Philadelphia pulsed with white light. Snow blanketed the streets, and what had seemed like urban blight now sparkled. It was my first trip to the city, a Christmas visit to my parents’ new home. When I initially saw it, I wondered what they could have been thinking. They’d moved from leafy suburbia to a gritty street of narrow row houses in South Philadelphia. Graffiti sprayed doorways. Broken glass laced the street. It was a place devoid of trees. A place that looked short on hope.
“Why here?” I had asked.
“Adventure,” my father had said.
In their sixties, my parents were embarking on a new phase in life. I was all for it: What better way to stay young than to discover a new city? Their new neighborhood, however, I wasn’t so sure about. That night, we stood on a subway platform. Icy wind howled down the empty tunnel, and we waited, blinking into the glare.
My father leaned over the tracks, peering into the tunnel void. As the escalator rattled lower, a man in a cowboy hat stepped off. In a blink, he’d stepped forward, grabbed my father, and stuck a gloved hand into my dad’s lower back. “Give me your money!” He said.
I forgot about the train. I forgot about the cold. I forgot about the neighborhood. My father jumped and spun.
The cowboy stepped back then, dropped his arms, and laughed. “It’s me, man!”
My dad bellowed with relief: “This our new neighbor!”
Despite his bad humor, as we began to talk, I realized the jokester cowboy sounded like the kind of person who you could trust with your life—not a would-be mugger. He told us about a family who had lost their home, and how he had opened his own to them. I started to wonder just how bad this new neighborhood could be.
Since then, every time I return, the street has changed. New neighbors have come, and old neighbors have remained. I’ve watched an Asian family work dawn to dusk rehabbing what was nothing more than a crumbling shell. I’ve chatted about academia with the Shakespearean actors who moved in next door. And one day when garlic and marinara scented the air, I met an Italian woman who’d raised her family on that sliver of a street. She took my hands into her own, turned to my father and sighed, “Oh, she’s a beauty.”
Three years later, I’ve met many of my parents’ South Philly neighbors, which is a stark contrast to their old neighborhood, where I had known none.
I believe to embark on adventure is to engage with the unknown, and initial impressions of the unknown are sometimes wrong. I believe that diversity and change create vibrant neighborhoods made of people who are willing to know you, to embrace you, and to laugh with you late into the dark. I believe that these are the people who turn blight into beauty.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.