Listening to the instrumental title track of Nashville-based singer/songwriter Langhorne Slim’s 2021 release Strawberry Mansion, one might think it describes a fantastical place. In a way, Strawberry Mansion, the neighborhood perched east of Fairmount Park in North Philadelphia, is just that. When the album came to the attention of lifelong Strawberry Mansion resident Tonetta Graham, director of the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (CDC), her response was, “Really? OK! I appreciate [my neighborhood] being lifted up like that!” In homage and reflection, both Graham and Slim speak to how this neighborhood finds its own way to be fruitful and thrive in the face of adversity.
We talked with Graham by phone one evening in early May. Her words brought to life the colorful bricks and corniced rooftops that catch your eye walking between Lehigh and Glenwood avenues. These blocks have been home to many over the years; from both of Slim’s grandfathers, who lived there in the 1930s when Strawberry Mansion was predominantly Jewish, to Graham’s 17-year-old son, who was raised in a vibrant Black community.
Graham recounted a time of neighborhood integration before transition: “Jews and Blacks had a similar socioeconomic status, there weren’t the haves and have nots; there was less of a gap between the two groups.”
Growing up in The Mansion
By the time Graham grew up in the '70s, a generation removed from Slim’s grandparents, most of the Jewish population built financial wealth and left, though some kept storefronts or homes. She remembers Mr. John and Ms. Mary and a couple of other Jewish neighbors who stuck around. “It was like, ‘Hey we’re older—we’re not going anywhere,’” Graham reasoned with a wry laugh. Amidst white flight, there was an inflight of Black folks from the south who filled newly vacant homes. At this juncture, the neighborhood changed into a predominantly Black “village,” as Graham calls it.
No matter the decade or demographic, Strawberry Mansion has always been tightly knit, nourishing, and filled with character. Slim heard about Strawberry Mansion from the laps of his grandfathers, Jack and Sid, who shared stories of growing up in “The Mansion.”
They were “the big men in [his] life” who taught him how to love and weren’t afraid to cry. “I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania, and hearing these stories, I longed for a gang of friends to run around with,” Slim explained. Hopping off these old men’s knees, the future musician was left envious of their worlds. He dedicated his album to Jack, Sid, and the gang of “cats'' his grandfathers spoke of, including fellas with names like Whistle and Curly—“Huck Finn and Oliver Twist types.”
Years later, Graham’s memories resemble those of Sid and Jack’s. She explained that city living supersedes ethnic differences: “In the city, you just grow up with a certain city wit and city grit.” She, too, was enmeshed in her block, surrounded by friends she saw at school and at home, a “paradise” built by kinship. Her Strawberry Mansion family included more than blood relatives. “The only problem was that you couldn’t play hooky, because someone would tell on you. But I was a good girl,” she said with a laugh.
An unwavering sense of home
For decades, residents’ self-determination and dedication have outpaced city neglect and disinvestment. Graham says she never felt the pressure or desire to “get out.” Similarly, Slim’s grandfathers loved where they grew up. He imagines them as “guys who were mischievous and they were poor and they had dirt under their fingernails and they knew how to take care of shit as youngins.” The time was different, but the streets were the same.
Graham's sense of home has never wavered, the main reason she thrives at the CDC. She is committed to preserving the complete history of Strawberry Mansion. In more recent years, the neighborhood has faced vacancy, construction dumping, and tear-downs. Graham's efforts to combat these challenges and protect her neighborhood resulted in creating the Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District, a zoning mechanism typically seen in wealthier neighborhoods that places limitations on new construction.
“You can’t build a purple house in places like Queen Village,” she said. “We literally wrote the bill, our own overlay, and gave it over to the city planner. Thankfully the Councilman got on board, it passed unanimously, and the mayor signed it. So now we have a Strawberry Mansion NCO.”
A Strawberry Mansion for all
Neighborhood pride runs through Slim and Graham’s family lines while cultural preservation rings through their stories. Just as the musician's grandfathers passed along memories, Graham has done the same with her son. The biggest gap in experience, however, is that her son did not have the benefit of attending a neighborhood school and being a part of a community in the classroom and on the block.
In 2013, the local LP Hill Elementary, along with many other historically Black schools, were permanently closed. Still, Graham has made sure to instill in her son a sense of belonging. “He’s been able to have so many positive experiences in his own neighborhood where we’re just able to walk; walk to the park, walk to the Discovery Center, walk to the historic houses,” she said. “He was able to participate in all of those things. I raised him with the mentality that I was raised with—you create paradise. People are fighting to get into this neighborhood and some folks are telling their kids to get out.”
As Slim sings, “Down the street from the house of Coltrane/ Sid and Ruthie, Jack and May/ All one as the big band's playing/ Under a Philly sun/ And it'll make you happy/ To hear the Whistle call/ There is a Strawberry Mansion for all.”
Image Description: The cover of Langhorne Slim's Strawberry Mansion album. The words "Strawberry Mansion" appear in large, curly red letters on a white background, with the artist's name signed below.
What, When, Where
Langhorne Slim's Strawberry Mansion is available to to download, or to purchase on CD or vinyl. Langhorneslimmusic.com.