the red shirt who pleads for change with the same monotone message every time a new crowd boards the subway. I am the pastor of an all-black church who says nothing but “welcome” to the white girl who is crying as she slinks into a pew and then leaves before the service is over because it has been going on for two hours and she’s had her fill of salvation.
Though there are moments when I accept this way of living and existing, there are also moments where I criticize everything. There is both the sincerity of the people who dusted me off when I tripped while running, and the firm clasp of a can of pepper spray in my best friend’s palm. A woman hanging chimes in her wishing tree and a fresh pile of dog shit collecting flies.
There is no harmony, but time keeps on going. Temple threatens to build a football stadium in the middle of the neighborhood. “It will bring jobs,” the administration says. “No.” says every local resident. “Too bad,” says the wallets of the trustees.
People talk about cleaning up the area. Temple is making improvements, drawing in commercial activity. The community received their first grocer store in twenty years in 2009, in large part thanks to the additional need to feed thousands of university students. Condemned housing reincarnates as high rises. The neighborhood widens.
I’m not sure anyone ever really understands one another though. In fact, after over two years of living here, the only time I have felt a connection was the night the Eagles won the Superbowl last February. The one night when human emotion and joy and power overcame any need to think about our bloodlines or tax brackets. The cheers and fireworks and running of students and residents alike crying and high-fiving like children. Primal screams hanging in marijuana air. We thundered down Broad Street to greet City Hall and rejoin the mainland. If only for a night, the underdogs had won.
When the morning dawned, the streets were the same. North Philadelphia looked the same. More litter, more trash. More hangovers. The honking cars had gone back to shouting expletives at the traffic instead of victorious cheering.
I went running again, and tried to watch out for potholes in the sidewalk.
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