Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Haitians and Africans in West Philadelphia

In West Philly, there may still be a Korean church at 48th and Pine although from growing up in the seventies, I remember when "the Korean family" who lived around the corner moved away. The two boys played two-hand touch football and other street sports with us, and then they left. It was around when Southeast Asians were moving in by the dozens and then hundreds--Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and as kids, we'd enjoy playing basketball with these boys behind an apartment building where they had built a basket with a orange milk crate nailed to a large square wooden board.

Also, around that time or soon after, Haitian immigrants began to arrive. These latter immigrants included a couple who lived in my father's third-floor walk-through apartment for a while. The Haitian husband had been on the radio speaking against his country's leadership, and although my father was not a political man, he enjoyed the opportunity to help this couple. Because they would walk through the first two floors to get to their third-floor quarters, I'd see them regularly whenever we stayed with my dad.

Africans came later, and it seemed as if at first Ethiopians were most visible although over the ensuing decades Africans from many other countries have recreated the Baltimore Avenue corridor--at least, from 45th to 49th Street--that I was raised a block away from. Many more settled further west, maybe in or near Eastwick where their children attended public and Catholic schools and did quite well. (I don't remember too many Nigerians from West Philly, but I have recently read that Nigerian Americans have the highest rates of undergraduate and advanced degrees of any group in America.) Today if you walk down Baltimore Avenue, you can't miss Dahlak and Gojjo, but there is a West African restaurant, and others I believe.

Reading Dinaw Mengestu's first novel reminded me of how I'd imagine the lives of some of the African guys, no few of them cab drivers with graduate degrees from other countries which hadn't proved useful in America. The book has a rich sadness that many immigrant lives are never fully divorced from. Yet people continue to arrive and seek employment, education, or other means to come to America. From Irish to Jewish to Vietnamese to Haitian to Ethiopian and more, West Philly has benefited from immigration policies that have let people in from all over the world.

I last saw the Haitian husband who lived at my father's in Sam's Place, a beautiful old movie theater that had a huge main screen, chandeliers, and a full lobby for men's and women's conveniences on a carpeted lower level. In the theater, I recall gold and red colors and wall-to-wall rugging that looked like it had seen its fair share of spilled popcorn and soda. I was in my late teens or early twenties, and it was long after the man had lived on my father's third floor, although Philadelphia is that kind of town, a place where the past can quickly return to the present. A "small town" is how many express it. Anyway, I recognized him right away. He was with another adult we knew, and it was a warm, if brief, visitation from my childhood at 44th and Pine, the part spent at my dad's house in the 1970s. And then, as Roberto Bolano would say, I never saw him again.

The current administration appears intent on reviving an America that the president knew or imagined from years ago. It's an America markedly different from the one I knew spending my first couple decades off Baltimore Avenue in University City. It's worth noting that there were always many other versions of America over our several centuries. Melville notes that twenty languages were spoken in the New York City he knew around when Moby Dick (and The Communist Manifesto) were published. Today it could be closer to two hundred, but I doubt we'd be a stronger nation if it were possible to hear only one.

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