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Charles D. Ellison Headshot

Same Old Philly ...

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The real problem with the recent Valley Club swimming pool incident is that, if you're from Philadelphia, it comes as no surprise. We might wear that Ill Town badge with gritty pride, but we know what the deal is and has always been.

Philly Inquirer Columnist Annette John-Hall's breath of dismay in her article titled "Ugliness in the Water at Valley Club" implies a decent spin on the whole affair. "I thought I had fallen into a time warp. Like a lot of people, I had to pinch myself when I heard that the Valley Club, a predominantly white Montgomery County swim club, had disinvited a group of predominantly black and Latino city children from using its pool." While it's definitely true the affair prompts the need to "pinch" yourself, John-Hall may not have grown up in the same Philadelphia.

Or, maybe she did and it's just those pesky editors at the Inquirer putting on the "post-racial" heat. I'm going to put it down for the moment, because I really do love and miss my hometown. It's really a great, legendary town and I wouldn't trade my childhood in it. But, many of us dispossessed, cynical and downright jaded folks of Philly color are rather familiar with the tainted legacy of Illadelph's mighty (yet bankruptcy-challenged) daily newspapers. It's worse than that. Can't forget how they mass jacked most of their Black reporters out of jobs last year. And we know all too well how Philly's newspapers always reflected the bigoted attitudes of their predominant readers.

There's a certain amount of strength we draw from growing up in a town like that. And, when I meet other Philadelphians (Black and White) in other places around the country, the subject of race always comes up, directly or indirectly. Recalling that cool, old school South Philly Italian cat I met in Idaho one sunny corporate retreat week.

"What school did you go to?" he asks, slapping on that familiar and friendly past South Street affability.

I mention that really White suburban private school I ended up getting a scholarship to because going to Philly public schools was like entering prison everyday.

"Huh?" he laughs. "You're not a REAL brotha!"

We belted out hearty, signature Philly laughs. And, for some odd, really Philly reason, we were best friends for the remainder of that week. He looked out on the horse rides and mountain hikes. Really took me under his wing. Old school Italian Philly. He kept it real, as I did. I couldn't help but ask him how many brothas he jumped back in the day. He gave me that look, nodded, and laughed again. 'Nuff said.

You can't fool Ill-town citizens with the "ish" of a post-racial world. The one thing you always dig about White Philadelphians is they don't hold back on that. Notice how Valley Club President John Duesler responded about changing the "complexion" of the pool? That's Philly. You think this guy is going to return media calls? Please - think again. And as a North Philly native, it's not all that surprising given Ill Town's legacy. It's called the "City of Brotherly Love" and we bask in the delight of a long sought after baseball championship, revel in the rudeness of our fanatical sports loyalty, and feed off cheessteaks like bass heads, but there's always been an ugly scab of racism that flows through Philly veins. That's the Philly we grew up with and still know; that plain-spoken, steely segregated union town where the racial and economic demographics are very clear cut. You know where the Black neighborhoods are. You know where the Latino neighborhoods are. And, there's White ethnic neighborhoods that you, still, just can't take a leisurely stroll through.

I was recently both amazed and relieved to hear from a family source about a tennis court near the edge of Northeast Philly. Apparently, they're allowing Black kids to play there. Why did I give a split second stare of incredulity when hearing that? Because, I recall a tense moment in 1989 when a couple of us ventured from the rather Blacker part of North Philadelphia in search of better courts right across the SEPTA rail tracks. And, that's when a thick gang of teen skinheads-in-training pulled a lynch mob on us, running us back across tracks. We didn't get the memo ...

And, can't forget a mix of other interesting humiliations at the hands of Philly's finest, beefy boys in blue. Those were the days, fam.

And, even though I transplanted to D.C., I'm regularly told that not much has changed. It's an ongoing, wry joke amongst Black Philadelphians (those who stayed and those who left): the town never changes. Well ... Center City did. It looks real nice downtown. Sorry they haven't done much in North or West Philly. Southwest is always on fire.

It's not going to change that much in a city where 50% of the Black men are unemployed. Despite the fact nearly half the town is Black, elected its 3rd Black mayor and African Americans have a significant cultural, economic and political presence in the town, the racial tension is real thick. Which is one of the reasons Philly White folks have kept Mumia Abu Jamal on death row for so long, but always come short of executing him. It's the fear of a bottled rage being unleashed.

So, don't act so surprised, family. Don't get so emotional. It's Philly.

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