Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Jul 2, 2012

A Housing Project Kid's Story of Race in 1960s and 70s N E Phila

by Rosemary Reeves

Part One:  The Lily White Northeast

It was called the Lily White Northeast, a characterization most likely meant to be disparaging.  But to many who lived there, it was a reason to boast. Too staid and set in its ways to go along easily with the changing times, the Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg resisted the 1960s counter-culture by quietly resolving to stay the same.  Having liberal ideas made you a weirdo, a hippie, a bleeding heart.  The “N” word was uttered quite freely.  No one seemed to think there was anything wrong with that.  The racial slur was spoken with complete impugnity in casual conversation in ordinary places such as stores and bus stops and between new mothers chatting with each other with their baby strollers beside them on the sidewalk.  Neither Martin Luther King, nor Sidney Portier, nor peaceful civil rights protestors being hit with billy clubs could move the immovable Upper Holmesburg.

In the summer of 1969 I was ten.  There wasn’t much to do in my neighborhood.  Upper Holmesburg seemed more like a sleepy little town than a part of the fifth largest city in the United States.   The hot days were long and boring.  Once in a while, my sister Sharon would take me to the stables across from Pennypack Park.  For a few dollars you could ride along the horse path.  One day, I was thrown from a horse and though I got up without a scratch that put an end to my horseback riding days.  My family didn’t have a pool or the money to go on vacation.  Heck, we never even had a barbecue in the yard.  So, I spent much of the summer daydreaming while I sang along to the hits on my little pink transistor radio.  I took it with me almost everywhere.  It let me know there was a world beyond Upper Holmesburg.  A world called Motown.  

I used to fantasize about hopping on a box car and riding the train straight to Motown, a nickname for Detroit as well as a record label.  No one knew it, but I wished that Sidney Poitier was my father.  My own dad was mean and always yelling.  I saw all of Mr. Poitier’s films at the movie theater in Mayfair, a short bus ride away.  In my mind, he would make the perfect dad.  He was handsome, intelligent and strong.  He was brave and compassionate.  He stood up for what was right.  If others were unjust, he told them to their faces and he told them why.  He was gentle and he made it all right for a man to feel deeply.    
Sidney Poitier

Why can’t I have a dad like him? I asked myself as I walked along Frankford Avenue to McDonald’s or Pennypack Park or strolled to the field off Carwithan Road where I sometimes threw my boomerang or flew a kite past the clouds way up high.  But I kept it to myself because even at that tender age I knew people would find it strange for a white girl to want a black guy for a father.  Even if he was Sidney Poitier.  

Sonny Charles and the Checkmates were singing “Black Pearl” on the radio:

Black pearl precious little girl
Let me put you up where you belong
Because I love you
Black pearl pretty little girl
You been in the background much too long

It was a sweet love song, an ode to a black girl as romantic as it was subversive.  Out of nowhere came this voice that said black women should be lifted up and it was something whites never heard before.  I hoped that someday I’d be lifted up, too, so I wouldn’t have to be known as poor white trash from Liddonfield housing project anymore.  

There had been a race riot in the black section of Philadelphia five years prior. Odessa Bradford’s car had stalled and police asked her to move it.  She said she couldn’t move it because it was stalled and then an argument broke out.  Passersby got into the scuffle.  Tension that had been building up for months between blacks and police amid complaints of police brutality came to a head and three days of rioting ensued.  But I was too young to remember that.  

Having been born in the Lily White Northeast, I didn’t know much about black people.  There were a handful of blacks living in Liddonfield, but it was a big public housing development and I never saw them.  In movies and television, blacks were often portrayed as either paragons of virtue like Mr. Poitier, meek and mild like Martin Luther King, Jr. or really cool, like afro wearing Linc on The Mod Squad.  Upper Holmesburg may have been resistant to change, but Leutenant Uhura was the communications officer on the star ship Enterprise, a sign that change was inevitable.

Part Two of this story will post on Monday, July 16, 2012


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