West Philly rediscovered

6 minute read
The West Philly that nobody knows


Many Philadelphia natives I meet shudder when I mention West Philly. The neighborhood is synonymous with urban squalor and crime. So is South Philly. And North Philly, for that matter. Luckily there's not much East Philly— but the reputation of New Jersey neighborhoods around Camden isn’t much better.

I was new to Philadelphia and living in University City, where, after dark, the University of Pennsylvania hires security personnel to stand guard at every second block. I heard the jokes about "Filthydelphia" and "Killadelphia" but didn't realize how bad the situation was until I hit the streets.

It was a crispy cold but sunny February weekday morning. I went on an aimless bike ride through my new neighborhood, taking advantage of the rare sunshine. Patches of wet snow still remained in shady corners and under trees. I rode past block after block of brick houses packed tight, with about half of them boasting plywood instead of glass in their windows. Every other business place seemed to be a check-cashing office or a liquor store.

I stopped at a deli and was amazed to find hoagies for $1.50. Who knew that such prices still existed in this country? Defunct cars languished in driveways. Garbage piled in black plastic bags on the sidewalk. The streets smelled of sewer. This was poverty in America.

Corinthian columns, wrought-iron facades

Yet ironically, I noticed that this same neighborhood had been designed with aesthetics in mind. Traces of a variety of architectural styles— including Neo-Classical, Victorian, Colonial Revival and Art Deco— manage to peek through the layers of peeling paint and mold. Wrought-iron facades depicting flowery designs and angles lay rusting and literally falling off their structures. Corinthian columns support beams decorated with dentils, volutes and gang graffiti. Roughhouses with potentially charming porches are shamefully dilapidated, their front yards smothered by junk. The crumbling architecture struggles to stay proud, to retain its dignity in difficult times. It betrays the fact that this area once represented very respectable real estate.

But as if the indigence in itself isn’t enough, the inevitability of crime, which always accompanies such situations, is also apparent. Drug deals are transacted in broad daylight, with goods and cash trading hands in mid-walk. Gangs of school-age teens walk the streets instead of attending class. Like Obama's white grandmother, I admit, I steered to a different street to avoid their path. My gut's judgment was based not only on their skin color but also the dress code: large pants sagging so low they’re almost at the knees, enormous white shirts, even larger puffy coats and tight hairnets.

Near a school, I witnessed two kids getting arrested and whisked away in the back seat of a patrol car. The denizens of the neighborhood didn't seem perturbed— this was no big deal. A few blocks later, I rode past a makeshift memorial: a pile of teddy bears and flowers mark the site of a recent homicide. A few blocks farther still, another mound of stuffed animals.

The message in the homicide map

I would later study the Inquirer's homicide map and gape at the density of red dots— each marking a murder— 392 of them in all throughout the city last year. The City of Brotherly Love's per capita murder rate is triple the national average, and the patterns are as straightforward as the grid of streets on the city map. Some sections of town are devoid of red dots: University City, Center City, the historical center, the Greater Northeast and the suburbs are all largely clean of red. But some areas are so covered in crimson markers that one cannot read the neighborhood's name.

The map also features a few details about each of the victims— name, age, race, gender, etc. From these, another pattern emerges. The vast majority of murder victims--more than 80 percent-- were black, and killed with firearm. (Source: Christian Science Monitor.)

Mustached generals and winged angels

As I biked through this neighborhood, increasingly aware of how dangerous it is, I saw two columns in the distance. They were not smokestacks, nor antennas, too tall to be power lines, and too skinny to be inhabitable buildings. When I reached these two towers, I was quite frankly, shocked.

On each side of the road stood symmetrical victorious arches, each sporting a column about 100 feet in height. At the top of these columns stand proud Civil War heroes. Horses, mustached generals, eagles, winged angels and inscriptions adorn the arches. It’s quite impressive. But a wooden light post with loose electrical lines, probably added about 80 years after the fact, thoughtlessly ruins the grandiose symmetry of the memorial.

I would later learn that this is the Smith Memorial Arch, also known as the Pennsylvania Civil War Memorial. It was built by Richard Smith, who made a fortune manufacturing iron cannons for the Union. The arch stands proud, but the road and the park around it are deserted. In fact, it’s the quietest road I've seen in Philadelphia. The gentle quiet is an eerie contrast to the memorial’s grand pompousness. Its lavishness is also a stark contrast to the slums I’ve just exited.

Schubert on the Expressway

Now I was biking through the west side of Fairmount Park. The weather was beautiful, but since this was a weekday, the place was practically deserted, save for a few homeless people sprawled on the grass next to their overloaded grocery carts. I visited the Japanese gardens, rode to the top of Belmont Plateau for the wonderful view, and lay in the sun myself. But when I rode into the botanical gardens, I encountered the most delightful surprise of the day— and it had nothing to do with plants. Hidden in the bushes, facing the fence (beyond which roars the Schuylkill Expressway), stands a concrete pedestal. On this pedestal sits a copper bust, oxidized in bright turquoise, like the Statue of Liberty.

It was a bust of Schubert! Most people probably wouldn’t get too excited by this discovery. That's why the bust is relegated to a shady corner of the park, next to the Expressway’s noise and air pollution. I, on the other hand, count myself a great admirer of Schubert— and I know I am not completely alone in this respect, at least here at BSR.

It was a rather handsome bust, and I’d hardly finished paying my respects to my hero when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that farther off, even more hidden among dirty bushes, was another bust— of Haydn, another demigod whose influence on me is perhaps even greater than Schubert's.

Riding tough neighborhoods, I had hardened myself in the face of rude drivers, unfriendly glares and the looming shadows of crime. I had prepared myself for enemies, conjuring the worst scenarios in my mind. Perhaps that is why I was so moved. In a park right next to one of the worst neighborhoods in America, I had met two of my best friends.

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