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Neighbors of North Philadelphia

September 16, 2019

Each year, students in a narrative medicine elective, Neighbors of North Philly, take to the streets surrounding the Lewis Katz School of Medicine and Temple University Hospital to meet our neighbors. The students set out the see the world literally and figuratively through a new lens. They begin conversations, listen to stories, and capture the images of people living and working in the shadow of our buildings, the very people they will care for one day. This is a chance to learn about the neighborhood, to break down barriers, and build trust. The following photos and stories are by LKSOM students Connor Hartzell, Ali Abdullah, Sydney Ehrman and Michael Creager.

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Famous BBQ Hot Sauce

We could smell the sweet aroma of BBQ chicken and wings as soon as we walked through the door to Meadowlane Bar-B-Que, owned by Chan Pen and his wife, Chany, who runs the fruit truck parked out front at Broad and Erie. Born in Cambodia, Mr. Pen came to the U.S. at 9, and met his wife on a return trip. Mrs. Pen begins making smoothies and fruit salads at 5:30 a.m. and Mr. Pen keeps the restaurant open late, often not getting home until 1 a.m. Sleep, he says, is a challenge but explained,"My passion is being me. Test yourself!” We sampled his delicious BBQ chicken and instantly understood why he claims his hot sauce is renowned.

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Cherry and Wine

“I do it for the children because they love Miss Betty,” said Betty Jones, explaining the state-funded free lunch program she hosts all summer. We were drawn to Miss Jones by her colorful hair, which she described as cherry and wine, her tattoos, and all the laughter around her. She has 10 siblings, 7 children, a rescue dog named Chance and a kitten named Mittens. Her advice to young doctors: “Be patient with patients.” Her sister, Ramona, recalled a recent hospital experience: “I was angry at myself, at the world. And I see someone like yourselves, all put together, and I got an attitude. A kind word from you would help.”

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Love is Everywhere

Trevor Roseborough was wearing rock star shades and a pink kufi. The pink, he said, was for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. His grandmother is a breast cancer survivor, and a close friend died from it. Born in Egypt, Mr. Roseborough wants to be a doctor and dreams of curing HIV and cancer. Still in his scrubs, he works as a home health aide for two companies, one as a supervisor.  Pinned to his shirt was a “LOVE” button, and he told us about his 3Ls: “Live your life to the fullest. Love yourself so you can love somebody else. Learn from your mistakes.” He added: “Love is everywhere. To me it is a part of life.”

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In so many ways, this woman, Anonymous, is a portrait of the neighborhood.  A kitty tattooed on her arm tells a story of her best friend. Ribbons tattooed on her legs honor her parents, in love for 50 years before each died at Temple Hospital, one of lung disease, the other kidney disease. She inherited the house she grew up in and hopes to leave it one day for her kids, and she bought the property next door to expand. “It was good and it was bad at the same time,” she says of growing up here. “It made you learn, and realize we live in a jungle. It made you understand what it’s like to not have any money, and to hold onto the money you do have.” Diabetes is so bad in her family, she became a dialysis technician to care for everyone. She said she’s working toward a bachelors in education.

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The Flea Market

Whatever you need, you might find it at the Ghetto Workshop Flea Market.  From fans and air-conditioners to coffee makers and dish soaps, the flea market is the result of one man, who was inspired by Barack Obama, and turned his life around. The market aisles are the sidewalk and the shelves are the hood of his pickup truck, and yet the business is working. The owner preferred a low profile. Two young men, Tyquan and Angel, both 19 and aspiring musicians, help run the sidewalk operation and will happily help you find what you need next time you stop by.

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Barber Dolls

Deserie “Dezzy” Baker is an aspiring barber transplanted from California to Kensington. She currently works seven days a week at “Blade Runnerz” near the hospital and attends barber school. An ex-phlebotomist at a methadone clinic, she dreams of one day opening and owning her own shop, which she will call “The Barber Dolls.” She wants to make Blade Runnerz a place for the community, and her ideas, such as her recently instituted Military Mondays – discounts for veterans – have helped generate more business. She is working on improving her barber skills and confidence.

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A nurse by night, Tammie Haskins has spent her days working and volunteering at Kenderton Elementary School for the past 15 years. What started as something to get her out of the house has turned into a love of her relationship with the students. She sees her role not as a teacher or a principal, but as someone the kids can come to as a friend. Tammie has two children of her own in the school. She preaches openness and honesty and to always talk to others like they’re human. “Where I’m needed,” she says, “I’m there.”

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Birthday Grills

Clint Walker Jr. is North Philadelphian born and bred. Like too many others, he was drawn to illegal activities, arrested at 14 and incarcerated for six long years. At a watershed moment, however, he decided to change paths. Now 26, Mr. Walker owns a local clothing store that features his own designs and employs neighborhood kids. He hopes giving them something to do will help “kill the violence.”  As he detailed his own evolution from convict to anti-violence advocate, he revealed a pair of shiny grills, replaced on each birthday. His birthday grills, he boasts, are “what makes me stand out.”

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Joe Daniels spent his youth trying to avoid school, getting kicked out of two high schools before finally graduating. Now he’s a single dad raising his son and spends the majority of his time in the very place he was trying to escape. As the only active male parent volunteer at Kenderton Elementary School, Mr. Daniels mentors and coaches a basketball team and works at a crisis center. He explains that, “through my trials and tribulations, I'm able to relate to how they act now. I want them to know they can make it."

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Sabir Spann learned to ride a bike when he was five years old and now, at 21, he’s ready to ride out of North Philadelphia. Exhausted by the senseless fighting, he explains, “the body count’s going up and they’re not finding or looking for the people!” Despite his frustration, Sabir believes in the potential for positive transformation for himself and his community. Illustrating this belief is a tattoo on his neck of a “dead skull” transforming into beautiful flowers -- a representation of personal growth.

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Pop Pop

A lifelong resident of North Philadelphia, Charles White now lives in the shadow of the Medical Education and Research Building. His great-grandchildren know him affectionately as “Pop Pop.” Others know him as a hard worker; he spent his life in construction.  He talks of the old days: “If you was a man you used your hands. And afterward you was best friends,” he said. “We didn’t have all that killing people with guns and stabbing people. We bring them up with manners like I was brought up.”

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The friendship between Charles Wright and Greg Rodgers (right) began in Pop Warner football 35 years ago and has reunited them for another project. Mr. Rodgers left Philadelphia four years ago with his wife and young children for rural Texas. He couldn’t get his older son to go. “He is caught up in these streets of Philly.”  Mr. Rodgers has come back for six months to rehab a house with his old friend. Mr. Wright said after his son was shot and killed in Kensington 12 years ago, he moved away, but then moved back. “I think things are getting better in this neighborhood,” he said. “Lots of renovations.”

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Time Off

Taking time off for being a good person, Bobby Earl Wass calculates his age to be 31. “If you got a lot of good in you,” he says, “you don’t age.” Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Mr. Wass moved to Philadelphia because it offered “a better situation.” His brother and sister, he says, are not far away in Bucks County. Living in the neighborhood, he does odd jobs to get by.

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Every Halloween children from HERO afterschool program come visit the medical school, joined by medical students who volunteer at HERO. Many children come in costume and others share their own faces and expressions that are beyond priceless.

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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.