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LETTER TO THE EDITOR: “Uptown Locomotive” or “The Face of Gentrification”

Expression is often reflective of one’s perspective. When artists create, their objective is always to capture their audience. The audience is identifiable throughout the portrayal of the artist’s expression. What assumptions can we make of an artist’s perspective and target audience when the subject at hand lacks cultural relevance?

  This is a question asked by one local artist born and raised in the Strawberry Mansion community in response of her reaction to Joe Boruchow’s “Uptown Locomotive.” The artist, commissioned by The Eakin House, received approval to paint over an existing mural that expressed a brief history of Strawberry Mansion. The mural featured the self propagating properties of the strawberry, surrounding silhouettes of whom appeared to be Judge William Lewis, the builder and first occupant of the Strawberry Mansion, sharing his harvest with others throughout his daily travels.

  The original mural was painted by a group of children, one of whom is named Kimberly Cornish, under the supervision of two Mural Arts’ artists. I know this because I witnessed the passion of the original artists, in all their glory, as they swiped the smooth bristles of their paint brushes against the rough textile of the steel reinforced fencing aligning the 33rd Street bridge junctioning Brewerytown and Strawberry Mansion. Seeing them make their mark and leave a trace of themselves behind with every brush stroke is what motivated me to become a part of the Mural Arts program offered at James G. Blaine Elementary, now James G. Blaine Academic Plus, where Kimberly and I were enrolled for our primary education.

  The completion of “Uptown Locomotive” symbolizes the discontinuation of the legacy left behind by those few Strawberry Mansion natives who left a piece of their being on that same canvass. “Uptown Locomotive” portrays pointed nose “colored” people whose negatives not only visually contrast their positives, moreover they bare “The Face of Gentrification.”

  Without intent, I am forced to bypass the contributions of countless Afrikan Descendants who have been held exempt from the “historical” account of the establishment of Strawberry Mansion, not to mention the City of Philadelphia and, moreover, the entire bureaucracy of these United States.

  The only sources that begin to rectify this atrocity have been shared with me in respects to keeping oral tradition by occupants of the historic district, who have made claims that the land the Strawberry Mansion rest upon was once a plantation. I will not rest until I find supporting documentation of this clause. In lieu of dedicating this document solely to rightfully paying homage to our enslaved ancestors — for I will literally be rewriting a volume, in length, of the history of Strawberry Mansion — I will celebrate the accomplishments paid for by their suffrage.

  Strawberry Mansion, where legendary jazz musician John Coltrane and notable R&B vocalist Jazmine Sullivan once called home, is also home of The Robin Hood Dell, a music venue that host many talented musicians annually during its recurring scheduled events. The Dell is within walking distance of all members of the Strawberry Mansion community. Whether concert goers are welcomed into the venue by way of purchasing an admission ticket, or decide to bring their own seat, the party is always amplified to the parking lot, where shade is provided by the surrounding forestry that is East Fairmount Park and beyond. East Fairmount Park, along with encompassing a plethora of treasures uncovered, certain to enrich the accuracy of this document, is home to Boxer’s Trail and the finish line of Boxers Run, an annual event held in tribute of the dynamic athletes who were often training when spotted by onlookers cutting through the creek at the west end of Diamond Street to meet the banks of the Schuylkill River.

  Within close proximity of this trail lies yet another monumental landmark credited to the Strawberry Mansion Civic Association: Mander Park. Named after the working class man who gave his life upon diving into the Schuylkill where his hook was baited and cast during a morning fishing excursion in an effort to save a small girl raptured in its rapid current.

  Given just these few examples of the many contributions to the social fabric of North Philadelphia, I wonder why its majority African American populace is not accredited unless in regards to their childhood homes being prime real estate in need of community redevelopment.  As a native of Strawberry Mansion, I know why. The term “community” is loosely placed in a part of town often referred to as “North Filthy” by its occupants, who are often prone to living within the boundaries of Strawberry Mansion, intending to benefit from the miniscule initial investment required to capitalize upon real estate endeavors here. One occupant shared with me as she recounted her experience living here to me, she said, “One thing I like about here is your not expected to be anyone, like in other parts of town. She was referring to her experience while living in Strawberry Mansion in comparison to West Philadelphia, a once predominantly African American community turned gentrifier safe haven.

  This is true — most of the kindred spirits living in Strawberry Mansion have exhausted great resources in an effort to restore pride in the hearts of others who call Strawberry Mansion home, only to be patronized and further criticized for working to make life a little brighter in the “Hood.” This has been the experience of one Strawberry Mansion business owner in particular.

  “I have been threaten, shot at, my husband attacked. He needed 27 stitches put into his head and $9000 worth of dental work. Then the police! Oh! Do not get me started on the police! One pulled up here, caught my husband running out to the car and orders him, hand on gun mind you, to go retrieve his license to carry and firearm and bring it out to him. As soon I heard that, I rushed down stairs, but by the time I got there my husband was already in handcuffs. So the only way I can come to terms with embracing this community and its people is upon them expressing willingness to reimburse me the $20000 in legal fees they’ve cost me while protecting me and mine.” she shared.

  I sympathize with Boruchow’s choice to deny the members of the African American community their accurate characteristics in his work, which is an accurate depiction of his own socialization. “They would not have made it to where they are now if it were not for the colonization of black and brown inhabitants of the planet earth.” “Uptown Locomotive¨ the latest installment of the reign of neo-colonialism, provides insight to the nation’s plan for members of the diaspora. Let this serve as a wake up call for members of the diaspora, reminding us to be wary of our plead to be included in a social structure established to exclude us.

  African Americans make up the general populous of many communities throughout the diaspora that are converted to ‘hoods, ghettos and food deserts by design to starve us of our heritage and bodily nutrients. For the purpose of forcing us to relocate to make plausible the redevelopment of these homesteads into Brewerytowns and Baltimore Avenues, made possible through the sponsorships provided by neo-colonialism and awarded to neo-colonists.

  The sobering truth is when in America one has to pay-to-play, more truthful is the fact that no one can live anywhere for free.

  After reading this call to action, one may conclude that there is a dire need for the development of sustainable systems within the diaspora holding true to our ritual tidings. Quite naturally, when faced with change, people resist. No one ever accepts reform wholeheartedly. Therefore the question arises: How can we expect to combat gentrification through direct confrontation of the adversary alone when we denounce holding ourselves accountable for refusal to partake in upholding our own pedagogy? The answer, the only key, is to invest into self what the creator has vested into all of us in accordance with the virtues of Ma’at.

  For more details contact constituents of the Strawberry Mansion Environmental Learning Center at blssmenl@gmail.com

-Naqiyb Lee

The Spirit | Hyperlocal done differently
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