North Philadelphia Revisited
Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1970s and ’80s, I often had the sense that there were in fact two separate cities: the affluent, primarily white area within the boundaries of William Penn’s original urban plan called “Center City” where my family lived, and the areas beyond that were predominantly African American and markedly less prosperous. Although people from across the city interacted at work, school, and in public spaces, there was a divide.
North Philadelphia, in particular, was, and still is, the center of the African American population in the city. It is an area rich in culture and history. However, since the 1950s, the familiar narratives of the decline of U.S. manufacturing and demographic shifts to the suburbs have led to urban decay. While there are pockets of recent development, large stretches have been plagued by poverty, drug-related violence and blight.
My introduction to the neighborhood came by way of my mother, Lily Yeh, a Chinese-American artist who initiated a renewal project along Germantown Avenue in the heart of North Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. Working alongside neighborhood residents, she began converting vacant lots into sculpture gardens and community spaces. There was a raw energy and vitality present that was new to me, and the neighborhood captured my imagination in ways that I would only realize many years later. The tactile process of reshaping the neighborhood’s broken tiles, fallen bricks, and debris into new forms was compelling. As a teenager, I felt a naïve excitement that the collapsed structures and abandoned spaces could be renewed and that, perhaps, the injustice of the ghetto could be addressed or mitigated through art.
I went every summer to the Village of Arts and Humanities, as this renewal project was later named. I got to know many people and became particularly close to James Maxton. Six-foot-eight, he was known as “Big Man.” Originally from North Carolina, he had been an all-state football lineman before an ankle injury ended his dream of playing professionally. He made his way to Philadelphia to find another future, but became involved in drugs: first as a runner, and then as an addict. After two decades, his life began to collapse. One of his friends had introduced him to the Village, and Big Man poured his energy into making sculptures and murals. Gradually, he took on other roles at the Village and became an essential and beloved figure in the neighborhood. He was charming and perceptive, but there was something else that drew me to him. Perhaps because he was aware of his own frailty, he was compassionate and without pretension. His body, like the neighborhood itself, had deteriorated from years of neglect. When he died in 2005 from kidney failure, the whole community turned out to honor and celebrate his life.
My involvement with the Village ended when I went away to college in Chicago—yet another divided city—but the memory of my experience there continued to resonate, particularly after I moved in 1998 to Beijing after studying photography in graduate school. I had moved to China to explore my Asian heritage and to make photographs, and began working on a project on migrant workers who had left the provinces for Beijing in search of opportunity. It was their labor that was embodied in myriad consumer goods and the new high-rises of the cities. Yet, despite their energy and persistence, they were largely excluded from the new prosperity. My interest in these workers led me to the peripheries of the city where many of them resided. The contradictions that I found in the landscape further reinforced the sense of imbalance—gated communities of the newly rich next to shantytowns; lavish golf courses beside recycling depots, where migrants, who made their livelihood collecting debris, sold their materials. And, while this reality was on the other side of the world, it reminded me of the divide in Philadelphia.
After nearly a decade abroad, I returned in 2008 to the United States and began photographing in North Philadelphia. My experience of the place, however, had changed. It now seemed alien and abrasive, and going there alone, day after day, was a struggle. I became aware of myself as a privileged outsider with a camera, in a place where I did not belong. Nevertheless, there was something in the images I was making that held my attention and encouraged me to continue. Rather than trying to represent North Philadelphia as an example of broader social realities, I started to see it as a unique place that had meaning for me, and I found new footing. Gradually, the contours of this area, with its own history and set of circumstances, began to emerge.
At first I photographed vacant lots. Some had been repurposed by neighboring residents as ad-hoc gardens or memorials, while others lay strewn with waste, awaiting nature’s reclamation. Some of the lots were lush with vegetation during the spring and summer, and seemed like entryways into another world.
The local churches, found on nearly every block, provided a window into the neighborhood’s past. Many structures—old banks, synagogues, commercial buildings, and storefronts—had been converted into churches of various denominations. There were also religious centers built in more prosperous times, such as the Church of the Advocate, which played an important role in the Civil Rights era. Many of these places were anchors for the people of the neighborhood. I was most drawn to those that were smaller and in flux, changing denominations and pastors frequently. They seemed more like local businesses vying to attract congregations.
Attuned to all things Chinese, I became intrigued by the Chinese takeout restaurants that dotted the landscape. While commonplace, they revealed a complex narrative between the African American and Chinese communities. Locals seemed to resent the Chinese as outsiders who barricaded themselves behind thick sheets of bulletproof plastic. The Chinese—mostly migrants from small provincial towns in southern China—appeared like stranded interlopers in a remote foreign outpost, waiting to go home.
As I photographed, people would approach me, often with suspicion, to ask what I was doing. Many assumed that the large-format camera was a surveying instrument, and that I was a real-estate developer. When I responded that I was making images of the neighborhood, some would ask to be photographed. Two young men once said: “Take our picture or we’ll take your camera.” I obliged. When the negative arrived back from the lab, I was surprised by the sense of presence and intimacy in the image. One of the men appeared open and sweet, while the other had a swagger that seemed to hide a deeper vulnerability. It was then that people became a primary focus.
Many people I photographed, even those clearly struggling, evinced grace. I met one young woman who was working the street. She was at once forlorn and poised. Other people, however, seemed in limbo, awaiting some sort of change. Although looking back, I wonder if that was the case. Perhaps I was the one in an indeterminate state, drawn to people and places I conceived of as in between. One older woman, Helen, had lived in the same house for decades. Though it was surrounded by trash-strewn lots and abandoned buildings, she kept it beautifully tended, with potted flowers outside. Her son, who was often there to look in on her, told me that their family was originally from the South and had lived in North Philadelphia since the turn of the twentieth century. They had deep roots there, and had witnessed the neighborhood slowly fall apart. “But,” he said, “it’s home and we don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Daniel Traub, June 2014