A day with the Fishtowners

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In the latest issue of National Geographic Traveler, a great article called “A Day With the Pygmies” tells the story of the author, Boyd Matson’s time spent in the Congo River Basin in the Central African Republic. Bushwhacking and plowing his way through dense forest, him and his fellow hunter-gatherers came across a local swimming hole in the river. In an impromptu moment of fearless and fun Olympic-style showcasing, the Ba’Aka women and children flung themselves into the swimming hole with a combination of dives, flips and jumps. The author describes other aspects of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that the Ba’Aka adhere to and speculates how long, exactly, they will remained untouched my modernity; how long could they resist the inevitable changes of the 21st century?

This piece left an impression on me as my sister and I visited the Fishtown swimming pool in our community. Though not exactly the Congo River Basin by any stretch of the imagination, the pool is most definitely the local swimming hole, calling forth all walks of life to its free enclave of refreshment. Good enough, right?

Stepping through the gates as two self-proclaimed outsiders into insiders’ territory, we were not put off by the implicit feelings of cliquishness one gets in a city neighborhood. We slipped right into the cold water, swam about and were immediately scooped up by two locals’ conversation.

Enter Don and Donna. Coincidence? I think not. Most people you meet on these streets have some sort of typical tough, old school name. Mike, Frank, Don, the usual. It’s no surprise that the aviator-wearing, short and harsh-voiced woman was named Donna. Don and Donna spotted my sister and I from across the pool and immediately struck up conversation about the neighborhood, the old days, the good times and the bad times.

Sitting in the community pool, surrounded by the gentrified crowd while talking with Don and Donna, two Fishtown natives, was like an interactive history lesson; they both reminisced about the “old neighborhood,” what it meant to grow up in Fishtown in the 60s and 70s, verbose about changing times and what has remained stable.

Donna remembered a time when the surrounding shopping complexes were factories and mills. Once a thriving factory-worker community, with the closing of factories, the neighborhood began to change. People lost their jobs and couldn’t afford to “get out.” Now that the neighborhood is becoming gentrified, older residents feel stuck here, seeing the change taking place before their eyes and feeling protective and hurt of the “out with the old, in with the new” sentiment. Yet, they are smart about it; these residents acknowledge the change and admit that its inevitable and healthy.

Don, another older resident, grew up on Lehigh Avenue and remembers a time when going down to Kensington didn’t mean getting solicited for sex and smack. He is an avid doer: he bikes 10 miles a day. When the forecast threatens rain tomorrow, he bikes double (20 miles) today. He keeps up on the neighborhoods’ goings-on, knows the back roads to go “down the shore” and told me about a nice Sunday drive he likes to take up Frankford Avenue. Don is a hard-knock, from the old school. He recognized my sister and I’s outsider status and was quick to accustom us to life in Philadelphia by repeating many times, “If you’re gonna live in Philadelphia, then really LIVE here!’, giving us suggestions of his favorite spots and hidden neighborhood gems.

I made two new neighborhood friends who shared with me their lives in Fishtown.  I can’t help but worry for their futures the same way Matson’s worried of the Pygmies’ future. Would Fishtown residents be able to combat the inevitable changes taking place? Will their friendly, tough, hard-working selves be forced into submission by the gentrification? Will the pocket of Fishtown, surrounded by crime and sex on almost all sides remain a hub of tough but generally safe residence? What could I learn from Don and Donna?

First that nothing is certain and everything is inevitable. Seeing the way they exist today in the same place they existed 40 years ago is an incredible testament to their adaptability and strength. Who among us can say that we live on the same block that we were born? My family, born and raised on the South Side of Chicago in Bridgeport were “driven out” to the suburbs by different ethnic groups moving in and “taking over.” Visiting their old homes is a eerie exercise in the bittersweet, as they feel a happy nostalgia for their old homes along with a pang of sadness for having had left. But Don and Donna, and countless other residents never left Fishtown, never could afford to. But is that really it? I’m a firm believer in the mentality that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. Maybe they really love their neighborhood. Maybe they really care about these streets, these people. Perhaps they are some of the few people left that I have encountered lately that will swim up to you and spend the afternoon talking to you, I mean REALLY talking to you. They will tell you their life story and expect yours in return. These people want to share the story of their neck of the woods, their take on existence and life as we know it.

Some people hate on Fishtown residents, but from what I’ve seen and experienced so far, they are some of the nicest, most genuine and open people I have had the pleasure of meeting. They have a tough exterior, but it’s their defense mechanism. At the end of Matson’s article, he supposes that we do our best to live as the Pygmies do, living closer to the past than to the present. There is a real truth in that. I will take Don and Donna’s perseverance and friendliness with me on my journey to discover life and remember that’s it’s more about “How do you do?” than “What do you do?”

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