A Temple student and North Philly native grapples with their duel identity and love-hate relationship with the area that raised them.
By: Siani Colon
You could say North Philly and I have had a love-hate relationship.
Growing up in Juniata, my world was encompassed by North Philly. Everything I needed was within our own small borders. I remember spending weekends at Hunting Park. Lines and lines of cars were parked around the road, music blaring through the large speakers installed. I would sit at the gazebo on the hill, ice cream in hand from the truck that rolled by, watching as families ate together and laughed down below me. After the official Puerto Rican Day Parade finished its journey from Center City, cars doubling as makeshift floats would roll down 2nd Street. I’d sit outside of my grandma’s apartment in a lawn chair, watching as everyone cheered and celebrated with cultural pride.
I remember the parties at my aunt’s house, the old men on the corner playing dominoes, how rooted we were to that street. I’d prance down the Golden Block on North 5th Street, in awe of the bright murals and metal palm trees that tried their best to bring the Caribbean to Philadelphia. Everyone knew everyone in that neighborhood.
Attending elementary school in Northern Liberties spread my mental borders to other parts of North Philly. At my school, many of the kids were from that neighborhood and had family members that have gone there for years. Still, I never once felt out of place. I spent time with my friends on 7th and Dauphin, running around the large yard next to our friend’s house. Everyone lived near each other, so it was easy for our crew to come over and play. When we were allowed to go up to the roof and look out to the city, we felt like we owned the world. This place was ours and I was content.
But as I grew older, my relationship with North Philly soured. Everything seemed dirtier, unsafe, and loud. When high school rolled around, I didn’t want anyone to visit me. Would they see me differently if my neighborhood wasn’t nice as theirs? That we had a different way of life in my side of the city? North Philly was all I knew for a long time, and now I felt trapped. I wanted to escape and be as far away as possible.
Soon enough, I got my wish. But I didn’t leave North Philly–North Philly slowly left me.
The hospital I was born in no longer exists. The trees on my block disappeared–only three are standing tall. The sound of children laughing and playing has remained, but their faces are unfamiliar. No one sits out on their stoop, well past the sun setting, bonding with their neighbors. We’ve just become background characters in each others’ lives.
It’s not just my neighborhood that has changed–large parts of North Philly have. When I used to walk from school to the train station, I’d pass fenced empty lots that would never seem to be anything else. The Piazza consumes the area now. Each new construction project looms over us, looking clearly out of place. It’s become an infestation. It’s suffocating.
In my twenty years here, I’ve become an expert in North Philly that I frequent. As I walk or drive past a certain section, I can become a personal tour guide to whoever asks. This is where my family lives. This is where I went to school. This is where I made my first set of friends. This is where I made the friends I still have today. This is where I had my first crush. This is where I first knew what heartbreak was. This is where my favorite bakery used to be. This is where I get my hair done. This is where I got my first job. This is where I got hurt and got back up again. This is where it used to be nothing but grass. This is where people have created enclaves to preserve their culture and recreate their homeland. This is where we celebrated life. This is where we mourned a loss.
This is where I grew up. This is what helped me grow.
North Philly gets a bad reputation. No city, no neighborhood is perfect. To label a place as dirty, dangerous, or bad is just an indicator that you haven’t bothered to learn the roots of its problems or befriend the kind faces who are here.
Those who do not live in or hail from North Philly pass the most judgment. If they are not busy tossing trash and making “Filthadelphia” jokes, then they make North Philly a spectacle. They treat any odd thing that happens in North Philly as what defines it, and the “locals” become a source of entertainment or scorn.
We are not here for your disrespect or your amusement.
There is an “us against them” mentality here. It seems like a constant tug of war between Temple University and North Philly. Students versus community. Where do you fit when you’re both a student and a person of the community? Sometimes I feel like I’m neither. Sometimes I feel like an outsider in North Philly, like I have to justify my presence with, “Wait, I’m from here. I’m not like them.”
All I can do with my dual identity is to be proud of where I come from and help others understand North Philly’s rich history and culture. I want people to appreciate what is already here before it gets bulldozed and replaced with something that does not represent us. I want people to not be afraid to step out of the campus borders and to get to know where they are truly residing.
I love the grit. I love graffiti art. I love hearing salsa, reggaeton or rap blaring through a car speeding down the streets. I love the bikers, urban cowboys and the guy who sells piraguas on the corner from his cart. I love the people who have been here for generations who continue to look out for their neighbors.
I love North Philly and North Philly loves me. I won’t be ashamed of it anymore, because I wouldn’t be where I am without it.