Philadelphia Writers on Living in the Epicenter of 2020’s Chaos

From antifa Gritty to Four Seasons Total Landscaping, Philly has been at the center of national news—here's what that meant for writers

Photo by Maggie Schreiter
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Life these past months has sucked everywhere and for everyone–from rising COVID cases to the terrible election that loomed over our shoulders to the seemingly endless advent of strange, terrible, bittersweet news. But here in Philadelphia, life has sucked uniquely—and also offered unique triumphs. 

From the massive and organized uprising for Black life after the murder of George Floyd which lead the Philadelphia Police Department to trap and teargas protestors, to Trump’s fearmongering false claims that Philly’s poll centers were part of a stolen election (“bad things happen in Philadelphia!”) to the murder of one of our own, a Black mentally ill citizen named Walter Wallace Jr., and the unrest that followed, to the whole world watching Philadelphia’s slow and steady vote counting process in a tally that would ultimately call the election for Biden to the exceptionally raucous jubilation that once again put Philly faces on screens worldwide to the stranger-than-fiction botched press conference held here at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, Philly has been the epicenter of this whole wretched and rich pandemic era. Our skies have been filled with police and press helicopters, our friends and comrades have become sick or died or been header photos for global news stories about disease and dissent, and our neighbors were the ones unwrapping and sorting those fateful ballots. 

We are all going through it this year, but Philadelphians have found a way to dig deep into our values and take care of each other.

But through it all, and as time passes in slow, quick, meandering ways, the resiliency of Philadelphia has been a warm blanket over my shoulders, at times the only thing keeping me going. As my personal life took many ups and downs through the pandemic, Philadelphia has been a constant for me, a friend in collective healing and refuge, a muse for my writing. Much of my writing ventures into loneliness, Blackness, and the mundane and much of this year has tackled all of these themes. I ask myself when I write, “What does it mean to be Black in America? What does it mean to be lonely this year? And how do I write during such excitedly unexciting times?” Walking through different neighborhoods has helped, falling in and out of love has helped, and re-discovering and re-prioritizing not only my words, but my values have helped in all of this. We are all going through it this year, but Philadelphians have found a way to dig deep into our values and socially-distant hold space and take care of each other.  

I asked other Philadelphia writers about the moments that have defined this era for them, the moments they’ll never forget, and why they think the whole world has lately been watching Philadelphia, a city that deserves the limelight all the time but is so often overlooked. Their answers are dispatches from a place and time we are still living through, yet one that must not be forgotten, months when one of the poorest and most gritty cities in the world clashed with fascism and despair and emerged proud and united. 

West Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Police Department brought in tanks and weapons to use against protestors on 52nd street and where Walter Wallace Jr. was murdered, has also been a site of warmth, community and action. Fiction writer Asali Solomon writes about her West Philly quarantine: 

Though I still have my health and my livelihood, each day of the last eight months have managed to bring some new kind of terrible. Yet, each of those days confirmed something I suspected, but did not know, which was that there is no place I would rather live than West Philadelphia.

I live within walking distance of my parents, in whose yard I’ve been able to safely celebrate birthdays and holidays, on a block that immediately offered itself up as a place where I would never starve or be without toilet paper. When my gym closed, I took up long walks, mainly to the scenic Woodlands Cemetery, where I’ve been able to reflect calmly on time, disease (more than a few victims of the 1918 flu rest there) and death, while staying in shape. 

There has been, of course an increase in all manners of desperate violence in West Philadelphia, as in other parts of the city. Some of it highlights the brutal inequality that rapid gentrification engenders. But at this moment, the community remains a wildly diverse neighborhood of African American, Caribbean and African, Trans, Muslim, Queer, Latinx , Asian and Asian American, Christian and atheist and heathen people, mostly wearing masks, trying not to kill each other, trying to stay alive. In fliers threatening to march here, the hate group the Proud Boys called our community “the belly of the beast.”

West Philadelphia and its community members have remained a space for joy and pleasure and has been such an anchor during these times, As a community, West Philadelphians were defiant and they took care of each other. Fellow neighbor and nonfiction writer Cate McLaughlin writes: 

I find my friends in the gathering crowd at Malcolm X Park. There is the vibration of reverence and fury each time his name, Walter Wallace, is spoken and passed gently from person to person. As the sun lowers, the police begin to close in along a deliberate perimeter around the vigil. I can’t stop thinking about Walter Wallace’s mother, about what it is to watch the sun go down on the last day your child is alive, to plead for his life, and then to wake another day. There are activists and neighbors with snacks and medic bags, the exhaustion visible above the top seams of their masks. We smile grimly to see a kid writing TRUMP PENCE OUT NOW in yellow chalk on the pavement. The first speaker is a student who has to yell to be heard over the intimidation of the helicopters, who says what she wants is to be able to spend a day learning instead of grieving.

