Gregory V. Boulware
Edited by Virginia M. Boulware, R.N.
Gazing out of the window, remembering the days of running up and down the street donned in my ‘Zorro’ outfit. The outfit was made of a black plastic hat and cape. It also was accompanied with a black and silver plastic sword. The suit made me feel like I was the caped Spanish hero of the television and movie characterization. My grandmother bought the gear for me. I was somewhere at the age of 5 or 6. Life was good on ‘Colorado Street.’ The house had a California type interior. I remember the curved doorways in the house. The crystal chandelier in the dinning room over the table was always brightly lit, as was the kitchen. It was always permeated with great aromas, especially in the cold months. The backyard was neat and small. It was a suitable haven from the outside street of row houses and limited noise. As I remember, there weren’t many children that I played with. I usually played alone. The only kid that I remember playing with was a boy, the same color as me, who always wanted to wear my Zorro hat and cape.
My aunt who was more of an older sister was the Prima Donna of the family. She was the younger sister of my mother. She was always entertaining a company of girls who seemed to be planning or going to a party of sorts. She was only five years older than me. I wasn’t aware of the age difference back then. My grandmother paid us both an abundance of attention. I remember the little red and white rocking chair she’d bought for me. It was lined with studs that bonded the plastic typed covering over its frame. That was my special chair. There were many memories of that time. There weren’t many white folks that I could remember. Then we moved.
The new house on Watkins Street was an adventure. The only time that I remember moving was when my mother and father, along with my three younger brothers, moved from our three story second floor row apartment house to the new two story row house on Myrtlewood street. Watkins Street was different. The atmosphere was crisp and clean on the neatly kept block of two story row houses. The Italian Bakery on the corner spewed smells of baking goods. The new house was nice. It seemed bigger than the house on Colorado Street. Several of the houses on this block had awnings, flowerpots, and railings. It was early Saturday morning when we made the move. I was too little to be involved in the actual process. As the day progressed, I noticed other things. Black People occupied only three houses on the block. There were children on the block. Many of the children that I saw were not the same color as me.
The children and I became a close nit band of friends. We totaled about eight. The majority of the boys were white, headed by Gary who was the eldest of the bunch. Robert and Gary were brothers who lived next door to us. Robert was my best friend. We were about the same age. Gary older and Robert younger. Larry and Manny was the next eldest in our bunch, Manny white and Larry Black. Johnny was the youngest of us. He lived across the street while all of the others were scattered up and down the corridor of Watkins Street. For many years we all stayed very close to one another. We spent our summers playing ‘halfies’ and other stick ball games. We built soapbox scooters and rode bikes. While off the block we often went around to the schoolyard to shoot baskets. The basketball belonged to Franny. He also had the softball that we used to play with. D’Ambrosio’s Bakery wall at the corner supplied the level of scoring when we argued over the half ball games. We had many days and early evenings of fun. The bedroom that my brothers and I slept faced the window of Robert and Gary’s sisters’ bedroom. We exchanged many nights of talking and teasing. I liked Janice. She said she liked me. Her friend from across the street was named Donna. I liked her too. Neither of the girls’ fathers’ liked the fact that their kids were associated with boys, especially us.
Donna’s family was Irish as well as Janice’s. At the end of the last and greatest summer things began to change in the predominantly Italian neighborhood. Manny’s family moved. Franny’s family moved and we all began to notice that many of our friends’ families began to disappear from our happy and secured block. One morning while leaving to go to school, Gary was standing outside. He had a stern look on his face. I’d only seen him angry maybe once or twice. Once was when he and Larry argued over one of our half-ball games and the other when he and his dad had a argument over who was going to drive the family car. He said, “Hey Greg, I want you to go to school the other way.” He meant to use 21st street as opposed to 22nd Street. Gary always looked out for the guys on the block. He was the one that we all looked up to because he knew most of the guys in the neighborhood. He knew most of the girls, too. He was the coolest guy around, and he was our friend. I asked him why I should go the other way. I didn’t understand. He just insisted that I follow his orders. He was very serious about what he wanted me to do. I found out why when I got to the schoolyard. The Black boys and the White boys were fighting all up and down 22nd Street, from Morris to Moore and our block was in between the warfare zone. The Black boys resided on the north side of Tasker Street. The white boys, from the south side of Moore Street, attended the Catholic School across the street from McDaniel while their counterparts attended the public school. Vare Junior High and Bishop Neumann were also in the near vicinity. The war affected those two schools just as much as it did the schools at 22nd and Moore Streets. The war cascaded across the entire neighborhood. While we were all growing up on our safe and secure block, the racial animosities didn’t have an affect on us until we got older.
