How did two NYers find Germantown? Gtown Radio hosts & local activists Lawanda Horton Sauter & Henry Sauter share their story straight, no chaser.
LAWANDA HORTON SAUTER: In the spirit of honesty, not all of my comments about our move to Philly & our time in Germantown will be positive, and in this day & age where everyone is offended by absolutely everything I think folks are just going to have to learn to deal with people speaking the truth of their experience.
Having said that, we’re open minded people and are unafraid to change our mind or our views when presented with new information. In fact I had a high school social studies teacher that told me flexibility implies intelligence. We would love to have a discussion with you. Interact with us on Facebook, we’d love to talk more!
Let’s start with our move to Philly in general, why we came here from Albany, NY and our impressions of Philly as a whole.
HENRY SAUTER: The reason we came is I was looking to go to law school in 2006. I had been working for a few years with the NY state legislature and I wanted to study law, not to become a lawyer but to gain a certain skill set. One of the schools I looked at was Temple.
LAWANDA: At the time Henry had applied for Law School I had just scored an amazing job at a lobbying firm. So I was like “Really dude? Now?” But when he was making the case for Philadelphia, he was considering what Philadelphia might mean for me as a Woman of Color. He felt Philadelphia could be a place where I could really thrive.
Having the experiences I’d had I upstate NY as a black female professional, I knew that while this job I was in was what I had always hoped for, if things didn’t go well I would be back in that climate. Ahd you know it takes a special guy to get me to move out of NY state to somewhere I have no roots or connections.
So I want to talk a little bit about how I imagined Philadelphia would be like. And how it was different from my expectations.
I imagined Philly as like this “chocolate city.” I knew that Philly had actually had black mayors and POC in various political positions. That wasn’t easy to find in upstate NY.
HENRY: And you’d been to Philadelphia earlier, hadn’t you?
LAWANDA: It was destined, right? My first visit to Philly was during the Million Woman March and I think that’s what gave me the Chocolate City idea. Because I came to the March, I was in college at the time, Sister Souljah was on the stage. She was speaking truth to the black girls that day. I saw black people as far as the eye could see.
I got on someone’s shoulders, and I saw people of color everywhere. It was almost tear-inducing. Such a beautiful sight. And in my heart I thought about what It would be like to live in a city like that.
I mean, being a woman of color in Albany NY you can count the number of us who have like a job where you wear a suit and are allowed in. I would wave to the other four people on our way into work. So to see someone in positions of leadership isn’t something you see very often in that particular part of NY state. And that’s still a problem.
So I was excited to come to this place, and Henry thought it would be a great place for me as a woman of color. I’ve really been allowed to grow into my own. Philadelphia has given me cajones! You can’t live in Philly and not know how to stick up for yourself.
HENRY: The drive into Temple in 2006, there certainly were some rough areas in that part of North Philadelphia. I’ve been amazed in the past five years just to see the level of development that has happened.
We first came in to visit a friend of mine at UPenn, of course so we saw an incredibly beautiful campus, we drove down to Center City for a meal at Effie’s it was BYOB, we stopped at the Foodery for craft beers.
Albany always felt like Harrisburg, a state capital. Philadelphia felt like we were finally in a big city.
LAWANDA: About the restaurants. This is something about Phila that most people elsewhere don’t realize. We might be known for our cream cheese and cheese steaks but the food in Philadelphia is bangin’. It doesn’t matter how much you spend. You can go to restaurants in all price ranges and have a really really good meal.
HERNY: Falafel, Dominican… yes some of our favorite meals have been under ten, twenty dollars. One of the things that’s wonderful about Philadelphia’s food scene is that it’s so dynamic. But there’s a sad side of that too, there’s such a high turnover, so many restaurants I’ve loved that are no longer around anymore. Like Geechee Girl!
LAWANDA: The owner of Geechee Girl now cooks at EAT Café which is the non-profit café where you pay what you can. There have been some news stories out lately about how the café isn’t getting the level of support as perhaps it should. They need people who can afford to pay the full amount to go, so that other people can afford.
Getting back to our move to Philadelphia — initially we lived in Roxborough.
HENRY: When we were surveying Philadelphia, we started driving a grid to try to understand what neighborhoods were like. We weren’t finding much online. It’s an imperfect science because a lot of Philadelphians for tax purposes don’t fix up the outside of their houses as much as they could particularly to keep tax assessments low. So neighborhoods may look rougher on the outside then they are on the inside.
We were driving around, Lawanada had a map and she color coded it as we drove: yellow maybe, green yes, red no way. We were driving around, marking this map. We hadn’t found Roxborough yet but had found a listing on Craig’s List.
LAWANDA: When I was sitting at my desk of this amazing job, trying to decide if I wanted to leave it to run off with this guy I’d been dating a year who I liked but I didn’t know if I liked him that much. I’m researching Philly online and in 2005 -2006, Philadelphia had the worst press in the world. Nothing good came up when I searched the city.
I’d read about murder, crime, poverty… I didn’t hear about Mummers or the Liberty Bell or anything positive. I was thinking Ummmm… I like him but I don’t like him that much? But now what was I to do leaving the state I’d lived my entire life to chase this man to this other city? The terrible press Philadelphia had at the time made it hard for us to select a neighborhood.
Also the way Philly is set up, you can be in a good neighborhood then go one street over and it’s like a completely different vibe. If you were to go to Upstate NY and go to Albany, you’d know where the bad areas were and all you had to do was avoid those two streets and you’d be good.
But in Philly you could be on a good block which is completely unheard of in our experience. Watching them count the murders down when we moved here, it was horrifying. I think this counting of the murders was done away with when Michael Nutter came on the scene. Seems like they’re starting to do that again which is horrible advertising for Philadelphia.
