Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Monday, March 16, 2015

Life in Philly's Riverwards

The Local Lens

• Wed, Mar 11, 2015

By Thom Nickels

The word on the street is that the neighborhood is changing. You only have to look at the housing construction on many of the streets here to see that this is true. Changing patterns are everywhere; on my own block there are three new and slightly out of scale houses (three stories) that dwarf all the homes around it. While I don’t like being "dwarfed," I like the change despite impending property tax increases.

When I first moved to "The Triangle" neighborhood bordering Lehigh Avenue, Aramingo Avenue and Richmond Streets almost 13 years ago, I had a sense of the area as being surrounded by an invisible wall that kept the rest of the city out. That sensation of isolation or remoteness, I think, was based on the fact that unless you had specific business in the neighborhood, there was no reason for you to come here. Usually nobody wanted to come here because, well, there was nothing here but Stock’s Bakery and rowhomes.

When visiting the general Port Richmond area in the 1980s to meet the mother of a friend of mine, I remember feeling that I was traveling to a radically different part of the city that I rarely had an opportunity to visit. I felt as if I was taking a road trip to a place like Palmerton, Pennsylvania.

Apparent to me then was the fact that the Richmond area was an affordable neighborhood with respectable, albeit simple, houses that very often changed hands within families so that "outsiders" rarely had a chance to intrude and change the demographics of the neighborhood.

Moving here from Center City in 2002 was a traumatic experience for me because I soon felt isolated from the city I left behind. The problem for me was that there was nothing to do in the immediate environment.

Hanging in Dunkin Donuts, at that time in the Port Richmond Shopping Center, and pretending it was a café, was not an option. Strolling along Allegheny Avenue and sampling the Polish eateries there cannot take the place of indulging in Center City activities. Today’s options are much more diverse because there’s more of a culinary arts and culture scene here than there was a decade ago. There are new restaurants, theaters, galleries, bars, markets, real cafés, and even Catholic parishes that offer traditional Latin Masses.

Ten years ago, I’d be waiting late at night at Front Street and Girard Avenue for the Route 15 or a taxi, whichever came first. But there was almost never a taxi because they were all in Center City where the money and the people were. That’s not necessarily the case today.

Let me tell you what I did before moving here:

I placed a call to the 26th Police District and asked about the safety of the area. I was told that the major crime issues in the River Wards were substance abuse and domestic violence. While this hardly qualifies as Shirley Temple movie material, it’s certainly better than getting shot while withdrawing money from an ATM machine.

So yes, The Triangle, along with parts of Fishtown and Port Richmond, are still one of the best and safest sections in the city. This area also has the distinction of having triumphed over the Northeast as one of the best places to live. That wasn’t always the case — not so long ago most people had the impression that to "improve one’s standing in life," or to move on up, meant a move to the Northeast. That’s no longer true. The Northeast, to the contrary, has proven to be a move on down.

For me, moving to the River Wards from Center City was a stressful odyssey. It was stressful, in part, because it involved changing my wardrobe, at least according to the advice of one friend who suggested that I shouldn’t walk the streets here dressed like a Center City person.

"How do people in Center City dress?" I asked, amazed at the comment.
"They dress to attract attention," he said.

"Attract attention?" I asked, thinking of my run of the mill conservative dress that a zillion other men wear.
Thinking he wanted me to put on an Eagles sweatshirt or a Phillies jersey, or even wear a backwards baseball cap, I was surprised when he said it was the leather jacket I chose to wear while house hunting on the weekends that would attract the unwanted attention.

"A leather jacket means only one thing," he said. "You are a snob from Center City."
While I didn’t ditch the jacket, I did notice that my friend was half right— there were few to zero leather jackets being worn in The Triangle.
Let me list a few things I’ve learned since moving to the River Wards.

1. Make eye contact and try to establish contact with neighbors: Do this regardless of educational or other perceived differences. No man or woman is an island; you never know when you are going to need the assistance of a neighbor.

2. Visit an "alien" bar: While I don’t regularly frequent bars, I think it’s a valuable life experience to visit a real neighborhood bar. I’m not talking about semi-upscale, quasi-hipster bars like Green Rock Tavern on Lehigh Avenue, which I actually like, but root-authentic places like Sam and Ruthie’s— a bar trapped in a 1969 time warp because it’s where people still smoke and where you can find a gritty Rocky Balboa atmosphere.

It’s easy to imagine Rocky walking into Sam and Ruthie’s and ordering a drink while eyeing the rack of 25 cent potato chip and pretzel bags tacked in front of the bar mirror. It’s much harder to imagine him going into Green Rock where, if he got the munchies, he’d have to forgo chips for something more expensive on the menu. While I don’t think it is the wisest choice to be one of those people who identify their self worth or status in life by the quality of bars they visit but a little Philly grit will add salt to your urban perspective.

As one seasoned world traveler told me after a visit to Sam & Ruthie’s: "This bar shows you the guts of the city. There’s a book of short stories here!"

3. The fence will always be crappy: I’m talking about the chronically dilapidated fence that borders E. Thompson Street and that runs behind Rite Aid on Aramingo Avenue. This fence has been falling down for years and it borders what is perhaps the trashiest stretch of property in the entire Triangle area. The curbside debris here never seems to go away, making you wonder who’s in charge here. When I volunteered with ORCA several years ago to help clean up this mess, the mood among the volunteers was hopeful despite a long time neighbor saw who told our group, "It’s hopeless! It’s not going to do any good!"

While I objected to the comment then as tacky negativity – why not at least try to make things better, right? – I knew she was right when the debris reappeared two weeks later. And reappeared four weeks after that, and so on until today.
The debris on E. Thompson and the broken down, spray painted fence gives newcomers to the area huge negative impressions.

I remember back to when a colleague of mine visited from Northern Liberties, saw the curbside E. Thompson Street trash and the broken fence and said, "I didn’t know that you lived in the ghetto."

Rocky would never hang out in a quasi-hipster bar where there were no 50 cent bags of potato chips.