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

Mar 31, 2013

Part 7 of Liddonfield: One Neighborhood’s Struggle With Public Housing

Part 7: UCAN Rejects Mayor Wilson Goode’s Offer

By Rosemary Reeves 

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

Part 1:  A Politician's Legacy, An Architect's Vision 

After tensions between Liddonfield youths and students at Father Judge Catholic High School for Boys leads to the near fatal beating of a policeman’s son, nuns join a protest organized by the United Civic Associations of the Northeast (UCAN), demanding more police for northeast Philadelphia.   UCAN upps their strategy, blocking a busy intersection during the morning rush hour then moving down the street to block the entrance ramps to the I-95 freeway.

When Philadelphia Mayor Joseph Clark built Liddonfield housing project within the neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg, alongside the homes of its upwardly mobile white population, the experts of the time were convinced that low-income public housing tenants would admire middle-class people and adopt elements of their lifestyle.  By all commonly held beliefs of the 1950s, it was unlikely that putting a housing project in a middle-class neighborhood would give rise to conflict between the social classes, especially when those people were of the same race. 

Within a decade, however, it was clear to Upper Holmesburg homeowners and Liddonfield residents alike that this assumption was false.  Without intervention, friction between the two was inevitable, though early on there was merely an undercurrent of grudging tolerance on both sides.   As stated previously, some of the homeowners disliked the fact that the Liddonfield families were being “housed on the taxpayer dollar” as some put it, and viewed them unfavorably.  Project residents, aware of their low status within the neighborhood, assumed their own collective identity, which can be likened to a kind of brotherhood.  

The “us” versus “them” state of affairs between Liddonfield residents and people who lived outside the project was the problem that had no name.  Each side bore unresolved grievances against the other, yet there was no public forum in which they could come together for the sole purpose of discussing their differences.  The ideal time to diffuse the tensions was in the more than 30 year period when Liddonfield was a model housing project (1953-1987).  However, from the late 1960s onward American society was reluctant to acknowledge social class distinctions.  

As racial and gender discrimination came to dominate the news, issues relevant to white poverty were pushed aside.  The relatively few films about poor white people rarely depicted those in northern cities.  Because in theory they were not supposed to exist anymore, poor urban whites had invisibility thrust upon them as white poverty was increasingly associated with the rural south.  The territorial divisions in Upper Holmesburg had no name because social class conflict was not a topic in the average classroom, nor one easily found on book store shelves.  No one knew what to call it.  Social scientists, who gave the condition a name, wrote about the phenomenon in academic texts not worded for the general public.  

By 1989, divisiveness between the low-income Liddonfield population and people who lived outside of the project had an impact on the area’s young people, especially those in their teens as they began dating and mixing with each other at school, sports activities and social settings.  Rivalries arose between some Liddonfield youths and students at Father Judge Catholic High School for Boys when the Liddonfielders started to date students from St. Hubert’s Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg.  

December 1, 1989 ─ It was less than a month before Christmas and St. Hubert’s was holding its high school dance.  Sophomore Colleen Schmitt arrived at the dance to take part in the festivities along with dozens of other students and their dates for the evening, a good number of whom were boys from Father Judge.  Sometime during the event a fight broke out in the gymnasium where the dance was underway.  One boy threw a punch at another.  When the boy who was struck left the dance, onlookers assumed it was the end of the fighting, but they were wrong.  He had gone to round up his friends from Liddonfield.  They included Robert Kelly and Charles Scott Twilley, both of whom lived in the project.

One by one, six young men from Liddonfield got into Twilley’s black jeep for the purpose of continuing the fight at St. Hubert’s.  They brought along baseball bats.  After rounding them all up, Twilley started to take the group back to the girls high school.  Meanwhile, James Schmitt, Jr., a policeman's son, stood in the school parking lot waiting for his sister, Colleen.  He had gone there to pick her up and drive her home after the dance.  

