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Fighting poverty - that's Philly's 'Creed'

"We're Philadelphia and we fight."

That's what Chip Kelly said early in his tenure as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. His statement was true, but not for the reasons that Kelly probably thought.

We don't fight because of our association with the rags-to-riches story of a fictional boxer named Rocky Balboa.

We fight because deep lines of demarcation separate neighborhoods, racial groups and cultures in our city. We fight because, in Philadelphia, there are tracks that have no right side. We fight, quite frankly, because we have the highest poverty rate of America's 10 largest cities. And when one is faced with such crippling and insistent lack, there is only one way out, and that is to fight.

It's hard to understand the nature of poverty from afar. One can only truly grasp it after meeting it face to face.

That's why I'm confused by the debate over the depiction of poverty in "Creed," the latest film in the "Rocky" franchise. As I've watched the back-and-forth, I've often wondered if those who are most offended might consider working to alleviate poverty for real people. It would be a more constructive exercise than fighting poverty in a film.

To be sure, "Creed" is a quality movie, and its portrait of poverty is one reason why. The film, which generated Oscar buzz even before Sylvester Stallone got a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor, stars Michael B. Jordan as the estranged son of Apollo Creed, the fictional boxing champion dethroned by Rocky Balboa in the 1970s.

Back then, when the "Rocky" franchise began, Philadelphia's poverty sprawled across wide swathes of North, South and West Philadelphia, staring from broken windows in long-abandoned factories and shouting from pothole-ridden streets. Frank Rizzo's police department used brutality to maintain racial and economic lines, but neither police nor market forces could contain our city's poverty.

As the world cheered Rocky Balboa's fake rise from the streets of Kensington, the real life drama of schools segregated by income and race played out in our courts. The battle to convert from manufacturing to a service economy continued. The drug scourge that infected our streets made mayhem the rule rather than the exception.

In the midst of it all, impoverished Philadelphians fought to survive in an environment built for failure.

I learned the strength of the impoverished when, as a teen, I moved from working class West Oak Lane to hardscrabble North Philly. There, in a place where hardworking people struggled to survive, I learned that there were people who excelled not in spite of, but because of their environment.

As I watched them, as I emulated them, I learned the art of survival. More importantly, I learned how to fight.

Our fight was anchored in so much more than the physical skills we learned in the boxing gyms of the Athletic Recreation Center at 26th and Jefferson or the Police Athletic League at 23rd and Ridge.

Our fight was also mental. It was a fight against the urge to embrace poverty as a lifetime companion rather than a temporary condition. It was a fight against the low expectations of those who condemned us from a distance. It was a fight against the only thing that could defeat us: giving up.

I understand that there are those who want the outside world to see anything but the heartbreaking poverty that defines too much of our city. But ignoring this would mean ignoring the truth.

We'd have to ignore the decades-long redlining that created and maintained our ghettos. We'd have to paper over the segregated schools that birthed and nurtured a suffering school district. We'd have to excuse the employers who even now refuse to hire poor people of color.

I'm not prepared to do so. That's why I applaud "Creed" for showing our truth.

Yes, we're Philadelphia, and we fight, but Rocky didn't show us how to take a punch. Poverty did.

Solomon Jones, whose column appears Tuesdays, is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM). More at