Friday, December 9, 2011

An Afternoon in the Garden

A few weekends ago, in pursuit of a peaceful place to study my Immunology notes, I decided to take a bike ride to Bartram's Garden, a beautiful Revolutionary War-era estate on the banks of the Schuylkill River in Southwest Philadelphia.  What's amazing about Bartram's grounds is that it makes you feel as though you are wandering through the woodlands of rural Pennsylvania, when in fact you are in the middle of Philadelphia. From most spots on the estate, there are no modern buildings or signs of city life in view.  What's odd about Bartram's Garden is that it is almost completely surrounded by a very poor urban neighborhood.

As I was sitting at one of the garden's picnic tables enjoying the solitude (but not the Immunology), I heard several gun shots ring out at close range, within maybe a hundred yards or so.  I waited for the sirens to arrive (maybe ten minutes) and then rode my bike out to the estate entrance.  Four police cruisers and an ambulance were on the scene, and a number of officers in bullet proof vests were milling around and looking for witnesses.  I approached two men standing nearby and asked what happened.  All they could tell me was that someone had been killed.  I rode back home with a heavy heart.

Later that evening, I found a news article online discussing the incident.  A 56-year-old man was caught in cross fire and shot in the back.  He died at the scene.  To my knowledge, there are still no suspects, and perhaps there never will be any suspects.  The victim's name was Joseph Bradley.  Yes, he had a name.  I haven't been able to find an obituary for him online, which leads me to wonder what his family life was like.  Maybe he had no close family.  Maybe he had family, but they don't know that it's common practice to submit obituaries.  Or maybe it's not as common as I think.

I found this whole event so strange and sad, not only because an innocent man died, but also because it highlighted for me the very strange juxtaposition of Bartram's Garden with the rest of Southwest Philadelphia.  Here we have the breathtakingly pristine estate of John Bartram, a self-made Revolutionary-era gentleman, the embodiment of the early American spirit.  An avid botanist, Bartram traveled extensively throughout his life, both to Europe and throughout the colonies, to collect various plants for his farm, which is arguably the nation's first botanical garden (from Wikipedia).  And yet today, the garden sits next to one of the poorest and most violent areas of Philadelphia.  This is a place where opportunity - opportunity to travel, to learn, to feel safe, to make something of one's self, seems very scarce.  Now I do believe in self-determination and the ability to succeed against the odds, but damn, if you are kid growing up in the this environment, the odds are not in your favor.  I am not placing blame here, and I don't pretend to have the answer to this travesty.  But we may begin to move toward answers by acknowledging that these places exist in our country.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Prior to visiting Philadelphia over the past year and then moving here two weeks ago, we generally viewed West Philly as a monolith of poverty and crime.  This attitude was based largely on hearsay and second- and third-hand accounts from people who did not know the city very well.  The truth, it turns out, is a bit more complicated.  So, we would like to give a more accurate picture of our new environs, not only to allay any concerns for our safety (no, we haven't heard any gunshots or seen any flash mobs yet), but also because, well, it's interesting stuff.

Prior to the 1950s, 'West Philadelphia' referred to the entire portion of the city proper west of the Schuylkill River.  But then, a few University of Pennsylvania grads working in real estate coined the term 'University City' to describe the area immediately surrounding UPenn, which sits at the far eastern end of western Philadelphia.  Whereas 'West Philly' may bring to mind images of drive-byes and broken down row homes, 'University City' carries an upbeat connotation, a violence-free academic utopia.  The idea, presumably, was to convince UPenn faculty and students to rent or buy housing in the area surrounding campus, thereby creating a rising real estate market.  The ploy worked.  Over the past half century, the boundary of University City (UC) has pushed steadily further west from UPenn.  Block by block, higher income families moved into newly renovated housing, forcing poorer Philadelphians to find housing elsewhere.  The current UC boundaries can be seen here. 

Our neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, sits in the far southwest corner of UC and shares its western border with West Philly.  Walk a block to our east, and large two-family Victorian style houses abound.  We've even seen two beautiful bed and breakfasts in the area.  Wander a block in the other direction, however, and the contrast is uncomfortably apparent:  tiny row houses appear in various states of disrepair.  The gentrification (or 'Penntrification, as some have called it) of UC has certainly brought more money and higher property values to this area.  But has the transformation improved the lives of the original inhabitants, or has it instead tended to displace these people further west?  This is something we are still trying to get a better feel for.

