Most of us celebrated Halloween Saturday, and probably Friday, too — and, from what I saw, it was rather epic. But while we were out committing fun and open debauchery — and looking pretty damn terrific — others in Philadelphia had ceremonially scared themselves into their basements. These people did not object to Halloween; they simply had already had their own Halloween, by handing out candy and trick-or-treating a week prior.
This is part of a tradition in the Fairmount neighborhood that I discovered was termed this year “Safe Halloween.” As this name implies, the reasons for this alternative date is to ensure children’s safety amid the chaos of Halloween; it is also framed as a convenience for working parents. The unofficial reasons, found one degree down on the scale of racial code, to avoid the influx of residents from neighborhoods north of Girard and east of the penitentiary, largely African American, from raining on their particular vision of Halloween.
The practice is extremely secretive, as word of the date each year is diffused primarily by word of mouth — no flyers, no web sites.
I actually discovered this practice not by observation, but imposition. Fairmount was my first home in Philly, and I learned by word of mouth about Fairmount’s alternative Halloween date.
My then-roommate Pain (as my friends nicknamed her) explained that people, at some earlier point in the week, sit on their porches giving out candy and engage with parents from the neighborhood taking around costumed youngsters.
Upon further questioning, my roommate told me specifically that the neighbors give out candy earlier in the week to avoid those who show up from “other” neighborhoods. As neighborhood lore has it, this include gangs of belligerent teenagers who wear no costumes, take more candy than they deserve, and commit ambiguous acts of violent deviance. I should emphasize that Pain was not offering her perceptions of others’ reasons — these were her own, she believed them. Pain also maintained a strict cut-off line at Girard street and never ventured further north.
Those who saw this year’s preemptive trick-or-treat, which ends by 8:00 p.m., observed that most participating in the tradition were parents with young children, which lends credibility to the cause of safety. But this doesn’t explain why parents couldn’t take their kids out earlier on the day of Halloween, which fell on Saturday this year, imploding the “working parent” pretext.
It also does not explain why residents eclipse the event from normal modes of mass communication, opting instead for highly labored efforts of secrecy. Perhaps they know there is something a little unsavory underlying their ambiguous promotion of safety and working parents’ convenience.
This practice did not strike me as surprising in itself, but because it happened in Fairmount, a place I found replete in liberal culture. Fairmount’s history provides a context for the racial implications of this tradition. A decade-long Fairmount resident who independently blogs as “circleinsquare” illustrates how Fairmount’s racially segregated Halloween is functioned by a school system racially segregated between white kids who mostly attend the alternative date originated by parents of Catholic school students. Word diffused to new residents via neighborhood businesses — markets, dry cleaners, coffee shops. Circleinsquare also reflects that though over the years hostilities between residents have declined due to influxes of the educated and affluent, some of the fear and ignorance remains.
Despite activity on some streets, I hear that Halloween night in Fairmount this year remained characteristically quiet, with blinds drawn, lights off, and residents bunkering down — literally — in their basements — just as Pain did that Halloween in sweatpants, scarfing Halloween candy that she refused to give to the undeserving.
As goes in a favorite song of mine, a ballad by Benjy Ferree called “Fear:” “There’s a stranger in the lobby/There were footsteps on the roof/But there is no proof or reason to hide/And that’s the gospel.”
Heidi Khaled is a third-year graduate student from Huntington Beach, Calif. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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