By the time we begin to move, the crowd surges toward Market street and people come to stand and watch us pass from their stoops. We clog the intersections and folks in SUVs sound obnoxious honks of encouragement.  Improbably, a beautiful man in a turtleneck is weaving among the protest mayhem narrating the events in what might be French to some streaming platform on his phone with the ease and confidence of a cooking show host.  The cops standing guard over the big chain sneaker stores on 52nd won’t make eye contact. We ask, Who do you serve? Who do you protect? but the questions bounce off the armor meant to make each officer appear more carapace than person. Later, on the news, the newscaster will lose composure at the footage of burning cars and broken glass, his face a green screen of disbelief. All night long the helicopters dog West Philly, a sound that will stay, like gravel sewn into the wound of my sleep

This spirit of defiance and resiliency has always been in Philadelphia, as has a history of violent anti-Black policing. But for a new generation of activists and thinkers here, their christening came earlier this year, back in June. 

Writes novelist Annie Liontas

On June 1, Philadelphia Police officers trapped us on 676, firing multiple rounds of tear gas and pepper spray at thousands of protestors. On June 2, I began receiving Facebook messages from those who had had to flee, many of them stunned and angry, some of them in bad shape. One person dislocated his shoulder trying to climb a fence: he now needed surgery. Someone who had been deployed with Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom lamented that the police always seemed to get away with things that would get you jailed in the military. A young woman who grew up in the Richard Allen Projects before they were torn down, said, “They call our movement hostile but this is the same city that thought it was ok to bomb a Black neighborhood—my family’s neighborhood.” 

In writing about what happened on 676, which was ultimately published with NPR-WHYY, I was sent photos, shaky cell phone videos that proved that there had only been PG-13 shouting and chanting before police moved in. Until authorities ambushed protestors entering the highway’s long overpass, cars had been honking in support, people were getting out of their cars to applaud. After, I watched officers point-blank assault people who were on their knees with their heads bowed. I watched hundreds of people scrambling up a steep bank, remembering how I had had to stop to wipe my sunglasses of the residue of tear gas, how I had called out “Don’t run, don’t run,” to two teenagers, the danger of a stampede being not that we will knock each other over but that with nowhere to go, we will all suffocate. 

Not until the New York Times conducted its own investigation, with shiny infographics, did Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw acknowledge that they had turned chemical weapons banned by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention against peaceful protestors. But the people who had been out on 676, who demanded to be heard by the city that had betrayed them—the very next day, they were back out on the streets. 

From these events in Center City, the stories expand in every direction, east to the river, and into South, and North Philadelphia. Citizens have not only found kinship in the greater city, but a greater sense of appreciation for the everyday, the mundane. Much of early quarantine rhetoric was the question of productivity–Will you write the next great American novel? As time went on, much of that went by the wayside, replaced by a focus on the home, self-care and family. Then we moved on to the anticipation of what November would bring. Instead of sitting idly by, some Philadelphians threw themselves into political organizing full throttle. Some decided enough was enough, and ran for election themselves, like writer and now elected Pennsylvania state senator Nikil Saval.

In February 2019, someone posed the question: “Why not you?” I wasn’t horrified. We launched our campaign at Hawthorne Park. There had once been around five hundred units of public housing here; they were replaced by half that much. A placard marked the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., had spoken in 1965. A hundred people had shown up, dragooned by my campaign manager. Someone cajoled the crowd into chanting, “SA-VAL FOR ALL,” to my embarrassment; a slogan we had coined as a joke had become the actual one. 

A few months later, daycares were closed. I walked around with my toddler, in a determined circle around the block, as was his preference, dramatically avoiding the few people whose paths we crossed. I talked on the phone with another candidate about whether we should cancel upcoming events. We circled the seriousness of what was taking place. That afternoon, while my son napped, I called people to ask them for money. No one had money. Some of them needed groceries and medication delivered. We began to arrange those deliveries. 

On Election Day for the primary, we all emerged from our houses, masked. The hundreds of volunteers I had never met were in front of polling places, in orange T-shirts, with giant poster-boards of my son, me somewhat blurred behind him. A baby—running for State Senate! I nabbed voters on the way in, shoved literature into their hands. I talked—to people! It was the best day of my life. That night, early results put us up by 34 percent. A City Councilperson drove to my house. “Bro, you won,” he cried. “Get drunk.” I collapsed into his arms.

In November, following the general election, I was called up to the Convention Center, again, and again, to give speeches. I screamed versions of a stump I had written for one occasion that, in a pinch, I repurposed and revised, something to the effect of: millions of us had voted, nothing will turn us back, we will fight to count every vote. The day the news networks called it was clear and hot. We marched down Market Street. Someone hit a gong, and organizers lifted a large, yellow banner to remind us that we needed to take action on climate change—that the future was not guaranteed.

As the election loomed, everyday Philadelphians came into action to help others in voting lines, to help count the thousands of mail-in ballots, or to simply reach out to others for love or support to vote. Writer and professor Elizabeth Greenspan shares her story of election day:

The day after the election, we trekked across town to the convention center, where ballots were being counted and DJs were playing. I wasn’t sure what to call it: a party, a protest, a counterprotest, an exorcism? There’s dancing in the streets, I told the kids. You can have a piece of candy, I added. They grabbed their coats and masks.

