Everywhere I look, I see more than enough discontent and disillusionment to strike a spark and ignite riots like those of the 1960s.” For Malcolm Poindexter, 55, Philadelphia’s first black anchorman, that’s not Six O’Clock News punditry—it’s his life. Last year Poindexter and his family moved from affluent, predominantly white Society Hill to Norris Square, a poor, ethnically mixed North Philadelphia neighborhood. Some people cautioned him against living in an area festering with more than 50 percent unemployment and heavy drug trafficking, but Poindexter is now plunging determinedly into his second summer there. “I could lie around in the suburbs and have a nice life,” he acknowledges. “But what would that accomplish? This is my hometown and I feel I owe it something.”
Poindexter got the idea when an elderly widow, who saw him on TV and thought he could help the neighborhood, urged him to buy her 80-year-old, 15-room house for $2,000. Eventually Poindexter gave her $5,000 to include improvements she had made. His wife, Lottie, 53, was dubious and especially fearful about the effect on their son, then a second-grader. But Malcolm imbued her with his sense of mission. “People here are not beyond help and hope,” he argued.
The first summer turned out to be tough. Local residents snubbed the family, suspicious of a ploy to boost TV ratings. Community groups resented the newcomers, and some cynics suggested that he was bucking for a city council seat. (Poindexter denies any such motive.)Cops who recognized him kept asking: “Hey, are you lost? Your car break down?” Friends and even relatives found excuses not to visit. “I am sorry,” he says now, “but I understand how they feel.”
A small breakthrough came early on with Hispanic kids who knew he spoke Spanish but cold-shouldered him. Finally one demanded: “What you gonna do for us, man?” Replied Poindexter: “I’m not going to do anything. We’re going to clean ourselves up, and then we’ll be in a better position to talk to City Hall about opening up some jobs.”
The word soon spread that Poindexter was not just another do-gooder or ambitious pol. Since last summer he’s buttonholed businesses about youth jobs, counseled his neighbors on cutting through city bureaucracy and used his own anchorman’s clout to improve public services. He also helped organize a Save Our Square Committee, which meets every Tuesday night and has sponsored two annual spring cleanups. Last year, as a reward for the kids who pushed brooms, Poindexter arranged for free tickets and a bus ride to a ’76ers basketball game. Of his eventual acceptance, Poindexter figures, “Somebody apparently said, ‘The guy is okay. He’s here to help us.’ Now some call me the Mayor of Norris Square.”
Poindexter’s roots run deep in the city. He was raised in an integrated West Philadelphia neighborhood, where his parents still live (his father is a classical singer and retired assistant school principal). Malcolm went to Temple University but dropped out to write for a black semiweekly, the Philadelphia Tribune. He switched to the daily Bulletin, then to the all-news KYW radio station. Joining the NBC-affiliated KYW-TV in 1967, he’s been a general assignment reporter and, since 1968, an anchorman as well. (Jessica Savitch was a colleague and lived in the same chic apartment building.)
Though anticipating what could be another long, hot summer, Poindexter has not lost his resolve. He has pulled his son out of his private day school and enrolled him in a public school. Poindexter doesn’t deny that he and his neighbors “are fed up with all the unfulfilled promises,” but he finds definite progress. “Sewers are getting cleaned, addicts have been expelled, and there is more police protection.” The city is even planning to replant trees and shrubs in the once rundown square. “That’s all well and good,” Poindexter adds, “but what still concerns us is planting new attitudes.” He is clearly one anchorman determined not only to chronicle but also to change the way it is.