On Barrio Time

Strolling the Golden Block when times are tough.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Dec. 17, 2008

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Charles in charge: Martin, wary of public assistance, chooses to do odd jobs like helping out at the TV shop near Fifth and Cambria (Photo by Liz Spikol).

Though I'd like to pretend I go to Philly's Centro de Oro for noble reasons--to see artwork at Taller Puertorrique�o or volunteer at the Kensington Welfare Rights Union--the truth is I have a secret shame that brings me to the barrio.

His name is Juan Luis Guerra, a Dominican superstar who won five Latin Grammy Awards last year. I don't want to say he's the Lionel Richie of the Dominican Republic, because I really believe he's better than that. But is he, perhaps, the Dominican Sting?

Centro Musical, at Fifth and Lehigh, is by far the best bet in Philly for Juan Luis Guerra CDs. I also like to pick up all the Spanish-language papers there, including, on this visit, a copy of Al D�a that has the headline: "QU� PAS� NUTTER?"

The cover story implies the mayor is out of touch with the problems facing the Latino community--where rows of homes are boarded up; where children huddle on the street corner dealing drugs; where windows that break stay broken; where laundry dries on backyard lines because appliances cost too much; where murals lose colors because walls fall apart.

The newspaper also suggests Nutter's missing out on the joys of the community: the political performances and cultural enrichment at Taller; the congueros and pianists at Asociacion de Musicos Latinoamericanos; the twirling skirts of the folk dancers at Raices; the impromptu block parties and tertulias; the radio stations that celebrate Latin pride; the concerts that bring musicians from Argentina; the bustling commercial activity that energizes the stretch of North Fifth Street, aka the Golden Block.


Putting politics aside, I walk north on Fifth to see how the block is faring these days, now that we're officially in a recession. I pass the pink facade of Jerry's, a clothing store that sells puffy white bridal gowns and tiaras for quincea�eras. I pass Mr. D's barber shop. Then I stop at a tiny storefront without any sign. Inside several young children are sprawled out on worn hardwood floors doing homework. They pay no attention to the roughly seven TV screens showing SpongeBob SquarePants, with Mr. Krab's claws in varying hues.

The televisions are old, and though they're for sale, this unnamed, cubicle-sized shop with only half a ceiling is a far cry from Best Buy.

The owner sits on the floor fixing an old set. He breaks away from his work only to yell at the children in Spanish to throw their trash away. In one corner a little boy in thick glasses sits alone, staring out the window. When spoken to, he smiles shyly and hides his face. Two older boys wear hard expressions, hands jammed into their parkas.

Charles Martin, 43, sits outside on another old TV set, legs dangling. Wearing an "OBAMA YES WE CAN" hat and a black jacket, Martin has a sweet face and a salt-and-pepper beard. He lives nearby, and after talking to him a while, "Yes we can" seems a lot more like "at least we thought we could."

Martin doesn't have a specific job here at the shop, but he helps out sometimes. "I'm struggling right now," he says.

He's been out of work for six months, but is mistrustful of public assistance. "I don't want welfare, Social Security, unemployment or any of that," he says. "They want to be all up in your business. They want you to give too much information."

But getting by is proving to be a sacrifice. Just recently he had to pawn his home appliances--things he'd bought brand new just months before.

"Nowadays all the jobs are on computers," he says with frustration. "Even to work at McDonald's you have to apply online. There are a lot of people who aren't computer-literate or who don't have computers. And now you can't even go to a library to use a computer because they're shutting the libraries down. There ain't a library in this city that should be closed."

As Martin talks, a boy of about 10 walks over and stands in the doorway. He doesn't look at us, even when he becomes the topic of conversation.

"These aren't my kids," Martin says, "but they're my kids, you know? Ten years from now I don't want to see him"--he gestures at the boy--"standing on the corner selling drugs."

"We can hope for change," I say stupidly. Martin is unimpressed.

"Hope is dead," he says. "We have to pray. Hope is dead."


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1. ecortes said... on Dec 18, 2008 at 07:28AM

“This is crazy but unfortunately a reality. I worked at Taller Puertorriqueño for 1 1/2 years and to be honest it was the best of times. I learned so much about that area and how it works. Unfortunately yes it's not to appealing to people but again that's reality. It goes both ways as well, we have the people who don't want to come to El Centro de Oro just because they are scared but then you have the Latinos in El Centro that don't want to leave just because they think that's all there is to do in Philadelphia. Taller (just like everyone else) has the opportunity of a lifetime to move to a brand new location, however it's an $8 million project. What we need to do is get involved in community groups to help them. The best thing universities can do is start collaborating with the local schools. Anyways, I am proud of what Philly Latinos are doing in & out of El Centro do Oro.”

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