With a shared lens, Drexel students, neighbors document their West Philly

Growing up, Norman Cain’s West Philadelphia mornings started with buttered grits, scrambled eggs, and gospel music playing in the kitchen. At 75, he can still taste the milk floats he used to buy at the 43rd Street corner pharmacy. He can still feel the thrill of rushing home from Sunday school, tattered baseball glove in hand, for the weekly game at Mill Creek Playground.

Mark Dawkins, 18, was raised in the same West Philadelphia neighborhood, but on Frosted Flakes and Meek Mill. He played in the same parks — mostly basketball, not baseball. He attended the Ward A.M.E. Church that Cain used to go to.

Natasha Hajo grew up in Wayne, N.J., reading, writing, and drawing. She spent her summers visiting family in Syria. Now 21, the junior at Drexel University lives in University City, less than a mile from the neighborhood Dawkins and Cain grew up in, but a world away from their shared experiences.

Camera icon NATASHA HAJO / Writer's Room
Norman Cain and Mark Dawkins spent eight months photographing and writing about the West Philadelphia area they both grew up in.

For the last eight months, the three have met weekly to write personal stories and tales of the changing neighborhood. The project, sponsored by Drexel’s Writer’s Room and named Tripod, was launched this year with teams of three from the West Philadelphia community, Drexel undergraduates, and local high school students.

“When I first started, I was trying to find my place in all of this,” Hajo said. “But I think what I found is that no matter the differences, there are always experiences and stories that people can relate to.”

This has not been a place to hash out the kind of town-gown tensions one might associate with neighbors and students. It’s become a haven for secrets and fears, hopes and dreams, and advice and wishes for each other.

The work of six Tripod groups — photos, poems, and essays — is on display in an exhibit at the Central Library of the Free Library through September.

“They get really deep into their own life and find these points of connection,” said Rachel Wenrick, director of Writer’s Room. “Students today are carrying around a lot in this crazy world, and I think for older neighbors to feel they have this expertise to share and to really be part of the same community is so meaningful.”

Last week, the groups gathered to read from some of their work at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships in Mantua. The stories writers shared showed the range of experiences people living so closely together have.

Camera icon MAGGIE LOESCH / Staff photographer
Rachel Wenrick, a Drexel College of Arts and Sciences professor and founder and director of Writer’s Room, introduces speakers at the reception for the Writer’s Room program.

Hajo shared an account of growing up Muslim:

“A woman wearing a hijab comes my way while pushing a baby stroller. I smile at her in hopes of some recognition, some form of participation in an undisclosed language indicating that she sees me and grasps that we may be similar in ways more than one. I begin to question what my traces look like and wonder how the unrefined form still exists. She hesitates before the corners of her lips curl up into a fleeting smile and she passes me by.”

Once finished reading, she beelined to Cain, who gave her a high five and a smile.

Dawkins wrote a poem about narrowly escaping a shooting, titled “Shells.” Much of his writing tackles his fondness for and frustration with his neighborhood.

“Hoping he didn’t notice me, too quick to see, turning shell tops into Nike sprinters.” Mark read. “Actually hearing the shell drop after the BOOM almost made me shell shock, but I couldn’t be. With everything spinning my legs seemed to take me straight, making quick turns to get away, not stopping until I was blocks away. My senses became stronger but everything felt still, quiet, numb, like I was alone. Reality is that you are.”

Cain, a Vietnam War veteran, gave a tribute to his mother, a God-fearing woman, he says, who was tough but usually right.

“When I received the award for being the top student in my sixth grade special education class, she said, ‘If Norman is the smartest kid in the class, God help the rest.’…When I left my parents’ home on the morning of July 5, 1965, to report to the Army, she urged me to hold my head up and a year and a half later when I came home on leave, she touched me and said with a tone of relief in her voice, “You came Home.”

Writer’s Room started three years ago through the school’s Dornsife Center as an open writing space for students, faculty and community members. This year Canon held a photography workshop and donated four cameras to the teams for the Tripod project. They shot For Sale signs, abandoned homes, keys, and portraits of each other.

In a city where universities, Drexel included, continue to expand into surrounding neighborhoods, driving up home and rental prices, there’s a need for ways to bring communities together, Wenrick said.

She wants to open a community writers house, where students and neighbors can write and live. It would be one of the first of its kind in the nation, she said. Writer’s Room is partnering with the Drexel Smart House, at 35th and Race Streets, to try to make that happen, Wenrick said.

Earlier this year, Cain, Hajo and Dawkins visited Olive Street, where Cain grew up. About 20 families used to lived on the block. Now, not a single home remains. “It was all just wild weeds, it’s a small alley street, but I still knew where every house was in the sense that I could feel the spirit of the folk that were there,” Cain said.

Camera icon LAUREN LOWE / Writer's Room
Mark Dawkins (left) and Natasha Hajo in West Philadelphia.

Two years ago, Dawkins moved from West Philadelphia to North Philadelphia, but ask him where he’s from and he’ll always say 46th Street.

Hajo has a harder time answering that question. She wrote to Cain about it in a letter now published in the anthology.

“What I’m asking from you, Mr. Cain, is not for any answer, but maybe to just bear with me while I try to figure out what it means for me as the other, the outsider, and perhaps the reason, in part, for the Then becoming the Now. I’m looking forward to, and feeling very lucky for, the ability to write together, grow together and fight for one another should we need to. Sincerely, Natasha.”

Cain replied:

“I remember you asking me in your letter: ‘How can I get in there from here?’ My answer is  that you have always been in the crew,” he wrote. “…an honorary member of the Belmont/Mill Creek neighborhoods. I want to say much more, but I do not want to miss my deadline. You know how it is with writers. I will end by saying that it has been a pleasure working with you and that I would fight to work with you again. Yours Truly, Norman.”