The Gables Bed and Breakfast on Chester Ave

Looking South on 49th Street:  A Sad Sight we feel safe?  Yes.  We understand that crime does take place here more frequently than we are accustomed to, but we also recognize that by simply taking basic precautions we are unlikely to become victims.

Here are a few reasons why we are loving Squirrel Hill thus far:
  • The place is called Squirrel Hill.  How ridiculous is that?  I haven't been able to track down the origins of this name.  The neighborhood is definitely on a hill, so that makes sense.  But I haven't seen an abundance of squirrels around here.  Perhaps they are all vacationing in center city for the summer.  Regardless, it's just fun to say, 'I live on Squirrel Hill.'
  •  We are just three blocks from Clark Park, which rocks for several reasons:  it seems to be the hipster capital of Philly (some VERY intriguing people roaming about); it has a large farmers' market; and it's just a nice place to take a quiet stroll.  Plus, a live performance of 'Lord of the Flies' is being shown there next month.  Sucks to your assmar!
  •  Our street is super quiet:  very little traffic, and no loud undergrad students, but lots of families, trees, and shade.
  • We can be in center city in 15 minutes, and I can bike to campus in 10 minutes.  Yay for short commutes!
 Note 1:  I start med school classes this week, so my next blog post may not take place until 2015.

Note 2:  In writing the second paragraph, I drew heavily on the Wikipedia article entitled 'University City.'  Check it out for a more in-depth history of this area.

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    The Wanderers Settle In (For Now)

    Seeing as how we have been bouncing all over Creation (and by "Creation" I mean Pennsylvania and New Jersey) for the past three years, I have decided to start a blog to keep family and friends up-to-date on our whereabouts and whatsdoings.  The blog is titled 'Squirrel Hill' because that's the name of our new neighborhood.  More on that later...

    The Big Move (Ok, not that big; there's only two of us plus a rabbit)

    A week ago today, we moved to Philadelphia because I'm about to begin medical school here.  This was our fourth move in as many years:  at the end of 2008 we moved from Italy (bellisima!) to the wife's parents' basement (not recommended); six months later we moved to State College (nice town, minus the hordes of drunken students); in late 2010 we moved to New Jersey (also not recommended) for work; and now we are in west Philly (verdict still out).  We'll be here for at least four years.

    Our New Pad (first floor)

    Now you would  probably think that by this point we would have this moving thing down to a science, with all sorts of spreadsheets and truck packing diagrams and room layouts.

    But you would be wrong.

    This one has been just as chaotic as those previous.  The moving process is generally unpleasant, but I have noticed the re-occurrence of two particularly stressful moments with every move we've done.  The first takes place during the packing of the rental truck.  Things are proceeding smoothly (or as smoothly as they can when a 2-ton 1960s sofa bed must be moved down a flight of stairs).  The truck is filling up steadily, and we are feeling so smart for our ability to fit furniture together like a giant game of Tetris.  But then, as a seemingly endless chain of boxes and other items flows through the apartment's front door and onto the lawn surrounding the truck, we become gripped by perhaps the worst fear of the mover:  there is NO WAY all of this stuff will fit on the truck!  Thus ends the game of Tetris, and thus begins the part where we frantically pile stuff as high as we can toward the front of the truck until, miraculously, we squeeze that last item in.  Sweet success!

    The second inevitably painful moment takes place at the other end of the move, as we are emptying the truck's contents into the new apartment.  The concept is the same, only now it's the apartment, and not the truck, that seems way too small to accommodate our earthly possessions.  Plans to put my desk and bookshelf in the spare bedroom proved futile; by the time we removed these items from the truck, the spare bedroom had already been completely filled with cardboard boxes of stuff.  So we shift boxes, arrange furniture, re-arrange furniture, and begin to unpack.  That's where we are now, going through our stuff, box by box ("Where the heck are we going to put this?")  Yet, somehow, it will all work itself out...I hope.

    This is what happens when you move from a large apartment in Italy (paid for by Uncle Sam) to a small apartment in Philly (paid for with loans).