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.

FIGHT THE STIGMA!

FIGHT THE STIGMA!
Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Oct 27, 2012

Holmesburg's Reaction to Liddonfield History Exhibit


Behind the Scenes at Pennypack Creek Bridge
 Historic Marker Celebration 

by Rosemary Reeves 

in Northeast Phila Exhibit
History of the Liddonfield Name in Northeast Phila Exhibit
I was riding Septa’s Route 66 line from Frankford Terminal on my way to the Pennypack Creek Bridge Historic Marker Celebration on October 13 with my friend Arthur when he inquired as to a good place to have a bite to eat and maybe a beer afterwards.  Just then the bus whizzed past a popular pub on Frankford Avenue.  “Is that the place you mentioned before?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him, “I’ve been meaning to stop in there one of these days.”  


In this ultra-conservative part of Philadelphia, spreading awareness of public housing history is going against the grain, but Arthur and I were doing just that.  The historical record of this region would not be complete without it.  So, we hopped on the Route 66 that morning carrying The Liddonfield Name in Northeast Philadelphia Exhibit with us, disassembled, along with a video camera from Staples.  

Arthur moved to the Philadelphia area from New York City twelve years ago.  “Is this part of Philly?” he asked, “Or is this a suburb?”  He was confused by the great dichotomy of the Far Northeast, an urban population that is suburban in lifestyle and comfortable with old-fashioned family values, long-held traditions and resistance to liberalism.  Anyone not born and raised there is inevitably perplexed by it.  

 “I call it suburbadelphia,” I told him.  The word Adelphia is Greek.  Arthur told me that would mean “a suburb of brothers.” It seemed like a pretty accurate description.  Folks born in the area tend to stay there for life.  Neighbors often grew up together.  Like birds of a feather, people in the Far Northeast tend to fly in unison toward the same time-honored ideals exemplified in the post-war era and long abandoned by most urban neighborhoods in favor of more modern notions, diversity and change.  Some natives of the Far Northeast will tell you those things come at the expense of safe and healthy communities and that is a trade-off they are not willing to make.  It seems hard to argue with, especially in light of the fact that Liddonfield Homes Public Housing Development was rife with crime and drugs in the later years of its existence in the neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg.  

Many have forgotten that Liddonfield once provided a safe, well-maintained environment for a close-knit community of low-income citizens who worked as unskilled laborers in Philadelphia during the golden days of public housing.  Government policy changed and funds originally allocated for the upkeep of public housing developments were channeled into homeownership initiatives instead, leaving buildings to decay.  The demand for unskilled labor waned with the advent of computer technology and America’s need for workers with higher education and technical skills left manual laborers unable to compete in the job market.  In the 1980s crack cocaine was brought into the country and insidiously crept into Liddonfield housing project, giving rise to violent crime.  

When Liddonfield was demolished in 2011 its past was very nearly sacrificed along with it, buried beneath the rubble of razed buildings and faded from the collective memory of folks in the Far Northeast where it was located, much like Liddonfield Railroad Station before it, which S. F. Hotchkin referred to as “a fine red brick building” in The Bristol Pike, a book published in 1893.  The name Liddonfield originated with Liddonfield Farm, where abolitionist Abraham Liddon Pennock hid runaway slaves.  Pennock owned the Pennypack Grist Mill for much of the 19th Century.

We reached the park in Holmesburg where the celebration was taking place and I joined the crowds of people marching across the Pennypack Creek Bridge.  Arthur wandered off to take video footage.   “Make ready.  Engage.  Fire!”  The Sons of Philadelphia, dressed as revolutionary soldiers shot their muskets.  Bang!  Clouds of smoke from burnt gun powder proved the muskets were real.  Cool.

The Pennypack Creek Bridge Historic Marker was unveiled.  Afterwards,  U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, Pa. Reps. Kevin Boyle and Michael McGeehan and Councilman Bobby Henon (who stopped by later on to say “hello” to me) made speeches to the crowd of approximately five hundred.  Fred Moore, former President of the Holmesburg Civic Association and member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, told the story of how  Pennypack Creek Bridge was built in 1697 and how American and French troops marched across it to defeat the British at Yorktown.  The crowds of onlookers came from neighborhoods across Northeast Philadelphia and beyond.  Most stayed for hours despite the cold, fascinated by the local history.  

The History of the Liddonfield Name in Northeast Philadelphia exhibit made its debut at the well attended event.  The weather cooperated for the outdoor festivities.  It was sunny.

