Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Bartram's Garden/Bartram Village

By design, this week’s trip was a little less thorough and intense. Having gone northeast to Bridesburg, it seemed like the thing to do was to balance things out and head southwest. Like most of Philadelphia’s regions, Southwest Philadelphia stretches far, far away from Center City down to the airport across the Schuylkill in the south. Unlike most regions in Philadelphia, you probably don’t know anyone who lives in Southwest Philly. Heavily industrial – albeit with some nice late 19th-century housing here and there – the southwest isn’t as famously frightening as some neighborhoods in North Philly, but a lot of it still seems pretty rough.

The neighborhood I picked could be viewed as wussing out a little bit; I went to Bartram’s Village, the neighborhood that includes Bartram’s Garden on one side of the train tracks and the Bartram Village public housing development on the other side. So instead of plunging directly into a neighborhood and its people, I wandered around an attractive Revolutionary-period estate for half the time, then popped into the housing development and took a couple handfuls of pictures. Unlike the last trip to Bridesburg, I didn’t really talk to anyone, didn’t soak in much the neighborhood atmosphere. Can you tell I feel a little guilty about this?

Anyhow, once I put my problems of perspective out of mind, I can say honestly that Bartram’s Garden is one of the city’s unappreciated oases. (Yeah, that’s the plural of “oasis.” I am a Grammar Jedi.) The Garden is the estate of the pre-Revolutionary gentleman and horticulturalist John Bartram, who founded the estate in 1728 and built the great house – with carvings done by the man himself – in 1731. A number of trails amble through the garden and the surrounding woods and meadows, and evidently some good botanical history is in practice here – the garden is an attempt at recreating the original 18th-century layout.

A little boardwalk weaves down to the Schuylkill, and views through the trees afford views of the river – both pastoral, otherworldly nature scenes and nasty industrial panoramas. A small alcove choked up with garbage is a pretty strong reminder: don’t put your crap in storm drains, ‘cause it’ll just end up downriver. (I am not usually of the tsk-tsk-environmentalist bent. But my girlfriend embraces tsk-tsk environmentalism wholeheartedly, and made me write that last bit. So there you have it.)

Heading over to the nearby meadow, I caught sight of what appeared to be a Muslim picnic. I don’t know how to put this in a politically correct fashion, so let’s lay it out: I have a sweet spot for sassy women in chadors. I was taking some pictures of the sea of little balls covering the nearby hill, when I heard somebody yell “Hey! Excuse me, sir!” A group of about 15 Muslim women were looking at me – I had NO idea which one was yelling at me, so I tried to spread my eye contact around, and assured them that no, I wasn’t taking pictures of their kids who were playing nearby. “Good thing!” one of them snorted, “Otherwise we gonna make you buy something.” She pointed at a moveable rack full of traditional clothing, evidently for sale. As awesome as I’d probably look in a full-length tunic, I laughed and waved goodbye. “Have a nice day,” someone said.

I wandered out of the Garden and out toward the public housing estate of Bartram Village. I have a number of thoughts about the Village; one is that it looks and feels considerably safer than the extraordinarily run-down neighborhood that you go through on the way from Center City. Another is that the buildings look extraordinarily like some of the housing where I went to college. People were grilling stuff outside, coming in from church, playing music out the window, and a bunch of folks were sweeping the streets and sidewalks outside their houses. There were murals on the walls of the buildings, and overall it didn’t feel as depressing as I thought it would.

(Another ethical problem here: obviously, people in the housing estate were 100% black, and probably pretty poor. This will obviously be the case for many, many neighborhoods I visit in Philly. You want to report signs of resilience, of a vibrant culture making the best of bad conditions – you want, in short, to say “you know, this isn’t Society Hill, but gosh-darnit, it’s kind of nice.” Which is somewhat true. You also need to say “it sucks that people have to live here; this place reflects certain failures in our society; I wish it didn’t exist.” Which is also completely true, but seems a bit of a rude thing to say about someone’s neighborhood. Onwards and upwards.)

People seemed politely confused about what my girlfriend and I were doing there: one old lady asked us if we were here for Bible study. A little baffled, we mistakenly said yes, and were given a set of complicated, moderately incomprehensible directions. Awkward though it might have been, I feel like we should have gone.

We wandered in front of the public housing office. If you look at any of the photos, you’ll notice what an incredible day it was; I suck wholly a taking pictures, and these came out pretty well anyhow. I got one incredible shot of an old-school sneaker sitting in the middle of a street. I am the New Chronicler of Urban America, yes I am.

What I didn’t photograph was the drug deal we saw immediately there after. Jittery looking guy sits in front of the public housing office; second guy, with a goatee, wanders up the path, accepts a bill from Jittery Guy, gives him a tiny packet of something, walks away. It all was as quiet as communion, and took about 3 seconds. I know that never having witnessed a drug deal in my three years in Philly makes me distinctly un-edgy. I was just stunned at the open-air quality of it all – it was like, “shouldn’t this be transacted through a mail slot in a basement somewhere?”

Obviously, I can skip the morality play about the destructive, interlocking cycles of addiction, poverty, and crime; it’s boring, and surely some sociologist at Penn has a better lecture on it than I do. Even so, and as naïve and lame as it sounds, this trip will get written in my memory as the first place I saw someone buy drugs on the street. The inevitable implication – that this whole Philly Field Trips project smacks a little bit of white-guy adventurism (Public housing! Black Muslims! Drugs!) – is something I’ll probably have to just live with.

Some photos of plants and stuff:

Found a slightly mangy cat up in a tree in Bartram's Garden. Seems like a good place to do cat things.

Some fine-ass nature photography, if I do say so myself. Except - can someone identify this plant for me? Thank you.

This, of course, is the much-bemoaned pile of trash on the banks of the Schuykill. See what you've done, Philadelphia!

The Bartram House from a distance. Nice digs, eh?

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