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 16, 2012

A Housing Project Kid's Story of Race in NE Phila Part 2

 If you missed part one of this series click on the link below:

by Rosemary Reeves

Mom bought a pound of cheap ground beef from the grocery store and placed it on the kitchen table while she put the rest of the groceries away.  We were going to have it for dinner that night.  Dad saw the packaged meat and ripped open the plastic that kept it fresh.  He dived right in and grabbed a handful of the ground beef with his unwashed, tobacco stained hands, popping it in his mouth.  Mom looked annoyed. “I wish you wouldn’t do that, Jim,” she said, “It’s not healthy to eat raw hamburger.”  

“It ain’t raw hamburger,” he said, “It’s steak tartare, same as what the rich guys eat.  Only they pay a lot more than fifty cents a pound, the dummies!” 

“Jim, you’re in the way,” Mom told him, “Why don’t you go watch Mission Impossible?”

Dad said okay and Mom told me to peel some potatoes.  She filled a pot with water and placed it on the stove.  The only things Mom ever fried were hotdogs and spam.  Everything else, she boiled, including hamburger.  We didn’t have a potato peeler or even a sharp knife.  It’s clumsy to peel a potato with a butter knife, I can tell you, but I got pretty good at it.  When I was done, I hovered over the pot.  The water came to a rolling boil and it was time to add the ground beef and potatoes.  I liked to watch the beef turn from pink to gray.  Gray meant the meat was boiled to fully cooked.  I handed Mom the ketchup bottle and she poured lots of ketchup into the pot with the hamburger and potatoes.  I guess it was Mom’s version of tomato sauce, only a lot cheaper.

Mom’s tomato sauce made from ketchup was a kind of poor man’s marinade.  It seasoned the meat.  When the concoction was fished out of the pot and put it on a plate, it didn’t resemble any meal you’d recognize, but I learned to like it.

We didn’t eat at the kitchen table anymore.  Every time we tried to follow the traditions of the American family ideal, our hearts were never in it.  Not even when it came to the simple things, like sitting down to dinner together and asking each other how our day was.  My sister tried asking Dad that once.  Dad replied, “How do you think it was?  Do you think I like hauling my ass to work every day?”  

Who were we kidding, anyhow, entertaining pipe dreams of being a traditional American family?  That required too much imagination and too much bad acting.  Now, we ate all our meals in the living room in front of the television with our plates in our laps.  That was real.  That was us.

Mission Impossible concluded and a Tareyton cigarette commercial came on.  A lady with a fake black eye said she’d rather fight than switch.  Mom laughed and started to say something to me, but all of a sudden, Dad interrupted.  “Be quiet, Eileen!” he said, “Listen!”

Mom and I turned our attention back to the t.v. set.  It was time for the nightly news.  The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had come to West Philadelphia.  They spoke of black revolution.  They said every black man should have a gun in his home to defend himself and his family against the white racist police that occupy their neighborhoods and brutalize them.  They said our beloved democratic system was nothing more than an oppressive regime of the white power structure.  They wore berets and leather jackets, brandishing weapons in front of news cameras.  They said the revolution was coming and get ready.  They raised their fists and chanted black power.

The news was interrupted by another commercial break.  “Dear God!”  Mom said.

I had goose bumps all over my body.  “It’s D Day,” Dad remarked, “There’s going to be a race war.”

“A race war?” I said, “Mom, what do we do?”

Mom answered softly, “We pray.”  

Huey Newton and Bobby Seale had started the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California a few years before, but that was clear across the country.  Now, the black revolutionaries were practically on our doorstep.  Rumors of an imminent race war circulated throughout the neighborhoods of Upper Holmesburg, Tacony, Torresdale and Mayfair.  If you walked down the street on any given day, people were talking about it.  They were afraid.  I was afraid, too.  But a race war was not as imminent as we thought; instead, it was a lingering threat that caused tensions to rise as high as the summer temperatures.  It felt like the lull before the storm.  The worst part was not knowing when it would happen.  I mean, the exact day and the exact hour.  

