During the late 1950s and ’60s, when Portillo was a child, her neighbors on the 1400 block of Norris Street would gather each weekend to sweep the street, while she and her friends scrubbed the white marble staircases outside of their homes until they were “so clean you could eat lunch off of them.”
Portillo still lives in the same house today, but now, she often sees students passed out on those staircases, surrounded by garbage from their parties. On weekend nights, she barely sleeps due to “unbearable” noise from the nearby fraternities.
One Saturday last semester, a drunk student rang her doorbell at 3:30 a.m. and asked if her home was the location of a party he was looking for.
Portillo, a facilities management worker of 22 years who now works at Tuttleman Learning Center, has lived in the same house on Norris Street for 70 years. Now 72, she said she blames a lot of her complaints and her changing community on a lack of a discipline by landlords who rent to students.
“Some of these students come with this attitude of, ‘Well, we are only here for a few years, so we don’t have to act like we want to be part of this neighborhood,’ Portillo said. “Some landlords encourage that behavior by never checking in on their properties. … They just want a check at the end of the month and don’t care about the efforts of this community.”
Portillo is trying to crack down on neglectful landlords who rent to “problematic” students by calling them and holding them accountable for the noise and trash that is in her area. She said she contacts the Licenses and Inspections Department to ask the city to issue citations for certain buildings as often as once a week.
She added that she isn’t afraid to knock on doors of students and ask them to pick up their trash. She’s even working with City Council President Darrell Clark, who represents North Philadelphia, to raise the fine for citations to make them more meaningful.
None of the landlords, Portillo said, really care about what North Philadelphia used to look like. She doesn’t like the modern towers that have replaced historic buildings in the area.
Portillo smiled as she recalled the row homes and the neighborhood Catholic school that have been replaced by university buildings. She laughed as she explained how she and her friends would scream out of fear as they ran by Monument Cemetery, which once extended from Broad to 16th Street on Norris.
“They say you can’t stop progress, but there is no appreciation for what was once here,” Portillo said. “It was such a close community. Everyone was family and we all looked out for each other. It’s just really sad to not see that anymore.”
Joan Bridley lives on the 1500 block of Norris Street and grew up in North Philadelphia with Portillo. She is making a similar effort to restore the community where she grew up.
“You just have to keep putting pressure on [landlords],” Bridley said. “We never had the issues that we have today, but we are going to hold them accountable.”
Both women added that the negative perception students have of the area is upsetting.
“They think, ‘This is North Philly, these people don’t really care about how they live around here,’” Portillo said. “Well they don’t really know about how we live. We want to live the same way you live where you are from. There are a lot of good people around here, a lot of good neighbors.”
Portillo has defied this misconception by getting to know many students she sees while working in Tuttleman. She said that some of them have been eager to hear about her story and North Philadelphia’s history.
Even after some students graduate, Portillo said she has kept in touch with them.
“I know a lot of the students,” Portillo said. “Some of them have been great neighbors, even great friends. … But I wish more people made an effort to appreciate this community.”
She added that she is not optimistic for a harmonious relationship between the university and the community, saying that “[Temple] always had an engagement, but never a marriage” to North Philadelphia.
“There are some tough people who have grown up here and still live here,” Portillo said. “We won’t stop fighting for this community.”