There are no sooty coal mines underneath the steep, foliage-shrouded streets of Mount Airy, no Formica-wrapped diner where men in flannel shirts and steel-toed boots load up on painfully bitter coffee and heaping platters of cholesterol while dissecting last night’s Hannity, no driveways where an unemployed factory worker parks his Chevy truck next to a “Make America Great Again” yard sign.
No, life on these blocks centers around a joint on Carpenter Lane called Weavers Way, the venerable corner food co-op that launched in the twilight of the hippie era in 1972, where today senior citizens and young social workers wander down from rambling old-stone houses with their reusable canvas bags to load up on bulk spices, home-baked muffins, or maybe a treat like pumpkin gingersnap ice cream.
It’s the kind of place where the regulars pause on the front steps to check out ads for dog walkers or fiddle lessons, then trade friendly banter with familiar neighbors in the narrow aisles. And so Brittany Barbato, a 29-year-old writer and photographer for mission-driven publications who lives nearby, was when she strolled into Weavers Way on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016 — just hours after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States.
“Usually there’s a buzz — you can hear people chatting, the bulk canisters flowing with what people are buying — and the cashiers are all chipper and friendly,” said Barbato, standing outside the food co-op in the January chill. “That’s why we love living here, the community. But I remember coming into the store and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so eerie, so quiet.’ It did feel as if something had died. And I remember thinking, ‘This is how I feel, too.’ ”
More than a year after that funereal morning in Mount Airy, the neighborhood has a bit of a feel of an occupied territory. Behind ancient stone walls, on the narrow, sloping yards, stand the signs of resistance at home after home: “Impeach Trump,” or “Black Lives Matter/Philly Children’s March,” with more than a smattering of “Hillary” yard signs that owners refuse to take down, and one that declares: “In This House, We Believe: Black Lives Matter/Women’s Rights Are Human Rights/No Human Is Illegal/Science Is Real/Love Is Love/No Matter Your Faith Or Ability/Kindness Is Everything.”
Welcome to the throbbing heart of Anti-Trump Country, a land where — if you believe in polls — the majority of Americans reside, and yet a place that the mainstream media seem determined to ignore.
I decided to come to the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhoods of Mount Airy and Germantown after reading the 26th, or maybe it was the 206th, “Report from Trump Country,” where some wire-rimmed reporter from New York or D.C. parachutes into small-town Ohio or Kansas to hang out in a bacon-drenched breakfast spot to discover that the locals who watched six hours of Fox News Channel the night before still love it when Trump blasts the liberal “fake news” on Twitter, no matter how many promises the president breaks on bringing their jobs back or replacing Obamacare with “something really terrific.”
Look, on one level, I get it. I come from Midwestern hillbilly stock by way of the Caterpillar Tractor parts department in Peoria, Ill.; one wrong left turn and it might have been me in Sandy Hook, Ky., where “Steven Whitt fires up the coffee pot and flips on the fluorescent sign in the window of the Frosty Freeze, his diner that looks and sounds and smells about the same as it did when it opened a half-century ago.” We shouldn’t ignore what’s on the mind of the 36 Percent who still support Trump, and 14 months ago a lot of editors and TV producers decided that not spending enough time in “flyover country” was the reason everyone got the 2016 election wrong.
Perhaps, but there’s a huge flaw.
In tripping over one another to get inside the Frosty Freeze in rural Kentucky, journalists have bizarrely turned the nearly two-thirds of Americans who are alternately embarrassed and terrorized by the actions of Trump and his minions into a kind of a new silent majority. Every time that another “What Are Trump Voters Up To Now” story gets published, I see lots of complaints on social media that no one goes on a road trip to see what the majority of Americans who favored Hillary Clinton, or a third-party candidate, are thinking. So I took it upon myself — to make a savage journey into the heart of Anti-Trump Country.
In Philadelphia’s 22nd Ward, which covers Germantown and parts of Mount Airy, Clinton got 12,050 votes in 2016, and Trump received a mere 342 — and I did not run across any of those lonely 342 during my reporting. One of the more ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city, Mount Airy and Germantown are also well-educated spots, described once as “a Ph.D ghetto.” More than the numbers, though, I wanted to see a place where, in the words of one Nobel laureate, there was “music in the cafés at night/And revolution in the air.”
