WEST OAK LANE by Chris Woods
It's been said "You can't go home again." I've lived my life primarily without one central place I call home because I've made so many places a home. From Pittsburgh to San Diego, I've been to some wonderful places all over the country. However, my earliest memories of Philadelphia are from West Oak Lane, where my ancestors moved to around 1900. It's one of the last places in the city to develop with row homes and stores filling out the Northwestern boundary of the city. By the 1930s, 78th and 79th Avenues homes were being built and after the war the demand for new homes were on the rise. It was a thriving area where everyone knew everyone else and usually walked to their relatives' or neighbors' homes for a visit.
My family stayed until 1971. At that time, particularly in West Oak Lane, the area saw a massive crime wave that changed the neighborhood we knew forever. The crime started getting worse successively until one winter passed and I remember almost all the other kids I played with just months before had moved away.

The area changed dramatically from a place you felt safe to walk the streets to a place with graffiti and roll bars on the store fronts. We finally moved in the summer of 1971 to Montgomery County.

However after just recently moving back to Philadelphia last year, I couldn't wait to see what had happened to this place I remember as a kid. The graffiti is gone. So is the number 6 Trolley on Ogontz Avenue. The best part about going back is seeing how much is still there. I was just there this past weekend taking pictures and marveling at the changes such as the Ogontz Grill and Ogontz Plaza; how the stone wall to the Gimbel's Department Store is there but the store that replaced it is part of the Cheltenham Square Mall.

It's also an area that's shown how segregated Philadelphia still is. After living out West for so long (where people move in every year from every part of the world), it was odd seeing just all African American families living in West Oak Lane almost to the exclusion of any other nationalities. It's rather a sad comment on race relations in this city to this day.

West Oak Lane is fairing better than other areas most likely due to its higher-than-average income and its status as a quasi suburban community. (Montgomery County on the other side of Cheltenham Avenue.) The area is fighting blight just as other areas of the city are but West Oak Lane doesn't have the effects of blight as much as some of the older factory neighborhoods. It's 2005 and change for the better is very palpable. As palpable as the feeling of community you get walking through the streets as seeing so many block parties going on. It's one of the things I missed in all those other places I've lived in but is so strong here; a strong sense of community.

So, here's to the place I started out, the neighborhood of my father's family...

Welcome to West Oak Lane.