There is much going on in our lives today, particularly in the lives of our young people that many of us do not understand. We all say we did not behave as people do today. We pretend our pasts were filled with behavior consistent with being like “sugar and spice and everything nice.” In the ’50s and ’60s, our parents expressed views on negative influences impacting our lives; views very similar to how we see things today. Truth be told, if you could engage your parents in frank discussions, you would find they did many things that were frowned upon by their parents. If asked to contribute to today’s column, you could tick off a laundry list of things that you identify as unacceptable behavior on the part of our youth today when compared to our behavior back in the day.
A list of unacceptable behaviors would contain inappropriate dress, disruptive behavior, drugs, use of profanity, poor school attendance and disrespect for the opposite sex; the list might be unending.
Clearly, all of these things would be on my list, but the breakdown in the family unit, as evidenced by the lack of family values, would be at its top. I have often written about the importance of family in my personal growth and development. Sometimes, something as simple as coming together for a Sunday or holiday dinner became a defining moment that shaped my character and helped to make me a respectable young person. For me, family life will always rank as a key ingredient in the development of young people.
Recently I have been thinking about events in my past that have had a significant impact on shaping my development — things that served to protect me from the negativity that surfaces in every youngster’s life.
There is an integral part of our neighborhood that does not receive much attention; something that was so important when many of us were quite young and impressionable. How many of you are old enough to remember when many of our Black professionals and business owners lived right in our own neighborhoods, thereby improving the quality of life and serving as role models for all of us?
Whether you grew up in Philadelphia or some other city, I have little doubt that the neighborhood picture was quite similar. Neighborhoods that today are referred to as ghettos, jungles, the ’hood, or some other dehumanizing term were clean, tree-lined, family-oriented, with good Black elementary and junior high schools, active religious institutions and a mixture of people who made a difference. If it was possible to resurrect these elements, it would bode well for our neighborhoods today. Think back to the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and think about those people who lived down the street, around the corner or possibly next door. The neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, South Philadelphia and West Philadelphia where most of us lived back then were quite different than these same neighborhoods today; neighborhoods we have run from and that most men return to only for a haircut. You will recall men and women in these neighborhoods who owned and operated their own businesses. These same men and women, not only had businesses in our neighborhoods but they also lived there.
It was inconceivable back in the day not to have a medical doctor who lived near your home. You probably still remember his name. Our family doctor lived but two blocks from my parents’ home. If someone was ill and could not wait for normal office hours, you could simply walk to the doctor’s office and ring the bell. In many cases, a call, on your party line telephone would bring the doctor to your home, as there was something called “house calls” for doctors back then. It appeared doctors were available at any time since they lived in the same building where their medical offices were located. I know you also had a druggist in your neighborhood who owned and operated the local drugstore. There were no Rite-Aid, CVS or Walgreens back then, but perhaps there was a Sun Ray. In my neighborhood, the Sun Ray druggist also lived in the neighborhood. I am sure that you still have fond memories of the neighborhood druggist operating his business in a professional manner; not just filling prescriptions, but also offering tasty milkshakes and ice cream sodas; operating his business with a high level of customer service long before most of us understood the nature of customer service. He was someone you would see walking in the neighborhood; he always found time to stop and engage in conversations; you could always count on getting advice; and you could always expect the question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Customers received better service, as the druggist was part of the neighborhood. No! There were no drug dealers in our neighborhoods; legitimate druggists lived in our neighborhoods back in the day.
Is the term “parsonage” familiar? The church pastor lived in our neighborhoods. A parsonage is the home provided by a church for its pastor and the pastor’s family. As you pass churches in our old neighborhoods today, you will see parsonages attached to many church buildings. What is different, however, is that today, few pastors live in these parsonages. Like many of our professionals, they too have abandoned our neighborhoods for a so-called better way of life. Just like pastors, funeral home directors also resided in the neighborhoods. Many of them had living quarters directly above their funeral homes. The children of pastors and funeral home directors faced challenges that other children did not. Boys would shun the daughters of ministers because of their fathers’ strict rules and the expectation that you be a good and faithful churchgoer. Children of funeral home directors were shunned because of how many young people felt about the environment in which they lived. I can recall boys and girls having difficulty getting a date because their fathers were associated with dead people.
Try to remember where other neighborhood business people lived. Think about your neighborhood tailor, the owner and operator of your local variety store or grocery store. Add your barber or hairdresser to the list. Even the Chinese laundry owner lived in the neighborhood; in the building that housed the laundry business. A Black man owned and operated a coal yard in my neighborhood. When he left his coalyard, walked a block or two and entered his home in the neighborhood. The men who owned or operated the local bar or club also lived in the neighborhood. Lawyers, police officers and mailmen lived on the same block where many of us lived. These neighborhoods even housed schoolteachers. Can you imagine what it meant to children and their parents to have their teachers living on the same block as they did? Living on my block were a magistrate, teacher, owner of a nursing home and one of the highest ranking Blacks working in the Department of Welfare. These are just a few that come to mind. You would see them in stores, walking in the neighborhood or just sitting on their porches, which afforded many of us the chance to learn some of the important lessons of the world of work and important lessons of life. It does not take much to grasp the significance of having adults living on your block who were engaged in meaningful activities in the workplace or people who had managed to establish successful businesses. As professionals, they served as role models and were available to provide guidance as many young people became older and were considering opportunities for higher education or seeking contacts for employment. Those who created their own businesses became legitimate job creators, providing jobs for those of us who lived in these neighborhoods. This does not exist today.
Think about where our Black business owners and Black professionals live today. Some years ago, integration made it possible for them to move, leaving their businesses in our neighborhoods. They still operate their businesses there, but “take their riches” to more upscale sections of our city or out to the “burbs” with big homes, big lawns and big yards. The money they earn in our neighborhoods leaves our neighborhoods with them. Back in the day, these monies circulated and much remained in our neighborhoods.
Ask yourself what would have happened if our business owners and professionals had remained in our old neighborhoods? We could have had significant support for community pride, sound role models for our young people, very nice living conditions and monies that would have contributed significantly to the development of economic stability. While this picture may be just a dream today, it was so characteristic of life when our business owners and professionals lived in our neighborhoods.