We had spent the past months talking about the election, and about living in something called a “swing state.” They had many questions. How did voting work? Why did people like Trump? Who’s going to win? We drove out to Reading, PA to canvass; we dialed into phone banks. But the dance party downtown was unlike these previous activities. There was a swaying mailbox and a frolicking city hall, countless balloons and dozens of people dancing in lines, possessed by exhaustion, determination, maybe even a kind of magical thinking. If we keep moving, we will win.

A sense of foreboding threaded through the music and play. Three days later, Pennsylvania would deliver the election for Biden, but on that day after the polls closed we didn’t yet know the outcome. That we needed to be at the convention center with a sign reading “count every vote” was frightening. Nearby, a small group of mostly men wearing MAGA hats shouted in their own little area, surrounded by a disproportionate number of camera crews and curious onlookers. The kids wanted to see them, and I told them that this is why we came, too. All of us. To make our voices heard. To be present. As we watched the angry men, I took solace in the fact that we outnumbered them—at least here, in our beloved Philadelphia. Before we headed back home, we returned once more to the dancing, which now felt less like an exercise in diversion or anxiety management and more like the creation of a necessary, fortified barrier. A manifestation of our will to prevail. We raised our hands and sang out loud and filled a bit of the street. There was nothing magical about it.

Philadelphia lit up after election news, a city and its outer suburbs helping to cement a win and a move forward. Upon hearing the news of Biden’s win, Solomon embraced with her fellow West Philadelphians:

[. . .] that Saturday when news outlets called Pennsylvania for Biden, which was basically calling Philadelphia for Biden, which was definitely a massive West Philadelphia effort, not so much on behalf of Joe Biden but as a concerted effort to rebuke the anti-human agenda of the Republican party, we celebrated like our lives depended on it. We took to the streets banging on pots and pans, emitting mask-muffled cheers, dancing. Two bands played in Clark Park, the Black cowboys showed up and champagne flowed. The party continued later, even when the streets were dark and silent, and a thick cloud of marijuana smoke drifted into my passing car. It is true that during the pandemic, I’ve had my head turned by Canada, by Jacinda Arden and by the beautiful Black country of Botswana (check their remarkably low Covid stats), but most of these days confirm that, there’s no corner of this terrible world where I’d rather live or die than this one.

Not only did the spirit of community, the warmth of rediscovering home, and the elation and resistance of the election lift Philadelphians, but also the ways we connected and reconnected to others and our writing—through the random, the whimsical, and often the pure fun. Writer Amanda Silberling found enlightenment through poetry and reality TV. She writes:

Sometimes it can be hard to remember how to find the joy in writing, but it gets even harder during a global pandemic, especially if your income is even partially tied to your creative output. So, as part of Blue Stoop‘s Wednesdays on the Stoop series, my friend and fellow writer Maya Arthur and I started a series of workshops on Zoom about “Reality TV Poetry.” Reality TV Poetry is exactly what it sounds like—you watch Love is Blind, or Chopped, or House Hunters and write poems about it. If this sounds silly, that’s because it is. But there’s something intriguing about combining these supposedly “low-brow” and “high-brow” genres—some of the writers who came to our workshops didn’t even watch reality TV, but just thought the concept of the workshop was funny (which was as good a reason as any to be there). 

We wrote poems about Tyra Banks shaving our heads on America’s Next Top Model, how we’d get voted off the island on Survivor, or how it felt to watch Giannina become a runaway bride on Love is Blind. It’s refreshing to write about a fantasy, but more often than not, reality TV offers us a new angle to think through our own experiences. Scenes from Queer Eye and House Hunters moved our group of Philadelphia writers to talk about gentrification in our city, while other times, we playfully debated whether football is actually just reality TV marketed toward old men. It was healing to get at least a little bit of writing done, but more than anything, it was necessary to take time to laugh and think about something aside from the scary, isolating months that waited ahead. Being a writer doesn’t always have to be about producing something that other people want to read. In times like these, finding joy and community in being a writer is just as important as the literal writing.

I am so proud to call myself a writer and a Philadelphian. Through all this, layered upon its history of struggle, leadership and disinvestment, Philadelphia has remained a consistent and formidable force. Recently, I walked from my home in West Philadelphia on 46th Street to Penn’s Landing. It was a brisk fall day and after cocooning in my room, I decided I needed to breathe some fresh air through my mask. I walked through Clark Park, passing friends’ socially distant hangs and bocce ball players. I walked through Penn’s campus with only a handful of students and employees into Rittenhouse Square and the retail corridor on Walnut Street. The shops were quiet with few customers but the park bustled with people on benches, soaking in some of the last days of good weather. I walked by the restaurants of the Gayborhood, open and ready for pick-up and delivery, and the cobble streets of Society Hill into South Street, and finally came to Penn’s Landing. I sat down between the hum of the highway and the small crowds forming along the shops and restaurants of South Street, picked up my journal, took a deep breath and wrote. 

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