Newall: In Sharswood, collecting personal histories both beautiful and cruel

Mike Newall writes about the Community Futures Lab, an organization collecting oral histories in the quickly changing neighborhood of Sharswood. Rasheedah Phillips. Thursday, March 9, 2017.

Rasheedah Phillips is working to preserve stories that are rarely heard: stories of Sharswood.

Not the narratives most often pushed -- the ones wholly about blight and drugs and crime. But the stories of the people who live in this North Philadelphia neighborhood: stories that are complex and powerful, stories of love and pain and pride and cruelty.  

So, for the last year, Phillips, a housing attorney at Community Legal Services by day, has welcomed people into a storefront at 22nd and Ridge, a former pawnshop that she’s transformed into a community space and gallery in the heart of this changing community. There, she switches on a recorder and invites them to talk, to tell their stories, add to the narrative.

In the histories that Phillips is compiling, some talk of the past – of life in the place they called home: the Norman Blumberg Apartments. The housing project imploded last year to make way for mixed-income housing aimed at transforming Sharswood.  Former residents tell of childhood holiday and family parties there, of playing jacks and Double Dutch in the street – and of shootings and killings. They shed tears still. For all of it.

“It’s gone,” one woman told Phillips. “What else can I say?”

Others talk of the present. They worry that their neighborhood will soon hold no place for them. They tell of neighbors displaced by eminent domain and encroaching gentrification. They describe a place that's disappearing.    

“I feel that I don’t belong here,” said another woman.

Still, others talk of the future: “A market that’s closer. Nice people. A lot more beautiful buildings.”

Some just tell of lives that seem to slip away.

“I’ve been raising kids all my life,” one woman says in her recording. “Kids and cleaning, that’s all I do.”

Phillips' project is called the Community Futures Lab. Her goal is to amplify voices often written off in places like Sharswood, especially when the conversation turns to gentrification and displacement.

“These voices were missing,” Phillips told me Thursday, as she played some of the recordings. “All of this rich history that is not talked about or connected to the community.”

Phillips, who is 32 and a Temple grad, is also an author of works in Afrofuturism, science fiction based in the black experience that revisits and reimagines the past to create more empowering futures. Time and memory are at the center of her writings, as they are at the center of her work in Sharswood.

Memories of forgotten Sharswood fill the gallery. Its legendary but long-gone jazz clubs. The house where Malcolm X once lived. And snapshots of the remains. A crumbling row of storefronts that still hold beauty in afternoon light. A solitary pay phone, stripped of its phone.  

Given Phillips’ day job, the gallery doubles as a resource center for housing issues. It’s funded by a yearlong fellowship that supports socially engaged art projects – and is set to remain open through April.  

So far, Phillips and her interns have catalogued 15 interviews, with more to go. The goal is to create a “time capsule,” Phillips said. Not one that’s buried away – but part of the dangling conversation. The power of the oral histories is found in their complexity.

One found along this stretch of Ridge. I left Phillips to talk to others, collect my own oral histories.

Such as at the hair salon just across the street, Hands on by Erica, where Erica Williams tells her story. The phone call that brought news of her father’s death from a heart attack when she was just 5. How she learned hair-styling by watching her mother, Stella, cut neighbor’s hair on their steps. Her mother’s favorite saying: “Rise and Grind. Nothing comes from sleep but a dream.”

How that’s her favorite saying now, too. How she keeps her kids with her in the shop – and other mothers do, too, because they are afraid for them not to be.

As she talked, gunfire burst outside, and children ran inside.

Erica didn’t flinch. A mother bounced her startled toddler on her knee.

“You finished crying now,” she said, kindly.

That wasn’t a moment out of the ordinary. It was a moment, like all the stories of Sharswood, that must be collected and told in all their complexity.