“Violence is man recreating himself.”―Frantz Fanon
It’s 2004, and I am riding in a yellow taxi, returning to Center City Philadelphia from the airport. It’s a summer night, hot. The asphalt road appears slick with humidity, and I watch the reflections of traffic lights blur and mingle with the painted street crossings as we drive down Broad Street. I’m uncomfortable, but it’s not the weather. I was just in Los Angeles for work, it was even warmer there. Something else is different, everything feels a bit off.
The taxi driver drops me off in Rittenhouse square, where I am meeting friends who work at one of the more popular bars in the area. Rittenhouse is the most upscale part of Philadelphia, yet even here I felt the underlying tension and aggressiveness that permeated the city’s character.
As I step out of the taxi, my mind flashes back to age ten. I am walking past Pat’s Auto Tags, just about to turn the corner onto Belgrade street. I am confronted by the two boys, brothers, who had just moved from Kensington into an apartment around the corner on Livingston street. The sun was going down and I needed to be home for dinner soon. They asked me what was hanging around my neck. It’s unclear, but likely a crucifix or a scapular. They pulled on it roughly, attempting to steal it. I pushed them away, crying, and began to run.
I came out of the vision and found myself on the corner of 18th and Walnut. The street was filled with people, men in sport coats and pointed shiny shoes, women in miniskirts, carrying leather bags, balancing on high heels that were not designed for the potholed and crumbling sidewalks of Philly.
When these bars close at 2am, drunken fist fights in the street are common. Occasionally the fights would escalate into gun fire, sometimes involving celebrities like Allen Iverson. It wasn’t so different when I was growing up in Port Richmond. Fist fights in the park, on the street, in the basketball courts, in the parking lot of the gas station, or just on the corner. I remember a car full of kids from a different neighborhood pulling up to the playground and running towards us with baseball bats. We were only 9 or 10. We scurried up and over the high fence to escape, while the older boys stayed to fight.
After the incident with the brothers I would take a detour through the narrow, trash and weed filled alleys that ran between the rows of hundreds of houses in the neighborhood in order to avoid walking past their apartment. Only in the morning when I went to church or to school would I dare walk past their building. I knew they were sleeping. Even the structure of the apartment seemed strange. The mortar between the red bricks wasn’t maintained, the grey blue paint on the door was old and dull. The entire edifice seemed sick and in disrepair.
Later I told my mother about the incident on the corner. As she consoled me, she said “They won’t stop bullying you unless you stand up for yourself.”
My mother was a mild-tempered woman. She was small in stature, and usually quiet. But occasions like these reminded me that she too grew up in the neighborhood. She knew how things worked.
Her words always stayed with me.
There was only a casual explanation from my Father about the bullet hole above the narrow archway that separated the living room from the dining room in the house I grew up in. When I was five or six I was playing in the front room. The neighbor across the street was a small time bookie and someone had come to collect some bad debts. The neighbor wasn’t ready to pay, decided that it would be a good idea to fire a small pistol at the debt collector. Untrained, he shot through the window of my house instead of through the window of his target’s car. Luckily his firing position was from the top of his steps, so the bullet safely went over my head and lodged itself in the plaster wall, tearing a tiny hole in the layers of wallpaper that my great grandfather had chosen decades earlier.
The hole would remain there as a memory of the event until my Father remodelled the house sometime around 1993. To be clear, we lived in a relatively safe neighborhood. People weren’t selling drugs on street corners in Port Richmond. But just like my mother knew that I needed to confront my bullies, my father also was so used to things like this occurring from time to time. He didn’t see the need for an in-depth explanation of the event. It was simply something that happened.
I read an article recently about the two men getting shot in West Philly, just after returning from vacation. Both young guys, normal kids, not involved in anything criminal. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That wrong place just happened to be their neighborhood. It was a normal day for them. It makes me afraid to go back to Philly. While my neighborhood is not as dangerous as parts of West Philly, the overall level of violence and aggression compared with the Netherlands is much higher.
