I have lived in South Philadelphia all my life, but this place is more myth than reality. The South Philadelphia where neighbors cared about each other has all but disappeared.
Park in a legal spot and see how fast someone will double or triple park alongside you. If you have to get to work, you can beep your horn until the cows come home. And don’t expect an apology when the owner of the offending car comes out of the house, because the abiding ethos around here is, "Hooray for me and the hell with the rest of the world."
Our own open defiance of the law is the reason why a tough parking problem has become just about impossible. We’re from South Philly and the laws were made for other people. What do we do about the parking problem? We buy bigger and bigger vans because everyone knows how well they fit on a crowded city street.
And we complain a lot. We love to complain because, as everyone around here knows, we’re always the victims. We have our own cult of victimization that fits very well with the America of today, the America where everyone claims "victimhood" in the hope of getting a special perk.
Our foremost solution to the parking problem was to get a handicapped parking place in front of our houses. Some future generation will wonder why it was that so many handicapped people lived in South Philadelphia at the turn of the century. When that fraud was exposed, we screamed because we’re always being picked on.
Believe me, it’s not just the parking. But our discourtesy in that area best represents what we have become as a people. We like to see ourselves as that big, warmhearted community of our parents. It’s time that we stopped living an illusion. We have become a people that will sue each other at the slightest provocation. There’s a reason why most insurance companies cringe when it comes to doing business here. Deceit is worn like a badge of honor.
You want to buy something hot, you come here. People who consider themselves law-abiding will buy stolen goods so long as the price is right. If someone hijacked a truck to get it, so what? That’s not our business. If a mobster deals in drugs and prostitution in other neighborhoods, that’s OK, he’s nice to me; buys me a newspaper when I see him. The toughest job around these parts belongs to the ethics teacher.
Oh, we still have community groups that hold meetings here — the agenda most times being, "Someone is screwing us, what’s in it for me, what can I be against?" If the politician we elect winds up in jail, hell, we don’t ostracize him, we welcome him when he comes out with open arms as a returning hero.
We pride ourselves on our ethnic background, but then use that pride to denigrate everybody else who doesn’t belong. We talk all the time about how hard our parents worked when they came to this country, but then we want to pick apart the new immigrants who come here in search of a better life. We are no longer our parents and grandparents; we are the people who tried to exclude them.
Our excuse is that the new immigrants are somehow not as worthy. We use the same arguments against them that were used against our parents and grandparents: They don’t look like us, they eat strange food, and even if they work 18 hours a day, they are lazy and not to be trusted.
We have some beautiful neighborhoods around here that have the beauty of the suburbs and the convenience and tradition of the city, but they have evolved into enclaves of privilege. In trying to keep their areas free of the urban problems the rest of us face, they have become insulated. Over the years, a kind of caste system has evolved where many of these people actually believe they are somehow superior to the rest of us. It is as if they are our royalty, entitled to special status and, as for the rest, well, "Let them eat cake!"
Meanwhile, our churches have become distracted by their own problems. They primarily worry about their own survival and fundraising rather than speaking the truth about what is happening to us. Instead of leading us, they worry about offending us. They reinforce our various prejudices instead of helping us overcome them.
Read the Letters to the Editor in this newspaper on any given week and you would have trouble believing Sept. 11 ever happened. Oh, we still wave the flag — we love waving flags — but meanwhile we lurk behind our windows ready to snatch your parking spot. And don’t dare criticize our shortcomings because you can always move to Jersey, mister, and don’t you forget it.
We’re South Philadelphians and, around here, we know we’re warmhearted as hell.