After racist threats, a Philly family and neighborhood try to heal

Elvis and Connie Mella at their home in the Tacony section of Philadelphia.

Elvis and Connie Mella at their home in the Tacony section of Philadelphia. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Connie Mella’s new semi-detached bungalow in the Tacony section of Northeast Philadelphia is a long-awaited reward after her decades of hard labor.

She’d worked construction and toiled in factories, said her son, Elvis.

“She came up from a hard place,” he said. “She wasn’t grown up as a woman. She was growing up as a man.”

That hard place was the Dominican Republic, where Mella was born. She’d lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, and a rough stretch of North Philadelphia some call “the Badlands” before she finally bought her new home in September.

But the peace and comfort she hoped to find in this neighborhood along the Delaware River evaporated last week when someone claiming to be a neighbor left a racist, vicious note in her mailbox. The letter writer, according to multiple news reports, called Mella “sub human” and threatened to fire bomb her home if she played loud music or made too much noise.

The writer also claimed to be part of a town watch group, although the head of that organization said his group had nothing to do with the note.

“It was a total shock,” said Elvis Mella.

Now the family and neighborhood are trying to recover.

Since her story went public, Mella said waves of neighbors have dropped by to visit and welcome her. She suddenly has “more [door]bells to ring,” said Elvis Mella.

One of those visitors was neighbor Anne Sanderson, who said Mella’s house was “literally falling apart” under its prior owners. Mella and her husband have refurbished the house — inside and out. Sanderson can’t understand why anyone would attack a new neighbor trying to reconstruct a crumbling home.

“It was completely insane,” said Sanderson. “I could not believe what I was hearing and reading and seeing on TV.”

Sanderson, 47, grew up in Tacony and said she’s experienced racism in the working-class neighborhood. For 10 years, she dated a black man and endured withering looks from passers-by. But that was almost three decades ago, Sanderson said, and she’s saddened to hear there are still “bad eggs” with racist attitudes in the area.

Once predominantly white, Tacony has become more racially mixed in recent years. The number of Hispanic residents living in the neighborhood’s ZIP code more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. By the most recent estimates, population in the ZIP code is now 52 percent white, with the remainder split about evenly between black and Hispanic residents.

Sanderson wants the Mellas and other newcomers to know that they’re welcome in Tacony, which she described as a tight-knit community.

“We’re just gonna let them know that it’s OK to be yourself and that you have no worries,” she said. “We all have your back.”

To help demonstrate that, neighborhood leaders are holding a rally and party outside the Mella home Saturday to give them a proper housewarming.

“We’re letting this family know that they’re a part of Tacony now,” said Peter Smith, head of the Tacony Civic Association. “They are our neighbors. They are our family.”

Elvis Mella said once neighbors get to know his mom, they’ll grow to love her.

To prove his point, he gestured to mounds of Christmas trinkets covering Connie Mella’s new floors. She likes to go over the top for holidays, and this is the first time she’s had a chance to do that in her Tacony home.

“She a nice woman, a happy woman,” Elvis Mella said. “She don’t mess with nobody in the neighborhood.”

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