This begins a series of irregular recorded observations from the Crow’s Nest atop 46th & Sansom in the HEART of West Philadelphia.
I’m beginning to really like it here.
The sun’s come out, and the street is beginning to fill. The block is becoming lively. Last night, taking out my trash, I ran into my downstairs neighbor. She was doing her best impression of a Ukrainian grandmother—a Babusya—wearing a loose light-blue rose-patterned gown and glasses so big and ugly they only could have come from a second-hand clothing store. Hey! She said, dropping her bag of trash at the curb as I carried mine down the ADA-inaccessible concrete steps. Sup! I replied, see the yarrow and salvia I planted in the front garden? She looked over at the formerly barren and trash-strewn garden plot in front of our house now immaculately clean and sprouting with purple and red shoots. Nice, she said with a wink before returning inside.
I’ve been running into more and more of my neighbors lately, the frequency of our encounters rising with the temperature. Coming home from work today I saw my next-door neighbor, a middle-aged woman who owns her unit and the one above. She was sitting on her half of the porch—the cleaner half, in stark contrast to my side occupied by a rotting red-velvet couch, disintegrating chairs, and a giant wooden spool crowned by an ashtray overflowing with lipstick-stained cigarette butts—with her upstairs tenant, a fellow Penn graduate student who works 40 hour weeks and matches her all-black hair with all-black attire. My neighbor’s daughter was playing with their cat, a black-and-white trickster who made it on to my balcony one night and had a meow-off with my cat, Shabba, through my half-opened window. I’m selling the place, the woman said to me, moving up to the Northeast. Congrats, I said. Internally, I wondered whether, contrary to what the news and academics will have you believe, this was a sign that America stills offers the chance at upward mobility.
This morning, as I watered my yarrow and salvia before the sun reached its zenith to prepare them for the onslaught—another day in the mid-90s—the elderly woman who lives across the street from me caught my attention. Good job, she said, flashing me a thumbs-up and a smile as I emptied the last of my blender-full-of-water into the garden plot. Thanks, I replied, I planted these guys last weekend, I just hope they take and make it through this heat wave! As I finished getting ready for work upstairs, I watched my elderly neighbor struggle to make it up the steps as the Sun rose above her. Cane first, then one foot, then two hands on the railing, and then…slowly…the other foot, and repeat. Once this past winter I clocked Ms. Rosa battle for 15-minutes to make it up the steps in the dry, stagnant cold. She was coming in from one of her favorite pastimes, sitting in her car with the heat blasting as she read that morning’s paper. I often wonder why she does this…is she oblivious to how bad it is for the environment? Does she care? Is it a cheaper way for her to warm up in the morning than raising the heat in her apartment? Is it a habitual ritual that brings some semblance of normality and comfort to her life?
My block, 46th & Sansom, has roughly 40 apartments on it, and I would wager that 90% of them are full. Despite Penn students and other gentrifiers like me who have moved in, and who are moving into the building advertised as “U-City Flats” just down the block en masse, it still has the feel of a community in the ilk of Jane Jacobs’s East Village. Each vignette I’ve just described offers tiny glimpses of what makes my block tick, what’s going on in my head, and the stuff of my neighbors’ lives. Tune in sometime soon for another installment.