by Susan Karol Martel
Eighteen years ago, the 5’6” nut-brown woman searching the streets of the white Main Line suburb where I owned a home could have been shot. In time that woman who faced silent danger became my partner. Today, if she walked those same suburban streets, instead of long companionship she might be more likely to find death.
Picture a summer night in a quiet neighborhood with a warren of cul-de-sacks and interconnecting streets. The brick and stone two story single homes with lawns sprawling between them have tidy front gardens and back yards. I lived in one of them.
Unbeknownst to me, Whizzy, my tiny jet black poodle puppy, had sneaked out the front door. Cathy, visiting me at the time, was the first to realize it. Having already gotten ready for bed, she grabbed a white terry cloth robe and ran out into the street, circling block after block looking and calling for Whizzy. She finally found him (you might say where-near a bush?) and brought him home.
On the face of it, someone looking for a run away puppy is common place. We still laugh about this incident, but fear tinges our joy: This black person who’s my partner now could have been shot.
During my Main Line years, black people, day or night, didn’t scour the streets of the Main Line seeking a lost object or pet, nor do they do that today, there or elsewhere, if they’re smart. We’ve since moved to the Chestnut Hill area.
About 17 years ago, a realtor and I met up on Germantown Ave on the front end of a search for a home. As we were leaving his car, a young African American boy passed by. From the way he was dressed and the apparent weight of his backpack, he was likely coming home from school. Trying to reassure me, I suppose, and clearly chagrinned, the realtor murmured to me apologetically, “That’s not a usual sight around here.”
He made a huge assumption. I am, after all, a Caucasian woman. Luckily, I had the wherewithal to say, “But that’s precisely the reason I want to live in this area.”
“Oh, well, I didn’t mean…” he stammered. I’m sure he knew why I never resumed contact.
I’ve often said to people living outside the area that compared to my old neighborhood on the Main Line, this is like the UN. Emphasizing this point, my standard line is usually this: “Walking down the Avenue, you might find a black man with his white partner with their Asian baby in a stroller.” No, I haven’t seen this couple; but I wouldn’t blink if I did. And that’s why I live here. That’s why we live here.
There are places in the Philadelphia area where no one feels safe. There are places where blacks especially feel unsafe. In some neighborhoods two women would feel wary holding hands. In other spots, a black woman and a white woman holding hands might be even more problematic.
The Northwest isn’t Eden, but I’m heartened to live in an area that responds to injustice by building bridges and promoting understanding. Long may it continue. May we always be willing to work to make it so.
Susan Karol Martel, Ed.M. is a psychotherapist and Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists. Readers may remember her past article expanding upon this theme in the Local on the Chestnut Hill “Starbucks: A Community Canopy?” Oct. 2, 2013. Her web site is www.skmarteledm.com and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.