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On Philadelphia


Louis Guida

About the Author

Louis Guida is a writer and documentary film maker. His films have been telecast nationally on PBS and Discovery and internationally in Europe, Australia and Asia. His credits include an American Film Festival Blue Ribbon, a Chicago International Film Festival Gold Plaque, a San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award, and screenings at New Directors, New Films at the Museum of Modern Art and the American Film Institute Los Angeles International Film Festival. A former editor and reporter for the Pine Bluff (Arkansas) Commercial, he has co-authored two books and written articles on wine and other topics for numerous publications. His Column Thoughts on Wine is hosted on Armchair World.

Philadelphia is on the upswing, a city with great nightlife and restaurants. I heard this on a recent cable television show about a dentist who was the city's biggest cocaine dealer when he was busted in the 1980s. As I remember the story, the dentist maintained a trendy apartment just for his drug deals and offered his upscale clients wine and cheese while they waited for their powder. He lived in an expensive house on the Main Line and owned a record company. But he was also a sort of Robin Hood because his drug profits made it possible for him to treat a lot of indigent patients in his dental practice.
I grew up in Philadelphia, and even though I haven't lived there since the 1970s, I've kept up with stories like the dentist's through the media and through news clips sent by family and friends. Granted, these stories have been skewed a bit to the sensational. But they form a kind of criminal history, broadly defined and greatly abridged, of the City of Brotherly Love over the past 20 years. There's Wilson Goode, the mayor who bombed a neighborhood to remove an armed radical group called Move. And there's a friend of mine, a successful businesswoman, whose partner in a controversial city contract to rebuild the Move neighborhood was arrested for forgery. There's Ira Einhorn, a 1960s activist and mayoral candidate who was convicted in absentia of killing his girlfriend. After her body was found stuffed in a trunk in his apartment, he fled to Europe, where he's still resisting extradition, saying the CIA and KGB framed him. There's Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radio reporter and cabdriver (and Move supporter) who was sentenced to death for killing a white cop but says he's an innocent political prisoner. His campaign for a new trial has become an international cause celebre and he now delivers college commencement addresses. There's a cousin of mine, homeless and off his medication for a mental disorder, arrested for defacing an historic gravestone. There're the mob murders at a nightclub two blocks from where I grew up. There's the implosion of a public housing project in the same neighborhood and there's my old street being reinvented as part of a new Avenue of the Arts. And I can't omit the recent video of police beating a suspect who was caught after he allegedly shot a cop and stole a police cruiser. All of this relates somehow to a political past that saw a corrupt Republican machine toppled in the 1950s by Democrats whose reforms included the urban renewal of inner city neighborhoods. It also relates to William Penn and Quaker rectitude, the Continental Congress, nativism, racism, blue laws, Frank Rizzo and law and order, a bloated Social Register and striving ethnic groups battling each other and the WASP elite, which, despite an occasional Irish-, Italian- or African-American mayor, retains its clout. But even if Philadelphia has been a city defined by its criminality, perhaps it hasn't been so different than a lot of other places.
When the case of the drug-dealing dentist was front-page news in Philadelphia, I was living in Little Rock. I'd eat at the Fu Lin restaurant, owned by Dai Lin Outlaw and her brother, Charlie Trie. And I'd get my hair cut at a salon in a downtown high-rise owned by a bank controlled in part by the Riadys. I remember the woman who cut my hair telling me about all the yuppie lawyers and bond daddies she knew who had a big coke habit. A lot of them came to her salon. She never said who their dealer was, if she knew. And if there was a dentist in Little Rock then who treated indigent patients, I really can't recall.

© 2000 Louis Guida

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