In city's poorest neighborhoods, a matter of life and death

"Here, there's just too much to worry about," says Christian O'Hara (center), 11, of his Fairhill neighborhood.

I have been writing this column for more than a year now, and if there has been a unifying theme, it has been reminding people that there is another Philadelphia that doesn't pop up on the best-of lists.

That while Center City is imbued with an ever-growing measure of cultural cachet and enjoying a newfound position of prominence, and while more and more of our neighborhoods are filled with promise and potential, there are still entire swaths of this city where living is simply an act of survival. That the gulf between those two Philadelphias is growing.

You can't talk about Philadelphia without talking about inequality, most of it race-based.

And nowhere is this divide starker than in a simple statistic: life expectancy.

As my colleague Alfred Lubrano reported Monday, kids growing up in Fairhill (Philly's poorest community) and Strawberry Mansion and Swampoodle (Philly's most violent area) have significantly lower life expectancies than kids in Iraq and Syria. Literal war zones.

And while somewhat lower life expectancies can understandably be found in neighborhoods afflicted by violence and poverty, in Philadelphia the numbers are as startling as they are sad.

In Fairhill, a child born today is expected to live to 71. That's three fewer years of life than children in Iraq and Syria, where civil wars rage, bombs explode, and armies of marauding mass murderers roam.

In Strawberry Mansion and Swampoodle, the numbers are worse. In those neighborhoods, children are expected to live to age 68. That's 20 years - 20! - fewer than a child in Society Hill.

It's not just bullets and drugs sending so many on early trips to the undertaker. It's something far harder to escape: the stress of just actually having to live in these places.

As Lubrano reported, living in such fear, filth, and hunger takes a toll. It batters the body, stunts brain growth, and fills hospitals with patients suffering from heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments.

Their zip code kills them slowly, but surely.

For so long, the city has dealt with its problems through triage. The collapse of our industrial backbone, the crack epidemic, Killadelphia - we plugged the holes where we could, hoped to keep the lights on, and watched downtown deteriorate and neighborhoods crumble.

We've done the easy part now. We're jazzing up Center City. And that's exciting and important. Center City is the gleaming lure, the selling point. We should hold our heads up high - just not high enough that we lose sight of all those we are leaving behind.

With so much new energy and life spilling into more and more neighborhoods, it's perhaps easier now than ever to ignore those in our city who suffer the worst - to look the other way. With so much of downtown shiny and new, and with the change spreading outward, it's easy to just write off stricken neighborhoods like Fairhill and Swampoodle as anomalies.

Far too much of our recent rejuvenation has come through gentrification, and not by actually tackling the entrenched poverty, soul-crushing inequality, and institutionalized racism that tear away at stricken neighborhoods - that make us the poorest big city in America.

Real change does not come until we all change together - until the change reaches everywhere.

Now we must do the hard part. We must turn toward the neighborhoods. We must begin the real work of making them places where people can not only live as long as those in war zones, but also have a chance at a real future. With Center City and so many neighborhoods surrounding it on the rise, we are finally in the position to do it.

It is not a time for nitpicky policy debates. We are arguing over soda profits while children are growing sick from stress.

It is a question of moral urgency.

And shame on our city if we do not collectively confront it.

It's no less than a matter of life and death.

mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759