On his first drive through Philadelphia in 1985, Coli Sylla rode wide-eyed beneath the dull girders bracing the Market-Frankford El, a far cry from the living, natural blue he remembered of the Gulf of Guinea off his homeland in West Africa.
Sylla was born in Philadelphia but had no memory of it, spending his early years in the coastal city of Lomê in Togo, a sliver of a country next to Ghana. It was cold on that day in May when he returned. He was only 6. Lomê’s palm trees and exotic markets still tugged at him, but Philly felt endless, full of mystery and scars both old and new.
“I just remember driving around the whole day with my aunt. She took us to Osage Avenue. This was about a week after the MOVE bombing. That was my introduction to Philadelphia,” said Sylla, now 37. “I didn’t know the El was for trains. I thought airplanes landed on it.”
Sylla grew up in East Oak Lane, the “most boring neighborhood in the city,” he said, and earned a B.A. at West Chester University before heading to Boston in 2005 to pursue a master’s, and then to Los Angeles to try to make it as a screenwriter. Back in Philly and working for Comcast, Sylla has transformed his childhood curiosity into a podcast, Where I’m From, and he’s recording in every corner of the city, unearthing stories and street histories no one learns in school.
“The whole idea for this podcast literally came from coming down those steps and walking to the train station, and before I got a chance to put my iPod on and get in my groove and go home, I’m just hearing people’s stories about this neighborhood and that one, and all about what’s happening,” Sylla said in the food court of the Comcast Center. “I was betting that other people had stories to tell and — boom — that’s how I got Where I’m From.”
Sylla is a fan of podcasts like This American Life, Snap Judgment, and Strangers. All excel at coaxing compelling stories from everyday people, and Sylla is trying to catch a similar vibe. The first episodes of Where I’m From, “Germantown Part 1 and 2,” debuted in October and featured residents, historians, authors, and Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia.
Guests, with a jazz backbeat accompaniment, waxed on about little-known neighborhoods and the strict borders that define them.
“The nickname for our neighborhood is Dogtown,” historian Joe Dixon told Sylla. “Dogtown is basically from Stenton Avenue to Germantown, Gorgas Lane to Washington Lane.”
Educator Octavia “Pep” Young said she started life in Germantown’s “Brickyard,” where “everybody was just so close-knit.” Young talked about pain and playgrounds, about “battle rappers” and rape, too.
A baby cooed in the background while Young spoke.
“If something happened to one of us, it happened to all of us,” Young said, with somber piano notes lingering. “The first time I experienced one of my friends dying was back in Brickyard. I was 12 years old, maybe 13, and that was surreal.”
That friend, Young said, was shot in the head.
Sylla’s work is available on iTunes, and he hopes to someday find a place on the homepage, a kingmaker for any podcaster. It’s also available at BroadandPhilly.com. He says his subscriptions have jumped from 108 in October to 735 last month.
“The response was so strong,” he said. “People wanted more, and I thought, I’m on to something.”
Sylla shares personal memories and random essays from his past. One is about the Michael Jackson jacket he wore until it fell apart. Another asked listeners to share stories about life in “Da Pub,” Philadelphia’s Public League Football conference. Sylla played linebacker for Germantown High School. The Inquirer described him as “deceptively quick, a stalwart tackler and a deft reader of the opponent’s ground game.”
In “North Philly Episodes 1 & 2,” Sylla talks to a football coach with the North Philly Aztecs, but he was also pulled into the game and the people, cheering louder than he expected. He pondered stereotypes there.
“I’m in Hunting Park, and I see families. They’re tailgating, making sure the kids are good, and fathers are talking to their kids about how to improve for the next game. Parents are co-parenting and getting along,” he said, recalling the game. “And this is all in this neighborhood that gets so such bad press.”
Sylla said he was trying to solve the mystery of “Uptown” borders and explore areas he has rarely visited, up in the Far Northeast and down in South Philly. Some places sound like a bad dream, and he wants to know more.
“I want to do the Mill Creek section of West Philly, specifically because that’s where my college roommate was from, and he died. He had a heart attack,” Sylla said. “He used to talk about ‘the dusty,’ like ‘yo, you never want to get off the El at night and come through the dusty, because you might not make it through.’ I’m sure there’s people who remember ‘the dusty.’ ”
On Thursday night, in a quiet computer lab on the second floor of the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center in North Philly, Sylla sat down with Marcus Godfrey, a public league “legend” who played running back in the 1990s for Jules E. Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical School.
“OK, so we rolling now,” Sylla said, his recorder between them on a chessboard.
The two talked about the crack-cocaine epidemic they experienced as kids, entrepreneurs who sold fish and vegetables from their cars, and hustlers who worked corners. The sounds of sneakers on hardwood echoed up from the tiny basketball court downstairs.
Godfrey recalled the year he couldn’t afford the registration fee for youth-league football and how it motivated him.
“I bagged groceries at the Acme on 10th and Erie. I’d walk bags to customers’ cars for tips. I don’t think it’s there anymore,” he said. “I saved up and bought Puma soccer cleats.”
They both laughed.
Small neighborhoods, streets down to the block, are often the whole universe for city kids, Sylla said, and their stories are universal. The podcast could catch on anywhere, Sylla said, and branch out to cities all over the world.
But he’s not finished exploring a city that still feels new to him, as it did in 1985.