GErmantown Stars under the stars

By Rita Sinorita Fierro

An evening of August last year, I am in Vernon Park, in Germantown, a few blocks from where I've lived for the past eleven years. The Germantown Artists Roundtable and Friends of Vernon Park organized Germantown stars under the stars, a poetry event with the support of the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy.

After seven years living in Rome and two in Center City Philadelphia, it was a yearning for more green and more ancientness that drew me to Germantown. I fell in love with the dances between opposites. Majestic and mystery. Imposing churches conceal tiny cemeteries. Victorian stone homes conceal the country’s oldest stain glass windows. Driveways and decrepit wooden gates hide multi-floor mansions. Cobblestone streets hold on to memories of trolley cars and times long gone. It took some years for me to recognize the opposites among people, too. Quakers and politicians. Community folk and PhDs. Drug recovery and drug dealers. Artists and Social Workers. White, Black, and Asian peppered all along. Germantown used to be predominantly Italian and Jewish, many left in the 60s and 70s leaving behind a few white artists, quakersQuakers, and nostalgic revolutionaries. It’s predominantly African American now, with families who have owned their homes for two and three generations. We’re not being gentrified as quickly as other parts of Philly, but there’s still pressure.

I’m a writer, but I don’t really read poetry. I listen to it, with a sense of distraction and foreignness, feeling it should affect me more deeply than it usually does.

Yet this evening, an evening in a neighborhood I dearly love, I get to experience the art this place has birthed, and it touches me deeply.

There’s an air of magic, on a cool, summer night. Storytelling Irma getting us to clap and smile. Sending blessings our own Sonia Sanchez, who wasn’t unable to attend, for her healing. Ursula Rucker on stage and over 300 people sit silently in a park. The night uninterrupted by the light and sounds of cell phones, only the sounds of wind and leaves to help the poetry rise and fall rhythmically on my ears. An acoustic guitar played by Tim Motzer adds subtle jazz tunes to her poetry.

White cloud rivers ran through me
Between fear and Mountains
I floated
Right next to the sun

The absence of checks and balances in this country
Is systemic.
So let's fix it. 

“Humble,” is best to describe what I feel watching such bluntness, in the mouths of talented artists, all local, performing in our own space, neighborhood, surrounded by friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Naming our own challenges, joys, and dilemmas. Boldly. Raw.

They help me pause.

The crowd claps. We are a community of dreamers, lovers, and change makers. 

A small lit wooden stage, stands out under two pine trees, with blue cloths for a background. The stage is lit from the bottom with small lanterns on the grass and small spotlights from the top. We are captivated by this beacon under the trees.

Trapeta Mayson takes the stage now, while acoustic guitar strings of Monnette Sudler offer a blues background melody: 

Blues for Junior,
And all the brothers in between
I’m gonna write you a new script where you take the leading role

War of privilege and poverty
War of hues
War of skintones
But Germantown, I see you
In a place I call home.

I see Ms. Booker at the 23 bus stop, tapping her foot to a word we don’t hear much no more, a song called hope.
Drumbeats on a random Saturday morning

But Germantown, I see you
Doesn’t matter if some say we’re doomed.
Here creativity blooms. 
I'm home, we're home. 

Couples lean on each other in the grass. Someone sits close to his bike lying down. Many more with chairs leaning back. Two with guitars of their own strumming delicately along from the audience. The crowd claps to a poem that exposes the contradictions of our community lives, beauty and disgust, ugliness and grace. 

Hairstyles too, tell stories of differences, of love beyond boundaries, and some real, some false attempts to connect: locks, homestyle thick, long like roots, hair-salon regular locks, short hair, long hair, white hair and blond hair, falling straight to the ground hair, push for the sky afro hair. Several generations are here, the one- year-old in his mother's nest. The teenager, front row boisterously applauding. The 20-year old, sitting on the blanket giggling. In the background, the older Germantowners, the folks stroll by slowly, carrying chairs from their homes, just a block away. They hold the tales of the neighborhood changing and changing again. From mayor, to mayor, party, to party, representative to representative, and each change just deepens their disappointed grin.

The last to join the stage, Quick Fixx with Karen Smith on drums, her hands dancing on the skin surfaces, a tippety tap, subtle, real, delicate, and ancestral taking us to other spaces and times. Mark Palacio is on bass, as unique accompaniment to powerful poet Yolanda Wisher.

Yolanda helps you see there's poetry in moments of life you never thought there to be even in those monthly crampy women days.

A poem for women in our slow-down days named Ruby Flo: 

How come I get so low sometimes?
Because I makes you still and you gots to be still to hear what
you doin well.
and not so.

Poets, raw poets, show us life, make us pay attention to the nuances when we don't. They help us pause. The poets have the magic. They show us the way to beauty in the details we ignore. They have a message for each of us, when we pause we make time to receive it. Yes, there's poetry all around the city.

But this is Germantown, we like it real, straight up, and raw. 

Times are tough. Racism. Poverty. Police Brutality.

Poetry helps us pause.

People be sayin it's the end but it's just the beginning.
Make a commitment to nurture the next generation.
So watcha gonna Just give in? - Ursula Rucker

A Note About the Author: Rita S.Fierro, Ph.D. is an intellectual artist who helps people, organizations, and communities, find their bliss by working more effectively together ( Born in New York and having lived in Italy for 15 years, she’s been in Germantown for 10 years now, when work doesn’t take her to Europe, Africa, and New Zealand.