Street fights and violence were a normalized part of life in Philadelphia. I didn’t realize how desensitized I was to physical violence until I was in my 20s and I was spending time with people who weren’t from the neighborhood. Stories that I had about shootings, robberies, and fights seemed incredible to them. They thought I was lying or exaggerating. I felt ashamed that I had these experiences, but I also knew that having them showed me a part of humanity that was worth knowing about. It showed me that words had consequences, and that how you carried yourself and presented yourself had defensive value. But there were other negative aspects of these experiences I had not come to terms with, not until well into my 30s.
In the same way that I detoured through the trash-filled alleys to avoid a confrontation with the two neighbourhood brothers, in my mind I found ways to avoid a reckoning with these darker aspects of my past and psyche. It would take some years away from Philadelphia to realize this. I had to face the fact that I too had been a part of the violence. That I had attacked people just like I had been attacked. If not that, I was a silent witness to the violent acts of others, and I did nothing to stop them. For all these years I had been avoiding confronting these feelings of fear, and my own indoctrination to a culture of violence.
After moving to the Netherlands I slowly became used to the fact that, generally speaking, I did not have to watch my back if I came home late at night. Of course crime happens everywhere, but I think it’s much less likely that I am going to get into a fight on the subway, or attacked while riding my bike, or called a faggot out front of my own house by 9 year olds, and then have to worry about whether I’m going to have to fight their older brother. Here in Haarlem, it’s not normal to hear people screaming at each other on the street.
I told my friend back home about how I noticed this change in my demeanor. He jokingly responded “You’re getting sweet out there.” A part of me felt insulted. But it’s true. I see a change in the way that I walk down the street. I notice how tension from Philadelphia is embodied in me in subtle ways. Tight muscles in the back, a small voice in my head always scanning the street or subway car. I began to drop those effects and worry less.
If I were to tell others who grew up where I did these thoughts, they would think I was overreacting, that things weren’t that bad. But that’s just it - it’s like asking a fish what water is . They are surrounded by it, and always have been, so they have no way to know what it’s like without it. This is Water is the title of David Foster Wallace‘s 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College.
Philadelphia has a history of violence, both learned and innate. The violence was race-based, class-based, religious-based. It goes all the way back to the founding of the city and nation. Of course this type of violence is not unique to Philadelphia, but our distinct history which includes a rise and fall in political and economic power, and an intensely racially and religiously diverse population gives it particular poignance. Current day Philadelphia, despite being one of the largest cities in the United States, suffers from markedly high levels of poverty, an epidemic of gun violence, open market opioid sales and high levels of addiction, all combined with endemic corruption and incompetence in city government. It’s a mix that will produce in its residents what some have called Philadelphia Psychosis. Philadelphia Psychosis was a song by Ink & Dagger, a hardcore punk band from Philadelphia that was active in the 1990s.
“Aggression is not necessarily destructive at all. It springs from an innate tendency to grow and master life which seems to be characteristic of all living matter. Only when this life force is obstructed in its development do ingredients of anger, rage, or hate become connected with it."―Clara Thompson
People who grew up there and in similar environments have a built in self-confidence and are used to adversity. Everyone knows about how strongly people feel pride in Philadelphia, and how they wear the adversity they’ve faced as a badge of honor. Aggression may aid us in these circumstances, allowing us to gain some control over our environments and life. However in my experience, since we don’t actually understand what is going on because we are too young, don’t have enough context, and don’t have the wisdom to know how to use our aggressive tendencies properly, things don’t go so well.
The problem also arises that as we get older and move out of our neighbourhoods or cities where everyone shares the same social mores and codes of conduct, we don’t quite fit into normal “polite society”. We have to learn how to adapt ourselves to the norms of the social groups at the office or among the parents at our child’s school. The tools that we developed in our neighbourhoods that helped us survive and cope with our environments are not the same ones that we need in our adult lives, and we are well served by leaving them behind.
But we should not completely abandon these darker aspects of our humanity. It’s not possible to do so, as anger, violence, aggression are parts of all humans. Instead I’ve tried to better understand how these aspects of my personality affected me, and to recognize that violent experiences are part of me. I should not be ashamed of them, or deny them. I can be confident that in the end they do not define me. Through a long process of therapy, reflection and by learning to defend myself, I know that if I am skillful that I am able to act with force, and not to be forceful; I am able to stand up for myself and what I believe in, but there is no space for meanness or viciousness. In other words, complete, not perfect.