I played on sun-baked asphalt, tar and cement all summer.  Riding my bike across lanes of traffic along Frankford Avenue.  Dancing with a hula hoop on the sidewalk.  Bouncing a ball in the empty school yard at St. Dominic Elementary.  Once, my bike chain got loose and I had to get off and fix it.  While I was fixing it, I happened to look up.  A black man was walking along the street in my direction.  It was unusual to see a black person in the neighborhood.  He was only strolling, but I became afraid.  I quickly hopped on the bike and peddled away from him, leaving part of the chain still hanging.

When I felt I had reached a safe distance, I got off the bike to finish fixing the chain.  The sun was so strong it felt like I was on fire.  At the spot where I stopped there was a big tree where I could fix my bike in the shade.  I fiddled with the chain again but then I heard familiar voices.  They were kids my age, bullies who were always picking on me.  It was a group of them.  I went into a panic.  It was a dumb thing to do, but there was no time to think so I just let the bike fall to the ground and hid behind the tree trunk.  

I stood as still as possible behind that tree trunk and closed my eyes real tight as their voices quickly grew louder and their footsteps reverberated only inches away on the city sidewalk.  Nervous sweat pooled in my armpits and trickled down my arms.  My chest heaved heavily, but I could hardly breathe.  

A set of footsteps fell out of line.  “Hey, look,” said one of the boys, “There’s the hillbilly!”

The rest of the footsteps came to a stop.  “Where?” a girl asked.

“There,” he said, “She’s hiding behind the tree!”  It was like somebody stabbing my insides. I felt sick.  I didn’t want them to hurt my bike, so I came out from behind the tree and retrieved it.  I hopped on the bike and tried to ride away from them, but they gathered around and blocked me.  “Why were you hiding behind the tree?” asked the boy, “ You scared of us?”

“No,” I said, “Let me through.”  I tried to peddle past them but to no avail.

“Yes, you are,” said one of the girls, “You’re scared of us.”

“You’re so weird,” said another girl, “Hiding behind trees.  There’s something wrong with you.”

“Look at her shoes.  They have holes in them!”

“She’s so ugly.  She should wear a bag over her head.”

“Hey, Hillbilly.  Where’s Jethrow?”

I fought back the tears.  “Get away from me.  Leave me alone!”

A blonde girl grinned.  “What are you gonna do?  Cry?”

In a fit of anger I used my bike like a battering ram.  A couple of them stumbled and the rest stepped aside to get out of the way.  If only they could see the surprised look on their faces.  One of the boys cried out in pain and held his arm like I had hurt it.  I hopped on the bike and high tailed it out of there.  “That’s right, get lost!” he said, “Go back to Liddonfield where you belong!”

I peddled faster than I ever did, wiping the water from my eyes.  I didn’t like being called a hillbilly.  It made me so mad I wanted to spit.  Halfway down the block I jammed on the brakes and yelled back at them.  “I wish I could go back to Liddonfield!”  What was so great about moving out of the projects anyway?  This neighborhood hated the project people.  They did not want us moving out of the projects and living next to them, on their block, lowering their standards and bringing the neighborhood down.  

I would have gladly gone back to our old housing project, if only Mom would let me.  But she said we were homeowners now and moved up so that meant never seeing Liddonfield again.  If this was moving up, I wanted no part of it.  If this was moving up, I’d rather not.

Mom and I stood at the bus stop that Saturday.   There was a lady standing with us and Mom asked her what time it was.  The next thing you know, the lady started talking about the blacks, only she didn’t say “blacks.”  She said the “N” word.  I looked at Mom and Mom looked back at me with her lips pursed.  Mom turned her head and glanced every which way, squirming in her own skin.  I don’t think my mother ever figured out how to continue a conversation after a stranger says the “N” word.  Challenging it would only cause trouble and we had trouble enough in Upper Holmesburg.

Part 3 of this series will be posted on Monday, July23, 2012. 


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