We started to notice things had changed. Our attentions were no longer focused on scooters and playing ball on the block. I’d graduated from the sixth grade and was preparing for junior high school. The close nit families of our block were just about gone. The front and rear doors that were never locked on any of the houses suddenly were. Gary, Robert, and Janice no longer lived next door to us. It was a sad and lonely day when we watched them load their household belongings onto the moving van. We didn’t have much time to say goodbye. The next day was noticeably different. There seemed to be more Black families on our block as well as the surrounding area. The Catholic school across the street from the public school, which my friends attended, was closed down. The neighborhood was not the same.
The neighborhood guys that I’d played schoolyard ball with on the other side of town were all excited about the baseball game that was scheduled for tonight at Connie Mack Stadium. The Lehigh School Yard was all a buzz with activity on Friday afternoon. My cousins and I were shooting hoops. When that game ended we started up a softball game, and then we started playing tag as we jumped from one school top roof to another. The school was built with ground level classrooms that allowed us to climb up atop of the buildings and close enough to enable the jump from one building to another. Our parents didn’t have a clue as to what we were up to. It was total fun. One of our buddies fell after missing a jump on his turn to tag. He broke his arm. We continued to practice the dangerous jumping anyway.
Nighttime came and several of the guys who were excited about the baseball game at the stadium went to the game. The noise from Connie Mack could be heard all up and down Lehigh Avenue. It was a normal thing to experience during the reign of the stadium in our neighborhood. On many Friday nights, the buses roared past as we stood on the corner of 30th and Lehigh. The trouble began once the Phillie’s game ended. The trek of the fans out of the neighborhood back to their neighborhoods was the challenge. The older Black guys would line the side streets corresponding with Lehigh Avenue and gather bottles, sticks, and rocks. The intention was to bombard the vehicles carting white folks on the coaches and school busses as they left the stadium area. The white folks resided in the surrounding neighborhoods outside of the central regions of North Philly. There were white folks living in and around the area of the stadium; however, one didn’t hear about racial tensions with those particular people. It was the people on the outbound vehicles that were the target of the gangs of Black guys who gathered the debris that was about to be hurled at the passing busses. One brother shouted “Yeah, git those mutha’s!” "They do it to us when we travel through their neighborhoods." The stuff began to fly along with obscenities and racial epitaphs.
The ‘For Sale’ signs began to pop up all up and down Watkins street and the surrounding area. The bakery closed along with many other Italian and Irish stores. All of the things that we grew up with were either gone or preparing to leave. When we were younger, the minor changes didn’t seem to matter much. We enjoyed and took for granted the live chicken shops that abounded the area. The cheeses and sausages that hung by strings over the pickle barrel in many of the corner Mom and Pop Stores we’d hung out in. The flight had begun.
Today the flight continues as many neighborhoods have been eradicated with landlords that buy properties and turn them into tenant hovels. The Section 8 plan was a just venture, but also a neighborhood killer. When people who have scraped and saved to buy the family home are grouped in with folks who do not share the same types of values, turmoil and resentment begin to take shape.
The flight has not only affected White folks but it has affected Black, Asian, and Latino folks seeking quality of life. When people are typically of the same economic group, and have the same basic values, skin color tends not to make much difference. It’s the noise, partying attitudes, disrespect for others, and distasteful attitudes that cause difficulties with the coexistence between the groups of so-called haves and have-nots. Many of the have-nots tend to bring with them the practices of unwanted ghetto lifestyles from whence they came. While the so-called haves make attempts to distance themselves from those types of lifestyles, i.e., in search of happiness found with going to work, to the market, the maintenance and cleanliness of their homes and properties, the quiet atmosphere and being able to take a walk outside without dealing with violence and crime that we all face. Does one not wonder why there is dissention? How would you feel if you finally get out of the ghetto and moved into a decent house and neighborhood while enjoying a peaceful existence of cleanliness and noise free pollution; only to have a group of people move in right next door who don’t give a damn about what it takes to reach the level to which you’ve strived?
Suddenly the happiness that you’ve found is blown all to hell! Those that can take flight, again, do. You make a stand to defend your domicile and its surroundings. The fight is fruitless. You suddenly realize the fight is your own. No one comes to your aid legal or otherwise. They make suggestions like peace bonds, suits, and moving. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!”
Whether you can afford it or not, you too make plans for the flight.