I’ve been looking at our city with fresh eyes, trying to envision ways to capture its essence on film. But as I walked Philadelphia’s streets with camera in tow, my lens caught more than I imagined.
Having lived here all my life, I believed the pictures would confirm what I already knew. Indeed, I thought they’d reflect what I’d written about for years.
But something strange happens when you turn a camera on streets that can’t adjust their clothing or hide their blemishes. The streets do what they’ve always done. They tell their own brand of truth.
A chameleonic image
As I recorded the images that make Philadelphia unique, I saw a strange dichotomy. Wealth smiled into the camera with a serenity that’s hard to fake, while poverty scowled defiantly and asked me why I was staring.
I suspect poverty is self-conscious because it continues to grow larger, and at this point, it’s morbidly obese.
In 2011, Philadelphia’s poverty rate 28.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency also found that nearly 40 percent of the city’s children lived in poverty. When one considers that the national poverty rate in 2011 was 15.9 percent, it’s easy to see that Philadelphia has a problem.
While the Census Bureau says only 11.8 percent of Philadelphians made more than $100,000 in 2011, my camera speaks a different truth.
When it captures the gleaming towers of Center City and the idyllic environs of our most exclusive communities, the lens poses a question of its own: Why is there so much poverty in a city with so much wealth?
Mulling a tale of two economic cities
I thought about that question as I walked the trails at Valley Green, a hidden gem in Fairmount Park where I’ve always found peace.
Positioned near an affluent stretch in the city’s Chestnut Hill section, Valley Green is unashamedly beautiful, and when I pointed my camera, no one shied away. No one asked me why. Everyone simply ignored the lens and went about enjoying their lives.
Some stood by the Wissahickon Creek, tossing bread crumbs to the geese. Some jogged with headphones tightly affixed to their ears. Lovers walked hand in hand. Children rode their bikes. Adults galloped by on horseback.
I stood by a rail looking up at the trees, and wishing that I could stay. I couldn’t, though.
The city is much more than Valley Green. It’s tree-lined parks and city streets. It’s murals and historical markers. It’s playing children and working adults. And, sadly, it’s abandonment.
In the midst of development near hospitals and universities that bolster our city’s economy, entire neighborhoods have been left behind. In trying to capture Philadelphia’s essence for my camera’s curious lens, I went to such a place.
Reopening a personal history book
It was there, at 25th and Oxford, that I learned hard lessons that sustained me later in life.
I learned how to take a beating and how to dish one out.
I learned about community by watching my mother share what little we had.
I learned leadership by watching my grandmother hold our block together.
I learned diligence by watching my grandfather go off to work every day.
But when I went back to the neighborhood to film the streets that had taught me so much, I didn’t see lessons at first. I simply saw blight.
The one-time home of jazz legend John Coltrane was held up by stilts. The houses sported broken windows that looked like empty eye sockets. A garden dedicated to my grandfather was overgrown with weeds. A woman saw my camera and questioned me as I filmed.
“What are you taking pictures of?” she yelled as I filmed an abandoned corner store at 25th and Jefferson.
“I used to live around here,” I said before adding in a somewhat annoyed tone, “I’m not taking pictures of you.”
“Yeah, but you’re taking pictures of people’s property.”
It went on that way for a few minutes more. When finally I broke down and told her who I was, it turned out we knew each other. But the lesson I learned from the exchange on that corner was about more than who I knew.
The lesson was simply this: Though wealth will smile for the camera and poverty will stare defiantly, neither wants its blemishes to show. That’s just human nature, and that’s why we have to do something.
In a city with so much wealth, we shouldn’t just hide each other’s blemishes. We should heal them. Otherwise, what kind of city are we?