He was an ogre of man, slimy, rat-toothed and overbearing, with day old five o’clock shadow and a crunch of black hair falling out of a sun-weathered red trucker hat.
This man, maybe 45, was propped up on the aged bar of Quinn’s Irish Pub II, a neighborhood drinking establishment with so colorful a stable of regulars that they made this second one just up Frankford Avenue here in Philadelphia from the first. It was passed closing time, the lights were low and the rumble of the adjacently-running elevated train dutifully making its way back home to the Frankford terminal ended hours ago.
The bar maid, fair-skinned, with light-brown hair in a pony tail and a stain or two on a white t-shirt, had taken a seat and served another round on the house. She, the man, two other patrons, a buddy and I had fallen into a conversation of seeming interest to all those involved.
What do you do with Frankford?
Frankford, once a separate borough, is now easily one of the most historic neighborhoods in Philadelphia, the historic capital of the United States. Like Philadelphia, all of that is often forgotten or misplaced for a layer of grime, and crime and unease.
Frankford, once the gateway to the great Northeast — an isolated, middle-class, family-orientated swath of the city that has its own signs of wear — is now as often dismissed as being too poor, too dangerous, too dirty and, yes, probably too black to be a part of the conversation of cultural significance here.
So what was I — a college-educated, 20-something, outsider — doing there?
That’s what this man at the bar, who professed to have seen it all, couldn’t understand.
“Get out of here,” he said. “It’s not safe. It’s not for you.”
I had been in Frankford then just a few months, having moved there at the end of November 2008, looking for a distinct neighborhood that was connected well by transit and was in another part of Philadelphia — a city I so love learning about. I got that, but yes, there was the same sway of crime and drugs and poor quality of life that are found in a lot of the undereducated neighborhoods and towns in this country that don’t offer much opportunity for those living in them.
I’ve always taken to try to hear what people there think about ways to improve their own neighborhoods — if they think ‘improvement’ is what they need at all.
This man, echoed with little degree of variation by the barmaid and the others, made clear his hopelessness.
“Nothing. Nothing can be done because it’s too far now. Everyone good left. All these undesirables moved in,” he said then. “Frankford is just a dumping ground now.”
I can’t say I agreed with much of what he said. But his is an opinion that is probably replicated throughout the 40,000-person neighborhood, so it’s an opinion that needs to be known.
I don’t live in Frankford anymore. Two weeks ago, as I penned for neighborhood blog Frankford Gazette, I handed my apartment keys to my landlord and took one last look at the nice $500-monthly apartment I called home for more than a year. I moved to a nicer neighborhood, nearer to Center City. It has it’s problems too, but by just about every account it offers a better place to live. It’s a place that will offer it’s own opportunities for writing and sharing and spreading, so you’ll hear more about it.
For now, I’ve begun to make the tiny switches of my identity that come with a move — though I still have the better half of 1,000 business cards labeling me from Frankford and will keep coming back for work with the neighborhood high school’s journalism club and contributing to Northeast Philly hyperlocal NEast Philly.
I hadn’t thought about the man and the after-hours conversation that night in that tiny bar in the shadows of the El for months until the night I gave up that apartment. That’s when I revisited and remembered our rambling two-hour talk, dominated by his answers and my questions, though throughout the time others chirped in.
“Anyone who comes here now wants to take something. A neighborhood needs people to give,” the man said sullenly later in the night, allowing for a glimmer of vulnerability in the low light, speaking just above the din of an unattended TV. So why don’t you ‘give’ I asked him. “I can’t even imagine Frankford being a better place, so what would I be doing?”
The barmaid got up then to distract herself by cleaning some pint glasses she had already cleaned. She grew up in that neighborhood, went to its schools and, aside from car trips to big box stores on Roosevelt Boulevard and the occasional trip to Center City, she never left Frankford. I suppose it wasn’t anything she needed to hear again.
It was creeping toward 3 a.m. as the other patrons started to file out. My buddy and I, too, had to leave, so I wished the man well and thanked him for letting me ask my questions.
“You’re young and smart, so you’ll leave soon and good thing,” he said as I went to leave. “So what’s ever going to change?”