Philthadelphia - in writing

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Our fifth-largest city, and its former (temporary) capital, Philadelphia is a place that had been on my radar for a while. A very historical city, it is both one of our nation’s greatest and saddest cities, with ample good reasoning for both. Walking around the city is the easiest way to get an idea of why it holds this schizophrenic personality. Parts of the city can, with ease, hang with the best in the country, be it in terms of income, or my personal favorite, architecturally-speaking. Rittenhouse Square is perhaps the most notable example of this, although Old City and West Philly’s Victorian homes are not without their own charm, either. Others, though, are as sad as can be, and hardly resemble neighborhoods or places fit for inhabitation, as many traces of civilization have been destroyed by years of neglect. Many parts of the city, especially in the lower Northern portion, were especially hard hit by white flight and deindustrialization.

The city’s biggest asset had to be the ease with one can walk. Out of all the big cities I have visited Philadelphia ranks near the top for walkability. Save for cross-town trips, walking beat out mass transit or driving in terms of efficiency and in the overall amount of time required to reach a place. And since transit passes were difficult to get, only being sold at downtown stations, and tokens were still in use, I gladly skipped out on transit whenever I could. Walkability is undoubtedly a treasure the city should better value and safeguard.

Philadelphia is quite distinct, visible in its unique identity and culture, as well as the local pride – although marred by their infamous cynicism –, which is through the roof. There is no mistaking Philadelphia for anywhere else, a quality that I increasingly find myself appreciating, in a world of increased vapidity, homogenization and globalization. Neighborhoods in Philadelphia feel like people live in them; the city feels lived in, and less like a real estate investment. There isn’t at all a feeling of transience or temporariness, something facilitated by the lack of transplants or immigrants. Part of this is a pronounced blue collar work ethic and culture that permeates through much of the city. As the former Workshop of the World, Philadelphia remains a city where people work with their hands – even if in the 21st century that means low-end retail jobs.

I especially took a liking to Fishtown, a gentrifying, blue collar riverfront neighborhood on the city’s near Northeast side. Just east of the Frankford Ave El tracks, the tight-knit neighborhood was a mix of old guard Irish Catholics (who, unsurprisingly, have a racist reputation), and newer, artsy college grads, often practicing artists or members of bands, usually known as “hipsters.” Among the old-school’s unapologetically dive-ish bars soldiers’ legions, and billiards halls, were forward-thinking cafes, coffee shops, and clothing boutiques – the hipster trifecta, if you will.

My favorite place was Milkcrate Café, a space selling both coffee/fresh baked goods, as well as vintage (vinyl) records. I got a chocolate croissant and 16 oz coffee for $4, something of which would have easily been $5-$7 in New York. Coming from New York, I was pleased with the city’s overall cheaper costs, and the lower prices at which goods could be purchased for. The overall cheaper costs lended itself to a genuinely greater feeling of authenticity (although, sometimes it could be a little too authentic, if you know what I mean), compared to similar neighborhoods I encountered in New York, a place where true creativity tends to be hindered by high costs, pretentiousness, college degrees, large salaries, and copious amounts of transplants.

On the topic of neighborhoods, in the city's youthful ones, I got the feeling that people were actually involved in the arts, as in actually making a living from it. In similar parts of Brooklyn, you come across many more fashionista zeitgeist poseurs; people moving for the hype and “scene,” and in the process, pricing out the very groups that lured them there. Ironically enough, many of these same people are unemployed, often relying on supplemental parent essence, doing nothing. This was especially prevalent in New York, where what is authentic, doesn’t last long, as evidenced by pricey condominiums going up even in the “artsy” Bushwick neighborhood.

I did not like how, simply put, blacks and whites did not live among each other. The only instances where such happened were in gentrifying black neighborhoods, on their way up, home to new influxes of relatively affluent whites. This can be seen in the Graduate Hospital, Cedar Park, and Francisville sections of town. Conversely, you will also see whites and blacks (forcibly) among each other in declining receiving new black populations, such as Oxford Circle and Frankford (recipients of people displaced by public housing demolition, and priced out of now-gentrified parts of town). There were two exceptions defying this trend: Kensington (whites, blacks, and Puerto Ricans – all poor), and the Italian Market area (white college grads, Southeast Asians and Mexican immigrants, and old school, multi-generational Italian-Americans).

Fishtown, along with neighboring NoLibs appeared to be the crux of Philadelphia’s infill rowhouse construction, of which was a deciding factor in me visiting the city.. The rich quality and limit-pushing of the designs built by local talent Onion Flats instantly made me a fan. Philadelphia’s older architecture was also a draw, especially their rowhouses. The city is awash in rowhouses; Philadelphia has tens of thousands of the joined wall homes, and they can be found with ubiquity throughout the city’s North, Northeast, and South sides. And there are numerous eclectic variations and takes on the rowhouses, including Queen Anne, Victorian, Romanesque, German, and Italianate, to even Dutch-influenced ones with gables roofs. The lone exception is much of West Philadelphia, a place where various Victorian styles – sometimes detached, and usually intricately decorated – are the norm, in lieu of the (usually) standard rowhouse.

Anyways, enough rambling:

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4 comments: to “ Philthadelphia - in writing so far...


    Great description & set of photos... now I want to explore Philly. Especially since it's a walking city like BA. Saludos!


    I am a fan of Philly myself since I first discovered it along with all of it's architectural gems back in the 1990's. Well written and in depth! I love the images also! thank you so much!

    Keep up the splendid work!


    Thank you! Philly is definitely one of the more underrated big cities in the US, and is definitely one worthy of visiting! In particular, its rowhouse aesthetic is particularly charming. The city could do more to safeguard and protect its history and patrimony, though, IMO (40,000 abandoned homes in the city!).


    Congrats D!

    Colorful, lively portrait of a city that now feels a little bit closer. I specially liked the way you phrased your complaints, with a bit of sneer (hipsters!) or on a more formal tone (racial segregation!) according to the subject.