PHILADELPHIA — Peaches Ramos designated the telephone pole just around the corner of her street in Fairhill a no-pass zone: those who dealt drugs in this North Philly neighborhood were not welcome beyond it.
On a July afternoon, young men loitering on the corner go up to the pole, but, conspicuously, no further. And when Ms. Ramos walks by with her son Joshua, one yells out "Agua bomba!" - water bomb - normally a warning police are nearby.
Peaches - the name her grandfather gave her when she was a child - has been the block captain of her street for more than 10 years, organizing street clean-ups, getting the city to bulldoze abandoned buildings, and confronting the dealers. Despite her diminutive size, she walks confidently past the pole every day on her way to catch the No. 23 bus to Center City. There she works amid the convention bustle at a new beauty-supply store.
Many shops, hotels, and eateries have opened in Center City, in fact, and Philadelphia's sustained focus on attracting conventions and tourism has sparked an economic boom. It's made Ramos's routine very different from a decade ago.
In many ways, her life over the past 20 years provides a microcosm of Philadelphia at the end of the 20th century: She lost her job at a textile plant after it closed shop and moved away; she became a single mother, dependent on state assistance. She watched her neighborhood become devastated by drugs and war-zone-like violence. Now, she's a part of a new services and entertainment economy that so many big cities around the country are trying to promote - Philadelphia more than most.
Its experiment will help determine whether the City of Brotherly Love, once the manufacturing and political hub of the United States, can reinvent itself enough to step out of the omnipresent shadow of New York and cement a reputation as a world-class metropolis - as well as rehabilitate its depressed neighborhoods. The irony is that this city, cradled between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, was once the center of America, whose position alongside London and Rome seemed all but guaranteed.
There are signs of hope today, even in the outer neighborhoods, however fragile and tenuous they may be. Like Ramos, other residents also make their way into Center City, where Republicans will meet next week to anoint George W. Bush. After a new convention center opened downtown in 1993, drawing thousands of visitors to the city, new businesses began to spring up.
Once-magnificent office buildings that had been vacant for years were renovated, some made into opulent hotels. Historic Broad Street became an Avenue of the Arts, and the city has established seven new arts venues along its sidewalks- adding to established treasures such as the Philadelphia Museum and Lyric Opera company.
Students from around the country come to study at such institutions as the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova, and Temple - but Philly doesn't feel like a college town.
It's maintained its hardworking, industrial feel - and, unfortunately, its racial divide. Among the 50 largest cities in the US, only two others balance a similar slim white majority (51 percent) and large black minority (42 percent) - who often have different interests. In the 1999 election, for example, new Mayor John Street (D), who is black, won 94 percent of the black vote. Sam Katz, who is white, won 87 percent of the white vote. Last month, tensions were exacerbated by the police beating of a black suspect.
In neighborhoods like Fairhill and nearby Kensington, abandoned dwellings, empty factories, and other signs of urban blight are stark reminders of the city's mighty industrial past.
"A lot of Philadelphia neighborhoods were essentially company towns that were built around manufacturing plants that are no longer there," says David Thornburgh, executive director of Pennsylvania Economy League. "Those neighborhoods no longer serve as housing for local employees, and some of them have seen catastrophic population loss."
A faded, but glorious, past
Around the turn of the century, Philadelphia was hailed as one of the greatest and most diversified manufacturing cities in the world. In 1909, the city limits contained 211 of the 264 classes of industry as determined by the Bureau of the Census. It was the US leader in the production of textiles, locomotives and streetcars, sporting goods, and many other products. One industrialist called Kensington "a city within a city, filled to the brim with enterprise, dotted with factories so numerous that the rising smoke obscures the sky. A happy and contented people, enjoying a land of plenty."
Philadelphia is also sometimes called the "City of Firsts": first public school, the first volunteer fire department, the first American magazine and daily newspaper, the first corporate bank, and even the first Republican National Convention.
More significant, perhaps, it was the site of the first naval shipyard, which would become a central piece of Philadelphia's identity. As writer Buzz Bissinger put it, on its docks "lay the greatest American spirit of all, the magnificent spirit of work, of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters ... coming together ... to make something spectacular with the labor and skill of their own hands and hearts."
Mainly because of this industrial might, Philadelphia grew from a Colonial town to a city of 2.1 million in 1950. The '50s, however, began the well-documented decline of US cities spurred in part by the flight of manufacturing jobs. Today, while the suburbs are swelling with the ranks of dotcoms - 18,000 high-tech companies encircle the city - there's very little e-commerce in the city proper. Of the 39,000 new high-tech jobs created between 1997 and 1998, 37,000 were in the suburbs.
When the federal government closed the naval yard in 1995, most of Philadelphia's core manufacturing base had already left. And since 1950, the city has lost a third of its population.
Indeed, in the past two years alone, the city has lost more residents than any other. The result has been more than 50,000 vacant lots and buildings.
Peaches took advantage of a city program to help rid neighborhoods of abandoned properties in the late 1970s. She bought her two-story row house for $13. "I had no windows, no doors, no heat, no toilet - nothing," she says. "But little by little, I started fixing it up."
It helped that she worked for a textile company through the mid-1980s, packing designer sportswear on an assembly line. But around the time she had her first child, the company closed shop and moved away. A single mother without a job, she went on state assistance.
'We gotta put a stop to this.'
Like most large US cities, in the '80s and early '90s, Philadelphia was engulfed in a crack epidemic that led to some of the worst inner-city violence in the nation. "I said, 'We gotta put a stop to this; somehow or another, we gotta put a stop to this.' " So Ramos became a tireless community activist and block captain then, and though she was very afraid at times - even now - she began to confront the dealers on her block, telling them "listen, you gotta move." Through sheer force of personality, and constant calls to the police, she established her telephone-pole boundary. Though she's been a scourge in getting the city to bulldoze abandoned buildings, Ramos believes what will drive out the dealers for good is new businesses, new construction, new jobs.
Ramos went back to work in 1997, a cashier at a local dollar store, after Congress revised the nation's welfare laws.
Today, Ramos is getting used to her new routine working downtown. It's usually still dark when she gets out of bed and peeks into the bedroom to check on her three boys. The family chihuahua, Crystal, is invariably cuddled around the legs of her youngest son, Christopher. "That dog thinks he's her mother," she mutters with a smile.
At about 6 a.m., she'll wake her oldest son, Luis, to help get his brothers ready while she cooks that night's dinner. She catches the bus at 7:45 a.m.
She has to arrive early since she's the assistant manager at the beauty supply store on Chestnut Street. The shop is seven blocks from Independence Hall, the elegant, red-brick statehouse where more than two centuries ago, the country's founders drafted and signed both the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.
Ramos likes to read about Philadelphia history, and she's quick to point out how the cemetery a block from her house was established in 1690. For now, Philadelphia is trying to take advantage of its quintessentially American past, its Colonial heritage as well as its fine arts future, to attract tourists and conventioneers. While it may never regain its status as the London of America, the city's efforts have certainly worked well enough that people with pride in their neighborhoods, like Ramos, will stick.
"I've been here for 22 years," she says, "and I'm not going anywhere."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society