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Battlefield tour

Author revisits "war zone" of his youth.

This is a war story told by an eyewitness. Kevin Purcell does the driving - in a Prius, no less - as we visit the battlefields of his youth, familiar places he hadn't set foot on in decades.

Here's where somebody got shot, here's where somebody got stabbed. And here, he tells me, is where "grown white men were swinging baseball bats at grown black men who were swinging back with their belts and broom handles."

For a boy of 10, as Purcell was in 1969 when these events took place in his Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, it all seemed unreal. As if it were happening on TV.

"Each time, I couldn't believe what I was seeing was really happening," he wrote in his self-published memoir, Philly War Zone: Growing up in a Racial Battleground ( "Did I just see what I think I saw? And each time the answer was yes."

It is through these wide eyes of a boy that he tells the story of those final four years growing up with mom and dad and four brothers in a two-story rowhome with one bathroom, before the Purcell family fled, reluctantly, to Delaware County in June 1973.

It was Bruce Springsteen's "My Hometown" come to life:

There was a lot of fights between the black and white.

There was nothing you could do.

In the white exodus from Philadelphia, Kevin Purcell was just another brick in the wall, a statistic without a name. In telling his story, he has given humanity to a voice rarely heard, the anguished and bewildered who left and what they left behind.

Today, Purcell, 54, lives in West Chester with his wife, Jeani, and their two children. He operates a home-based advertising agency, which found little work after the recession hit in 2008. He used the free time to write this book, which he calls "the only long story I ever wanted to tell."

Purcell and I start our battlefield tour one brilliant May afternoon in the eerie silence of his late-model Prius. We begin at ground zero, Most Blessed Sacrament School at 56th and Chester Avenue. In his book, Purcell says that MBS was one of those "too big to be true" Catholic schools - 100 children in a first-grade classroom taught by one nun. In 1964, when he entered first grade, Purcell says, MBS had five first-grade classrooms that size. Total enrollment through eighth grade was close to 3,500, giving MBS the perversely celebrated title of "largest parochial grade school in the world."

"I'm 14 now and I still don't know what the word parochial means," Purcell wrote in his book, "but believe me, there were literally tons of kids."

As we approached the MBS school yard from Kingsessing Avenue, Purcell pointed to an indistinct place amid the stone and concrete and said, "That's where we hung out." What happened next was what I would imagine symptoms of post traumatic stress would resemble.

Shortness of breath, hypervigilance, obvious discomfort, get-me-outta-here vibes. "It's been 40 years since I've been here," Purcell said. I took his photo in the school yard with the twin church spires rising over him. Somehow it seemed the perfect symbol, its bleak immensity towering over his tiny individuality.

One by one, we visited the scenes described in his book, places of ambush and outrage, places where both black people and white people lived up to each other's lowest expectations.

"Unbelievable," Purcell muttered from time to time, halfway meaning how much has changed, halfway meaning how much hasn't changed a bit except for the color of the people on the sidewalks. By degrees, his PTSD-like symptoms diminished. Good memories reasserted themselves.

He sat on the steps of the neatly painted two-story rowhouse where his family lived on Cecil Street between 57th and 58th. Two doors to the south was a house with a bench in front and from the windows hung flags - American, Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers. There was an Eagles banner on the door.

In the windows were posters. One said, "I proudly support the Philadelphia Police." Another was a Rolling Stone magazine cover with a big photo of Barack Obama. And another had a message: "The time is always right to do what's right."


Purcell was a gym rat who shot hoops all day, every day, at the Francis J. Myers Recreation Center, where some of the greatest college and pro basketball players in Philadelphia history - black and white - competed in summer league games. But it's also where black kids who weren't allowed inside had once thrown rocks through the windows.

Purcell recalls when underdog La Salle beat Ole Miss earlier this year to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament on a last-second shot made famous by the name La Salle's Tyrone Garland gave it - Southwest Philly Floater - the shot he learned at Myers.

"Did you know that shot?" I asked.

"Everybody knew it," Purcell said, striking a Southwest Philly Floater pose. It's a shot a smaller player attempts going to the basket against a taller, stronger defender. It's a recognizable legacy of a neighborhood that changed decades ago. What never changed, though, was the pride.