Anyway when we first moved to Roxborough because that was the place we sort of felt was the safest bet and I think it was closer to what we were used to in terms of where we had lived.
HENRY: It was a really nice house. You had certain expectations, if you were going to move from Philly you wanted a place you really liked. We had a garden. Hedges.
LAWANDA: Yeah it was dope.
HENRY: We had these sculptures of lions at the end of our driveway…
LAWANDA: I don’t know if the sculptures did it for me. But it was very private. I could be back there in the buff and no one would know.
We had tea parties back there, it was really awesome. What was really interesting we later found out Roxborough had the least amount of crime of any Philly neighborhood. We didn’t know it when we moved there but you could feel it, you could sense it. We found out from our neighbors we were surrounded – like, everyone living around us was a cop or some kind of agent or detective. Which probably kept a lot of bad people away.
So we left Roxborough and moved to like Italian South Philly – we were right there on Washington Avenue at 11th. And the street that we lived on, it was like an entire Italian family lived in all of the houses, and then it was us and one other couple that also wasn’t related. We saw people going in & out of each other’s houses.
When I was moving my stuff in, Henry wasn’t around and they wanted to know all about me. “Who is this person, what are you doing in our neighborhood? What are you all about?” But eventually we got to be really close to that family and they looked out for me when Henry was away.
HENRY: That’s how you learned to make sauce and pasta from scratch.
LAWANDA: I think that Philly needs neighborhoods like that. It can be off-putting or nerve-wracking to come into a neighborhood where neighbors are so concerned with who gets to live there. I think as long as it doesn’t touch upon racism which there probably is an element of that but also just outsiderness. But there are other neighborhoods that can benefit from neighbors being at that level of vigilance instead of taking their comments to Facebook.
Another thing about Roxborough it seemed like it was Interracial City! Once we got there it seemed we saw a lot of interracial couples and maybe that helped Henry and me feel a little more comfortable.
First impressions of Germantown, though.
HENRY: Lawanda had found a few places online, I went to see them. I parked at Market Square, I looked around, I saw the beautiful Historical Society building. Uncle Bobbie’s wasn’t there yet it looked like an abandoned day care — not well kept up. But then across the street: Wells Fargo, the CPA, the Citizens Bank, all these beautiful stone buildings.
HENRY: We rent from what was the old Asher Candy factory, a cool building. There wasn’t a lot going on in the street at the time but the architecture left a great impression.
LAWANDA: My first impressions of Germantown was wow, what potential. Of course that first time I was here alone, someone was mugged outside my building but those are the kind of things you come to sort of love in a sick way about Germantown. To me, Germantown is real life. Some people are not equipped to handle real life.
Germantown is full of people who care, people who don’t care. There are brilliant reminders of beauty. And sad reminders that not everyone gets to experience that beauty.
But I love so much about Germantown. The rawness of it. Any given time you can see someone’s weave blowing around in the street. Or the smell of the food from the Jamaican spot. And if you come to a certain street in Germantown you will smell the food!
HENRY: Every time we go to the library, the smell of roasted meats is incredible.
LAWANDA: I love that! I like the Taxi Hat guys, I know all of them. We chat on a daily basis. I find that some of what people feel uncomfortable about Germantown are the people who are here, but it’s a sign to me that they haven’t met them.
HENRY: Some people might see loosie guys on the street and feel that’s a breakdown of law & order but it’s eyes and ears on the community that are also regulating stuff and keeping an eye on the neighborhood.
LAWANDA: Yeah those guys know and care about each other, and they also – there’s a lot of collaboration and cooperation that goes down you know when you have several guys selling loosies or whatever and they’re all there trying to make a living. So there’s a camaraderie and compromise that’s happening down there. One day coming to the corner and they were like “You know so-and-so died?” I tend to not know anyone’s names though but we have face recognition. I know they’re looking out for me, that they’re making sure I get to where I’m going safely.
If you’re the kind of person who spends your life inside, and only comes out for errands then spends the rest of their leisure time in CC or Chestnut Hill then you don’t know these people in the neighborhood, and it’s the unknown that you fear, not that there is a legitimate cause for concern or an immediate danger. You’re more likely to be involved in something dangerous or worrisome in Germantown if you’re already engaged in and involved in things that are illegal or things you shouldn’t be involved in. It’s not often that your every day Joe is harassed or attacked just for going to the Dollar Store.
Another thing I love about Germantown is you can find a coffee shop, a bookstore, a natural food store, an outdoor garden selling produce and plants, you can find that in these nooks and crannies. This Philadelphia thing where you turn the block and there’s either a nice or a not-so-nice surprise around the corner. Call me a sucker for adventure but I do enjoy discovering things I’ve never seen before.
I wish more people engaged with the history here. I love it. And coming from a background in fundraising for historic houses, there are just so many here. So much potential! I think it’s human nature to desire to see things grow and improve. And it feels even better when you’re a part of what makes those positive changes happen.
But on the other side of that — as a reminder to the people who organize in Germantown and who our community folk are very active. It doesn’t feel so great when you’re not a part of it. When you’re not included in it. And that brings me to some of my frustrations about Germantown: I feel as though not everyone is included. (To be continued…)
Next Month: Part Two identifies some problems with Gtown’s current leadership, and looks back at the civic debacle of Germantown Settlement.
ABOUT THE SHOW: Lawanda & Henry created Mission Incorporated to provide advisory & consulting services, specializing in grassroots fundraising for non-profits. The Missing Branch is named for the branch of government missing in the current American system: the people.