Philadelphia, blessing of choice

A student decides to study near where his family originally lived in the city.

Irish Gaelic floated between porches in certain enclaves of North Philadelphia in the 1930s as fathers arrived home from work. My paternal grandmother Aloyse saw this every day as she and her 10 siblings returned from parochial school. Her mother arrived on Ellis Island from County Donegal, Ireland at age 15—alone.

After a stint in the Merchant Marines, my grandfather, Jack, considered joining St. Charles’ Borromeo seminary before marrying my grandmother. He found work with Philadelphia Gas Works. He and Aloyse raised my dad and his five sisters in the Fox Chase section of Northeast Philadelphia after being displaced from Olney near La Salle University to make way for a school parking lot. My grandmother still calls Fox Chase home.

My mother’s side germinated in the Northeast as well—her and five siblings reared by a Teamster father and a stay-at-home mother in Lawncrest, a predominantly black area these days.

Before a few of my aunts and uncles, almost no one in my family had an education past a high school diploma. They worked blue-collar, working-class jobs. Despite the sacrifice it entailed, nearly all of my American lineage sent their kids to Catholic school.

For many immigrants, and for anyone trying to build a life here, the American Dream is a truth—often a vague and flimsy one. It involves struggle and perseverance and grit in the face of stagnant progress. Many of the struggling folks at the turn of the century in this city shared common ground in their attempts to mold the trajectory of their offspring’s future.

A time-forged work ethic, combined with the unclasping of a past flush with anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment, afforded them greater mobility, with many gradually moving away from Center City and toward the outer limits and eventually the suburbs.

My family’s story is not a rare one. This area is rife with them.

In 1994, right before my sister and I arrived on the scene, my parents and my brother made the move to the suburbs.

And two decades passed in a blur.

I made the choice to study here at Temple, right down the street from where my family first stretched their roots in the New World. Now, as an outsider, I am able to appreciate the city for what it is and what has happened here.

From atop my building on Main Campus, I see William Penn standing proudly at the mast of his city. The accomplishments of past Philadelphians seem to have left an indelible impression, one that was borne of the same struggle my progenitors saw. I can see the passion and attitude of those who have stayed and lived here, and those who have decided  Philly would be their home.

My parents were not overly enthusiastic about my choice to study here, given the crime and poverty that blight the streets around the school. They worked hard to get out of the city, my father said, so my choice to put myself back here was confusing for them.

Mapping my future where my family’s past lay means something sincere. It adds depth to my choices; it puts momentum behind my future. I’ve chosen to be here.

Nearly 21 years ago, my parents moved from the Mayfair section of the city to right outside the city limits. Even though they moved into a twin home that wouldn’t be uncommon on the streets of Philadelphia, it was a move that carried clear symbolic weight.

It cleared the board and set the scene for a new story, one that starts again at its narrative roots. I’m looking to make Philadelphia home again.

Colton Shaw can be reached at

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