I was born at Eighth and Spruce, in the hospital founded by Benjamin Franklin (that is so cool!), and I’ve never lived more than 15 miles away from the Liberty Bell, even though I didn’t see it up close and in person until the age of 19. My childhood was spent fearing and ignoring the City of Philadelphia, while inhabiting the mean streets and pinball parlors of the Borough of Narberth, the tenderloin of the Main Line. As I like to say, “I grew up on a street as tough as it’s name — Shirley Circle.”
And then I discovered Broad Street.
I can tell you exactly where and when I fell in love with Philadelphia. It was dusk in late September, 1970. I was driving home to the suburbs from Temple University in a battered, pale blue 1963 Chevy Bel Air sedan with a three-on-the-column manual transmission when I heard the sound of a cappella voices rising from the streets, rising like a movie soundtrack into the blue darkness above the stunning presence of brownstone rowhomes I had never noticed before.
And there they were — corner boys — young black men my age singing doo wop songs, the same songs my grade school buddies and I would sing (for the echo effect) in the pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks in Narberth.
“Don’t know why. (Don’t know why.)
“There’s no sun up in the sky. Stormy weather! (Stormy wea-THER, Ooo-oo-ooo!)
“Me and my girl ain’t been together (Been to-geh-THER, Ooo-oo-ooo!)
“Now it’s rainin’ all the time. (All the time, all the time, all the ti-IME!)”
Narberth is, geographically, as much a “neighborhood” of Philadelphia as Wynnefield or Overbrook — closer, actually, in miles from City Hall than parts of the Northeast. In my day, the only difference between Narberth and a city neighborhood was that the police cars weren’t painted red and the drinking water didn’t stink of chlorine. (And there was also the conspicuous yet unremarked upon absence of blacks, Jews, and Democrats.) But what everyone my age shared was the music — Bandstand, Dick Clark, Hy Lit, Georgie Woods, Jocko Henderson, The Geator, Wibbage (as in WIBG-AM), The Boss Jocks. White and black, boys and girls, grooved to the same Sound of Philadelphia before it had a name.
What struck me in that September twilight long past was that the corner boys at 18th and Diamond in North Philadelphia sang far better harmonies on “Stormy Weather” than my buddies and I from St. Margaret’s School ever approached. And in the fullness and clarity of that passing moment, what dazzled and beguiled me was the connection between the boys in the ’hood and the boys from the ’burbs. We were singing the same song, whether we knew it or not, and that was the song of Philadelphia.
It has taken me years, decades, to understand that well enough to describe it. But it was in that instant that I understood intuitively and absolutely what my life’s work would be:
To love my city out loud.
To help you love our city the way I do, by describing it the way I feel it, see it, experience it.
Tough love, brain engaged, eyes and heart open. That’s what Clark’s Park is all about.
I am a child of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, and I want the city of my birth to sparkle in a world of great cities. I want us to be magnificent. I want our generation to ennoble a sacred name in American history, to reenergize and reconsecrate the revolutionary promise that brave men in Philadelphia long ago declared with an honorable pride that they spit into the doubting face of a hostile universe.
And, yes, I believe the Eagles will win the Super Bowl in our lifetimes. But, then, I’ve always been a dreamer.
Clark DeLeon, who wrote “The Scene” column in The Inquirer from 1974 to 1994, will be appearing in Currents every two weeks, and will be joined by other Philadelphia voices in the coming months. E-mail Clark DeLeon at firstname.lastname@example.org.