Journal

Street Zombies, Lost Gods and A City Full of Ghosts: Spring Garden After Midnight

I started using the term Street Zombie when I was living in Northern Liberties. For those of you not from Philadelphia, Northern Liberties is now a very posh, hip, artsy neighborhood. But it wasn’t always like that. The D.I.N.K. gentrification (duel income no kids) really swept the area fast because it was all but abandoned. There were no old working class families holding out against the dog parks and B.Y.O. bistros. You didn’t see the cloistered blue collar culture clash by those who felt like their multi generational neighborhood was being invaded by outsiders, like you do now in South Philly or Fishtown. Only huge, beautiful abandoned houses and warehouses just waiting for art school ex suburbanites to roll in on their quest for more space, cheap rent and a new scene. When it was finally my turn to be pushed out of center city, I arrived at that peak. That period before the developers start putting up condos and the yuppies start pushing the hipsters and artsy fartsies even farther north or south.

But I lived on “the line,” the east side of 7th street. The west side of 7th street was not part of Northern Liberties. Across the street, there was no urban renewal. In front of my house was a run down public elementary school, next to a homeless shelter, surrounded by a massive fenced in public housing project. Two blocks down on the corner of Spring Garden were two huge hip hop clubs that induced so much dread in the police that every weekend they shut down the street. Every Friday and Saturday night there were enough cops to compose a small riot squad spread up and down the block.

If I stood on my corner and looked east I would see hipster D.I.N.K.s walking their dogs with lattes in hand, sitting at cafes while staring into laptops. If I turned and looked west, I could see the homeboys on their stoop, drinking 40’s and slinging dope on the opposite corner. The two cultures had virtually no interaction. No one crossed to the other side.

Now when I first started dating my wife, I fell into a routine. She was managing an upscale wine bar in Center City and would usually get done around 3 in the morning. I would work on my prints until around 2 am and then walk from Northern Liberties to Ritenhouse square. It was an hour urban hike at a fast clip. Now to get there I would walk west along Spring Garden, then south on Broad. I figured since they were well lit large streets, I was safer. Most people from Philly, especially around that time, though I was insane. The stretch of Spring Garden ran through the sprawling projects, warehouses and large commercial structures that looped quiet and empty at that time of night.

If you were in a car, you would have thought that there was no one out at all. The road would seem completely quiet, the streets utterly abandoned. But my journey on foot didn’t move me fast enough to keep the night denizens out of sight. I moved slow enough to know better. I could sense people in the shadows, some how camouflaged into the buildings. But if I slowed down or stopped to tie my shoe, they would start to move in. The Street Zombies. They were beat up hookers, homeless intent on hustling change, dope slingers ready to offer a deal, potential muggers. It was as if stopping put me in sync so I could see them, or perhaps it gave them a bead on me. But It was always a slow process. They always aimlessly wandered out of the shadows. I would be aware of them and they would be aware of me. As if by having stopped moving, my scent began to rouse them. No one ever called out or tried directly to approach me. If I stopped for long enough, several street zombies would be visible, Meandering towards me like some George Romero undead. Casually emerging out of the shadows and starting to cross the street. But all it took to loose them was to start moving again at a faster pace. When I would move down the street, the zombies never followed, they would just fade back into the shadows. As long as I was walking fast, I was out of sync with their world.

I would get to Beth’s job and her coworkers would ask me “How was your evening?”
“It’s scary out there. The zombies rule the night. Some day they’re going to get me.”
Her coworkers would laugh.
I wouldn’t.

(originally written circa 2006-2008)
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