People were drawn to the exhibit within minutes.  One man in particular stood out.  “Oh my God, it’s Liddonfield!” he exclaimed loudly.  He called his friend over.  “You’ve got to see this,” he told his companion, “This is incredible!”  I was standing a couple yards away, eavesdropping on their conversation.  They were both former tenants of the public housing development.  They seemed so shocked and thrilled to see some form of public recognition of the housing project community’s unique collective experience and the resurrection of its past.   

Many former tenants of the project came to view the exhibit that day.  Their reaction was similar.  They were thrilled, but that was to be expected.  The question was, how would everyone else react to a history exhibit that featured Liddonfield public housing along with Liddonfield Railroad Station and abolitionist Abraham Liddon Pennock, who hid runaway slaves on Liddonfield Farm?

This was ultra-conservative Holmesburg, after all and Pennypack Park was within walking distance of Upper Holmesburg, where the demolished housing project stood for more than fifty years.  To be honest, a lot of people here hate Liddonfield, especially the ones who lived closest in proximity to the crime-ridden project.  Even in the aftermath of its destruction, the very word “Liddonfield” still leaves a bad taste in their mouths.  With public housing across America having a bad reputation, Philadelphia’s Far Northeast is fertile testing ground for the introduction of public housing history, a virtually unknown concept to most people.

By now I was standing next to the table where the exhibit had been set up so that passersby could ask me questions if they wanted to.  A young couple with children stopped and lingered at the exhibit.  The young wife started telling me a story with her husband beside her, holding onto a baby carriage.  She talked about how her mother drove past the project one day.  Some kids who lived there ran into the street and held onto her bumper.  She shouted out her window as she was driving but they would not let go.  The woman was highly upset and never drove past Liddonfield again, taking a detour around it from that time on.

It was difficult to get details as the young wife telling the story kept talking through my questions.  “How old were the kids?” I asked several times,  “Were they wearing roller skates?”  I asked because if they were little kids wearing roller skates, they were most likely playing the fun but dangerous game of hanging onto a moving car to get a thrill ride on skates, rather than attempting to hurt the driver or her car in some way.  Not that it makes it all right, but it was important to make the distinction.  I gave up trying to get an answer as she repeated the story a second and third time.  After she unloaded, she moved on.  No angry words were exchanged.  It was just a civil, one-way conversation between the woman and herself about the terrible public housing residents who once lived there.  

Most people stopped to view the exhibit, but there were a few that walked briskly past with sour faces, grumbling.  “Sir, are you interested in seeing the Liddonfield Exhibit?” I asked one elderly gentleman as he walked by me, looking displeased.  

He answered with a resounding, “No!” and went off in another direction.

Happily, such responses were few and far between.  Most people were quite positive about the exhibit and showed a special interest in the public housing aspect.  I was curious as to what made the difference in how people reacted.  Early on, I decided to ask people drawn to the public housing feature whether they lived near Liddonfield housing project. 

Their answers and my observations throughout the day brought several things to light.  Former tenants of the project loved the exhibit, people who lived in close proximity to the project hated the exhibit and people who heard of Liddonfield but had no personal experience with it were open and receptive to the public housing history feature and quite curious about it.  The latter were by far the majority.  “Beautiful pictures!” one woman said of the 1960’s photos of Liddonfield.  

“Yeah, I like the photos a lot,” said the woman next to her.  Several people had gathered around.  Other onlookers nodded in agreement. 

“Look at this one,” someone else remarked, “This mother and child.  It’s kind of touching.”

I smiled.  “I am the little girl in the picture,” I told them, “and that is my mother.  My family lived in the housing project.”  Their faces lit up.  There were ohhhs and ahhhs.  They seemed delighted to be speaking to a real life public housing resident, up close and in person.  Like notorious celebrities, they had heard all about public housing tenants on the news and in movies, but most never met us as tangible beings.

Many thanks to the sponsors of the Pennypack Creek Bridge Marker Celebration for providing space for The History of the Liddonfield Name in Northeast Philadelphia Exhibit.   

RELATED VIDEOS:

Liddonfield Project History Debuts at Pennypack Creek Bridge Historical Marker Celebration

2 comments:

  1. >>> wonderful job Rosemary... you can not change the minds of some people , all it takes is one bad person / experience to judge a whole group of people... and thats NOT fair . Yes in the later years it did get really bad and thats why my family moved... but that bad stuff was getting worst all over the city... NOT just Liddonfield , some of my best memories are growing up in those homes !!!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Can you tell us more about this? I'd like to find out more details.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for commenting on PublicHousingStories.com!