Gritty Times in Philly

Philadelphia had never really crossed my mind as a place to visit until a friend of mine moved there last year. I realized I knew very little about the city (except that Fresh Prince got in one little fight there) and I started getting curious. Why is it that I know next to nothing about the oldest city in America, a city that was once the capital of the country? When my friend Kevin suggested that I come visit and that we split the cost of the ticket, I said hellllll yes. I threw my summer budget out the window, stopped working on my paper that was due and started my internet search for all of Philly’s gems.

When I arrived in mid-August, Philadelphia felt almost tropical, with cicadas and crickets masking the urban sounds and the air thick with all the city smells of rot and waste and living things that come with humid heat. Kevin lives in West Philly so we spent a lot of time wandering his neighbourhood, trying out the local bars and restaurants and cafes, or playing Bocce in nearby Clark Park. We became regulars at the chaat and lassi restaurant beside his house. I went for a run almost every day and I loved the way it changed how I experienced the city; I got familiar with the textures of the ground, the places where the sidewalk is cracked and broken or grown over with roots. I mapped small parts of the neighbourhood as I ran; I marked my route with a trail of sweat. Jogging across bridges and along the river and in and out of gawking freshmen on the UPenn campus, trying to read the gravestones in the West Philly cemetery without slowing my pace.

I loved the run-down old architecture everywhere. I loved the arrogant nonchalance of this city overflowing with generous front porches and dormers and bay windows and turrets; the total obliviousness this city has towards the existence of Vancouver Specials and “cozy” basement suites back home. So what, I live in a turret, fuck you! It couldn’t have been more different from the cool blue West Coast: red-bricked and slow-moving and sleepy and absolutely unconcerned with being hip. I thought for a brief moment about moving there but I got distracted pretty quickly by all the sweat dripping into my ears and eyeballs.

Serendipitously, I had recently read an article for my Masters thesis about LOVE park and Philadelphia’s ongoing war with skateboarders. I was hoping to see some folks shredding there despite all the measures the city has taken to keep skateboarders out, and LOVE Park didn’t disappoint. We spent a couple of lazy and giggly hours there people-watching: plenty of skaters showed up, dodging in and out of owl-eyed owl-necked tourists, as did a family reunion of 50 or more folks in matching t-shirts, a safety parade of segway riders in canary-yellow helmets, an unnaturally lanky Elmo, and even the local Jesus (who to my great delight was lent a skateboard and proceeded to wheel around, staff in hand, white robes flowing).

We spent another day wandering downtown, starting out with a peaceful morning in the garden patio at Ox Coffee, and then wandered to the Italian Market with its famous sandwiches and vegetable stands and little animals for sale, dead and alive. Another day was spent exploring Fishtown, where we contributed to the yuppie encroachment by hitting up both La Colombe and ReAnimator for coffee and then stopping in at Fette Sau, a southern style restaurant complete with a front porch for some very tasty fried chicken and an old-fashioned. Despite the attempts at hipness that make Fishtown feel a little bit like every other gentrifying neighbourhood in every other city in North America I was still charmed by the area. I loved the run-down buildings and little shops and grimy sidewalks and community gardens and all the kids biking around or lounging on the streets with no adults in sight. There was still a grit and an attitude to the area that spoke to its working class roots and a long history that has nothing to do with americanos or artisanal donuts.

Philadelphia felt like the kind of city where it’s enough just to wander from neighbourhood to neighbourhood without any real itinerary. It felt like there was a secret city underneath the one I saw, a city you have to earn. My favourite memories are the small interactions, the dive bars, the dirty streets, the don’t-give-a-fuck docents at the Contemporary Art Gallery having a dance party, the evening we spent sitting on the front porch watching an electrical storm and getting completely soaked by the rain, the fabulous people-watching. Philly’s got its own gritty thing going on, and it’s great.




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