While a young reporter for a local NPR affiliate, housing was my beat.
In a city which was the oldest in the United States, there were no shortages of housing issues, for Philadelphia’s housing stock seemed in a permanent state of disrepair, especially in those sections of the city where Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and poor ethnic whites lived.
But which stories shimmer in the rear-view mirror of memory, brighter than the rest?
Although I reported in several sections of the city, many of those have sunk below the ocean of time. An exception was the rent protest by residents of a dwelling in Southwest Philadelphia, a place I drove by for years, but never entered, until it became my job.
The exterior was attractive and distinctive, and set apart from its neighbors by the decorative mouldings and mortar-work which told of another age of its construction, when builders were artisans, who took time not merely to build, but to make the building beautiful.
When I got a call from a contact of the impending strike, I rushed out there and finally entered the building.
The conditions therein made me gasp. Ceilings were dangerously drooping over children’s living quarters, plumbing was backed up, and the general conditions of lack of repair made the building a threat to all of its inhabitants.
As I met with the leaders of the strike, their fury was evident.
When I think back on the story years later, it dawned on me that housing, per se, wasn’t the issue.
Resistance was. That’s what gave the story the meaning, for it represented everyday, working-class people standing up to the injustice of unfair and improper living conditions.
Years later, while in the churning swells of the American House of Pain (prison), this would be my beat.
There are tens of thousands of people in these places, and therefore, tens of thousands of stories.
I have never had a shortage of them.
Sometimes, it’s the cases which brought a man to this place, and more often than not, the procedures by which this occurred.
Like the making of sausages, the American legal process is a messy and ugly thing when one inspects closely.
I’ve written of unjust and improper prosecutions, harrowing brutality, stunning institutional boneheadedness, and cruelty that would curdle milk.
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