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

Aug 27, 2012

Part 6 of A Housing Project Kid's Story of Race in 1960s and 70s NE Phila

by Rosemary Reeves

 If you missed the first 5 parts of this series click on the links below:

“We don’t want it here.”
-- Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo in response to the announcement that the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention would take place at Temple University in Philadelphia on September 7, 1970.

The far northeast had been immune to the urban problems which plagued the rest of Philadelphia and other large cities in the United States until the radicals started shaking things up.  Through some ingenious plan or accidental design it established itself, for all intents and purposes, as a suburban oasis, ignoring the fact that it was not a suburb.  As to the majority of the population in the far northeast, the American dream had worked for them and it was beautiful.  I can attest to that.  Their streets were clean.  Their schools were excellent.  They had responsible neighbors who cut the grass and tended to their gardens regularly.  They loved where they lived and they did not want artists and writers, activists and revolutionaries criticizing the way of life they held dear.  That was easy to understand, even for someone like me, because if I were them I’d hold onto it, too, as tightly as I could and for as long as I could.

In a place where neighbors are often life-long friends and where citizens were actively involved in local schools and politics, average people held enormous power.  They could rally together in a show of solidarity against any perceived threat with the quickest of ease and they often did in Upper Holmesburg.   A whole block can conspire against one family in their midst because they were black or because they were from Liddonfield project.  Even a little girl from a housing project was a possible threat, for she might be the thing that knocks down the whole house of cards.  They might say if she is here, then there is a hole in the system.  If she is here, then there is a crack in the very foundation of our way of life.  If she slipped through, then more will slip through and the flood of undesirable persons into our little piece of heaven will have begun.

This culture of exclusion that worked so well for the majority, so demoralized my mother that she cut all ties to the housing project we once lived in, in the hopes of winning acceptance.   It became necessary in her mind to distance ourselves from our peers in order to gain advantage.   However, it backfired, causing us to become greatly disadvantaged instead, lacking any social network or support.  I once asked my mother why she didn’t join some neighborhood citizen’s group whose next meeting was announced in the newspaper.  Her answer was, “Those groups (meaning any group that influences local politics) aren’t for people like us.”  In other words, folks from Liddonfield housing project weren’t supposed to mix with people who had any kind of power to set rules or make demands.  It was not our place.  As much as Mom liked to talk about being just as good as them, she remained steadfastly intimidated by the more well off women of Upper Holmesburg, who did not have to question their status in the community.

I never saw my mother strut with confidence or beam with pride in herself the way Upper Holmesburg housewives did.  Once we went to the corner store and there was a woman in the aisle wearing a very stylish outfit.  She looked like she had been to the beauty parlor.  Her hair was perfect and her make-up, flawless.  Just for a moment, Mom stared at her for she made quite an impression.  Then I saw my mother gaze at her own frumpy house dress and well worn shoes with all manner of shame.  As the woman moved toward us Mom turned away, put her head down and hunched her shoulders, as if hoping not to be seen.    

My brother Kevin was fourteen now, and was putting away childish things.  He didn’t need an eleven year old sister tagging along when he trying to impress girls and stuff.  He told me in no uncertain terms, “Go do your own thing!”  That was a popular saying at the time.  Do your own thing.  So, he set me free from his watchful eye and I learned to meander through life on my own.

There was a field down the block from the row house we lived in after leaving the projects.  I got a lot of mileage out of that field as far as idle playtime. Nobody ever went there because it had a “Private Property.  Keep Out” sign among some tangled weeds at the entrance.  Once I got past that, there was a big, wide open space where I could fly a paper kite or toss my boomerang.  Kevin and I used to play there a lot but now I went there alone.  It felt like my own personal field despite the sign.  I was pretty good at throwing and catching the boomerang, but even an expert has to keep her skills sharp, so I spent two hours one day just practicing.  By the time I wore myself out, it was almost time for supper.  As I turned to leave, my foot got caught in the overgrown weeds.  In the struggle to extricate myself I fell down and ended up sitting among the brush. 

There were a few supplies a boy needed to venture alone in those days:  a bicycle to get you where you wanted to go, a rabbit’s foot for good luck, a dime to call your parents if necessary and a pocket knife for cutting rope or fishing line or carving.  A boy always had to consider that he might have to get himself out of a jam.  Though I was a girl, my big brother taught me all this and so I pulled out my pocket knife and cut the tangled weeds. 

When I got home, there was a man in our house and he was talking to my dad.  He called my father “Jim” as if they had been friends a long time.  He said that some guys from the neighborhood were getting together to defend the block during the race war.  It was going to happen soon, he warned, because Huey Newton was on his way to Philly for the Revolutionary People’s Convention.  He said, “Jim, won’t you join us?  Are you in?”

We lived on that block for three years and this man never once came to our house before.  His children didn’t play with me or my brother and his wife never gave my mother the time of day.  All of a sudden they needed us, so they sent a representative who hinted at the fact that we would be held in higher regard from now on, in exchange for our help.  My father, having long been deprived of the respect and companionship of other men, agreed. “I’m in,” he said.  When the man got up to leave and my dad walked him to the door, the man patted him on the back, like a brother.  “I’ve got sandbags and barricades stored in my garage,” said the visitor, “I suggest you buy some wood, in case you have to board up the windows.”

On payday, Dad bought plywood and nails.  He took the shotgun out from the upstairs closet and cleaned out the barrel to have it at the ready.  Mom prayed a lot more than usual.  I was very scared.  On August 31, 1970 Rizzo's men raided the Black Panther Party headquarters on Wallace Street in West Philadelphia and arrested its members.  It made international news.   They were released soon after.  On September 7, 1970 more than 8,000 activists poured into Philadelphia to attend the Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention.  Rizzo had 1,000 of his men standing by.  The convention lasted several days and to everyone's relief, it was peaceful.   The race war the public feared never came to pass.  

The conclusion of this story will be posted on Monday, September 3, 2012


Conclusion of A Housing Project Kid's Story of Race

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