Twilley pulled the black jeep into the parking lot behind the school gym.  At about that time, the dance had ended and students began exiting the gymnasium doors.  According to witnesses Twilley, Kelly and their cohorts got out of the jeep and were beating someone up in the parking lot.  When James Schmitt, Jr. came to the aid of the victim, Robert Kelly struck him with a baseball bat, fracturing his skull.  He fell to the ground, unconscious.  Kelly’s friends joined him in the assault on James Jr.  They struck him repeatedly with bats as he lay helplessly on the ground, causing further injury to his head, breaking his ribs and puncturing his lung.

In a May 9, 1990 article by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Larry King, Man, 21, Jailed in Severe Beating Outside Dance, “Twilley told police that tensions had been high between male students at Father Judge High School – who were attending the dance – and youths from the nearby Liddonfield Homes housing project.  The Father Judge students, he said, were angry because Liddonfield residents had been dating girls from St. Huberts.”**

In the weekend that followed Charles Cooper of Tacony drove along the streets of Northeast Philly with a loudspeaker, urging citizens to join him in protest.  Cooper was one of the organizers of the United Civic Associations of the Northeast (UCAN).  UCAN was going to take to the streets to protest the lack of police.  Cooper and the other organizers of the group had upped their strategy since marching in front of St. Dominic Marian Hall before the Liddonfield meeting three weeks prior.  To get media attention, this time UCAN planned to hold their protest at a major intersection at 6:00 a.m., blocking rush hour traffic.  

According to a December 3, 1989 article by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, Larry King, UCAN Takes its Members to the Streets,  Mayor Wilson Goode had offered to meet UCAN organizers separately in his office but UCAN rejected the idea.  “We feel that he should meet us on our turf,” Cooper said, “We don’t want to meet with him in his office and have him blame everything on City Council, and then meet with City Council and have them blame everything on the mayor.  We want them all together.”

On December 4, 1989 the temperature was less than 20 degrees and Cooper was worried no one would show up because of the unbearable cold.  In his interview with Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Larry King for the article, To Gain Clout They Stand United, Cooper admitted shortly before the protest was to begin, “I’m scared to death.  We could fall on our face out there.” 

The protest began with just nine people, among them was Councilwoman Joan Krajewski and State Representative John Perzel, who brought along ten police officers to keep order and set up barracades.  But within two hours, more people joined them until there were about 50 in all.  Among the protesters were two nuns and approximately a dozen girls who were students at St. Hubert’s.  Some motorists honked their horns to show their support as the protestors braved the freezing winter temperatures, carrying homemade signs at the intersection of Cottman and Torresdale Avenues, just a block from where the savage beating of James Schmitt, Jr. took place, demanding more police for Northeast Philadelphia.  

But some motorists were not at all happy about being stuck in traffic on their way to work.  One motorist was arrested after trying to go through a barricade and another after striking a protestor.  At 10:00 a.m. the protestors marched down Princeton and blocked the entrance ramps to I-95. 

TV news crews arrived.  Cooper was giving interviews.  According to Larry King’s aforementioned article, at one point an elated Cooper said, “How can you beat this? This is beautiful!” then waved his hand and instructed protestors, “Keep moving folks!  Keep moving!”  The protest lasted 8 hours, ending only after Councilwoman Krajewski promised to set up a January 11 meeting with public officials.  

Part 8 of this series will be posted next week.

**Though there had been a significant increase in the black population at Liddonfield from 1987-1989, both James Schmitt, Jr. and the Liddonfield boys who assaulted him were white.  Race can be ruled out as a contributing factor in the tensions that precipitated the attack. 


Coalition Seeks More Police for the Northeast, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 3. 1989

UCAN Takes its Members to the Streets, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 6, 1989 by reporter Larry King

To Gain Clout They Stand United, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 20, 1989 by reporter Larry King 


Part 8:  UCAN Has Showdown With Politicians

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