BY JEFF DEENEY ?Today I saw?? is a series of nonfiction shorts based on my experiences as a caseworker serving formerly homeless families now living in North and West Philadelphia. I decided not long after starting the job that I was seeing so many fascinating and disturbing things in the city?s poorest neighborhoods that I needed to start cataloging them. I hope this bi-weekly column serves as a record of a side of the city that many Philadelphians don?t come in contact with on a daily basis. I want to capture moments not frequently covered by the local media, which tends to only cover the most fantastically violent or sordid aspects of life there.
Today I saw a long corridor of neglected row homes flying by in a blur as my Amtrak train tore through Southwest Philly and into Delaware County. The homes got a little bigger, and had more windows intact once we passed through Darby and into Sharon Hill, but the scene was more or less the same — economically depressed and heavily industrial — all the way past the crane works in Crum Lynne, where menacing yellow metal claws stood motionless against the morning sky.
From there we snaked through the Sunoco refinery at Marcus Hook and the homes disappeared, replaced by a skyline of fat metal storage drums. They make polypropylene there in little pellets that get poured into hopper cars and shipped off to factories, where they?re melted down into plastic and molded into basically everything.
A cloud of steam issued from a short smokestack and enveloped us; for a moment, as we swept through the dense mist, it felt like flying. We made Chester in an eye?s blink and it looked like Philly again, tight rows of tiny conjoined homes that were missing window glass; vacant lots covered in retreating ice where patches of dead grass poked from the gravel.
We snaked along the water at the Port of Wilmington, and there was a surge of traffic in the aisle next to me. It was all sharp suits and crisp white shirts, the morning business crowd still freshly-pressed. There was a bright flash of stainless steel on almost every wrist; Rolex, Omega, IWC. A black tote bag that said, Morgan, Lewis Counselors at Law.
Today I saw a giant gold Rolex Day-Date watch on a billboard looming over the northbound lanes of I-95 in Port Richmond, a historically working class neighborhood with the city’s highest concentration of Polish immigrants. The billboard was a two story tall testimony to extravagant wealth set against a backdrop of distant dock cranes on the riverfront that haul shipping containers off cargo ships. It was standing directly overtop a neighborhood whose median annual income is about $22,000. Just past the billboard was a series of abandoned warehouses that looked like they were shaken by earthquakes.
It didn’t take long traveling at 70 mph before the same billboard appeared with a picture of the same gold watch about a mile up the road. This time the Frankford Sunoco plant was in the background with its maroon painted steel tanks full of oil refining chemical extracts like cumene that are used to make phenol. The chemical plant stood behind barbwired gates and guard booths, a small city set aside from the city where the basic building blocks for nylon, paints and inks were made by the millions of pounds and shipped around the country by an army of gleaming silver tank trucks.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer who has contributed to the City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is also a caseworker with a nonprofit housing program that serves homeless families.