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Geri Spieler Headshot

Canvassing South Philly: Silicon Valley Goes East

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The backstory about what propelled me from Silicon Valley to the back streets of Philadelphia, Penn., to work for President Obama, is that I learned to value the right to vote at my mother's knee.

The immediate impetus was my outrage over voter suppression. When Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai announced that the strict voter ID law his House had just passed would suppress minority votes, it made my teeth hurt.

I had to do something to fight it. With encouragement and support from family and friends, I flew east.

I was assigned to the South Philly Obama office, on East Passyunk Avenue, in the middle of one of the oldest communities in Philadelphia, with a total population of about 169,000.

I stayed with locals in the Spring Garden neighborhood, near Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania, and walked six blocks each day to the subway to get to my campaign office.

My section of South Philly was a neighborhood crowded behind streets busy with ethnic grocery shops, cafes, restaurants and bakeries, many with an Italian influence.

My first assignment was seeking to register voters on the main streets before the Oct. 9 deadline. Clipboard in hand, I patrolled the markets and churches, barking like a Carney for voter registration.

Many said they were already registered and too many said they didn't know if they would vote, they didn't care or ignored me altogether.

I wasn't surprised that many were unaware the requirement had been lifted, as ads requiring special ID were still running.

Some people were already resigned that they couldn't qualify, however, and decided not to bother to register.

Standing in front of a popular supermarket a young woman ignored me as she entered the store. A few minutes later she ran back, grabbed my clipboard out of my hands saying, "If I register now, can I vote for Obama?"

After voter registration closed Oct. 9, I was assigned to canvas our corner of South Philly to confirm support for Obama or turn undecideds to our side. Our community was a mix of mostly Irish, Italian, African American and Hispanic.

I paced through blocks of shoulder-to-shoulder brick row houses built during the 19th century. The neighborhood reflected some attempts at gentrification. Homes with peeling paint, crumbled cement stoops and cracked sidewalks contrasted with neatly decorated handrails and flower boxes.

Most of the homes are stacks of two or three apartments, accessed by steep, narrow stairways. The streets are barely wide enough for one and half cars, having been built for horse and carriage.

The responses to my canvassing were not predictable. Despite some assumptions, I found that people in South Philly were not solidly Democratic and pro-Obama as some assumed. I met a range of opinions.

Many were frustrated with the economy, lack of jobs and felt left out of any promise of improvement. Some said they were worn out with politics and felt voting was a waste of time. It wouldn't change anything, they said.

An elderly man, white, lectured me on the degradation of our political system and predicted a revolution after this election. A woman heard why I was there and yelled at me to get off her stoop.

I met Miss Hattie, a 96-year-old African American who was sitting on her stoop and visiting with the deacon of her church, who was making his regular rounds of visits to his elderly parishioners. Miss Hattie told me she had lived in the same home for 70 years -- said she would vote for Obama, but she didn't like gay marriage.

A college student was against the use of drones, and still undecided about how he'd vote.
One woman answered her door in a whisper. I apologized that I may be disturbing someone sleeping inside. "Oh no," she said. "I'm voting for Obama, but I don't want my husband to hear me because he's voting for Romney."

As I approached one home, a woman two doors down on the other side of the street came out onto her stoop and said, "Can I help you? They are not home." South Philly is a neighborhood where people have lived side by side for years, some for several generations. They look out for each other.

A few slammed doors in my face; others thanked me for volunteering. Others eagerly advised me which neighbors to visit and those to avoid.

South Philly is rich with color and history unlike any place I have ever lived. It got under my skin in a way I never expected.

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