At the start of my senior year this past August, I finally relocated to a neighborhood in North Philadelphia more commensurate with all the stereotypes I’d heard about the area before I enrolled here. Ugly. Poor. Dangerous.
Well, maybe not entirely that last part, but after seven months, I still won’t walk home alone after 10 p.m.
My three roommates and I live on Lambert Street in Strawberry Mansion, which is a good 25-minute walk from campus – a walk that I take almost every day on my way to class. I’ve met one or two longtime residents in the neighborhood who also go to Temple, but, as far as my roommates and I know, there are no other students from out of town living within blocks of us in any direction.
Our unique living situation has led me to question how someone like me fits into the North Philadelphia community. Before I came to Temple four years ago, I was convinced that all the grim assessments I’d heard about the area and its inhabitants were inaccurate, just ignorant, racist fables made up by suburbanites who were too afraid to learn what inner cities are really like. Now I find myself living just blocks away from a street corner deemed “one of the most violent areas in Philadelphia” in an NBC10 report from September.
Yet the fact is nothing I see on TV or hear from someone else’s mouth can make my walk home from my evening class any more or less dangerous. Nor has any of it affected my interactions with the people on my block. This year, I finally have a personal account of the rundown neighborhoods just off campus. Many of my experiences so far have been about separating fact from fiction, media reports from my reality.
The truth of the situation, of course, is not easy to classify. I have seen and heard gunshots, drug deals and fighting. But, not surprisingly, I’ve also had many pleasant interactions, and I’m now used to seeing the same friendly faces on my way to campus in the morning. For the most part, I’ve felt pretty safe.
But there’s an added wrinkle for me to consider now. I will graduate in two months, and I still have a long list of decisions to tackle, including whether I’ll stay in Philadelphia for the long term or not. Moreover, as a Temple grad, would I possibly want to remain in North Philly?
My experiences this year will certainly be a factor in my decision. I’m not kidding myself: I know that simply spending a few months in my house hasn’t made me a true member of the community. I know that I can leave in two months, while many of my neighbors probably can’t afford to do the same.
So will I return to North Philly after graduation? My answer – as I imagine the answer of most students would be – is probably no. I’ve had the experience of living in an off-campus neighborhood already this year. I know it hasn’t been as genuine as the experience of people who won’t leave when the school year’s over. But it also hasn’t exactly been what everyone told me it would be either.
Ashwin Verghese can be reached at email@example.com.