Or revolution on the front lawn, like that of Claudia Raab, a 67-year-old textiles artist who sports both “Impeach Trump” and “No Trump Zone” signs in her yard, a short walk downhill from Weavers Way. I rang her doorbell and asked how long the signs have been up. “Since it happened … the cataclysm,” said Raab, who’s been politically active since she was arrested with her mother protesting the Vietnam War but has never felt so alarmed and upset as she did by Trump’s election, which she believes will have a devastating effect on the poor.
“Everybody here hates Trump — that’s why I like to live here,” said Raab — a sentiment I heard from more than one person. “I have a neighbor who couldn’t eat for four days” after the election. Like many folks, Raab has turned to activism — joining last January’s Women’s March in Center City and giving away what she called “tons of money” to groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Despite all that, Raab said she feels pessimism about where America is at after one year of Trump, hours after the president used Twitter to threaten war with North Korea. “I don’t have hope,” she said, “as every day there’s something worse and worse.”
Others in the neighborhood are so pessimistic they’ve turned away. Jasmine Thompson, 23, a food-education worker and barista from Germantown who came to shop at Weavers Way, wasn’t here when Trump was elected but 3,000 miles away in small rural town — Crescent City, Calif. — near the Oregon border, wrapping up work on a nutrition project. As the only woman of color in the community, she said, she was shocked by the animosity unleashed by the election. “There were people riding around in cars saying the N-word,” she recalled. “There was a group of teenage boys that threw papers at me while I was riding my bike to work.”
She’s glad to be back in Northwest Philadelphia. “It’s very comfortable here — I love all the … liberalness,” she said — yet Trump has made her want to shun political activism. “I try not to know what’s going on,” she said. “I feel like if I intake a lot of negativity, it will all come out somehow. With him and all of his antics and his pervasive negativity, I try to keep a distance from knowing, because I don’t want it to affect me.”
This is the push-pull of Anti-Trump Country. On one hand, there is a kind of conformity in the universal dislike of Trump — his tweets, his casual embrace of racism and misogyny, his policies that slam the poor — to the extent that the shock of his election victory made some Mount Airy/Germantown residents more aware they are living in a kind of progressive bubble. Yet no one seems to agree on how to best respond to Trump.
Inside a popular Mount Airy coffee and crepe spot, the High Point Cafe, activist and social entrepreneur Paul Glover — who ran for Pennsylvania governor as Green Party candidate in 2014 — sits with a raft of papers about his new idea for health co-ops sprawled across a table. You won’t find a left-over “Hillary” yard sign back at Glover’s house, as he voted for the Green Party’s Jill Stein in 2016, and he still believes that the Democrats are just as pro-corporate as the Republicans. The real answer, he insists, is grassroots activism. “I’m less concerned about who is president,” he told me, “than who is present.”
Glover’s vote for Stein won’t win any local popularity contests, but there is a growing sense that the most constructive response to the current mess in Washington is to get more active in the local community. A mile and a half down Greene Street, in Germantown’s narrow Maplewood Mall, a brand-new hot spot called the Germantown Espresso Bar is a place where customers grumble daily about Trump but hold nightly meetings in the second-floor free “community space” to oppose a SEPTA natural gas plant in Wayne Junction or discuss local gentrification.
“We’re aware that we have more power locally, and that there’s a lot of chaos and cacophony in Washington that’s important to have a pulse on — but that our power … is really in holding our local politicians accountable,” Miles Butler, who cofounded the coffee spot back in August, told me, while a patron slowly strummed his guitar in the background. He said he thought people are “activated” to make a difference … but they’re looking around to see where. One of his customers, community activist Keith G. Schenck, added that “we try to counter it with arts, the humanities, and culture.”
In this heart of Anti-Trump Country, this is the struggle behind all the impeachment signs and political sloganeering, to get back to a place before a glum November morning when there was faith that not just Northwest Philadelphia but America can be a better place — certainly better than the temporary occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.