Editor’s Desk No.1: From the Beautiful City of Brotherly Love

The City of Brotherly Love. Up until recently I hadn’t given Philly it’s fair share of love, but I don’t think that this was unwarranted. As a native New Yorker, there are maybe, maybe 3 cities worth acknowledging in the Pantheon of American Urbanism and Philadelphia is (or at least was) far from this top 3.

The top 3:

The Second City, Chicago, included so that we could elevate ourselves above it. Chicago is actually a great town though, even for a city of secondary status. The Loop, Millennium Park, the birthplace of the skyscraper, Wrigley? Come on, Chicago deserves to be apart of  any city list worth its salt. We’ll forgive you for the Pizza though, those winters get cold and its more of a meat pie than anything.

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San Francisco, our younger, hipper, eco-conscious and more entrepreneurial sibling. The one that went to liberal arts school and managed to get a computer science degree despite dropping out to pursue bigger, more creative ventures. Smaller in stature, San Fran and the Bay Area are our beacon of hope to the West Coast.

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And begrudgingly, the sprawling, cosmetically enhanced and car-dependent monstrosity that was Los Angeles is slowly creeping into New Yorkers’ hearts, or at least this New Yorker’s. LA was previously the place where we exported our lower brow entertainment, and New York was reserved for the cultivation of real masterpieces of art, cinema, architecture, and pretty much every other creative medium. However, this has changed in recent years. The city has gotten cleaner, the beaches are world-class, the dependence on private transportation is waning, if ever so slowly, and Downtown LA is experiencing a renaissance of unparalleled proportions west of the Mississippi. Ever so gradually, the city of angels is coming into its own as a true city-more than a sprawling metropolis of freeways, interstates and damn good cheeseburgers.

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Of course there are other cities in the US apart from New York worth mentioning outside of the big three. Some, which we choose to neglect (sorry Boston, all in good rivalry) or seem to forget as really cool, dynamic places (Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Portland, and Seattle.) In fact, there are dozens of great towns and small cities worth mentioning, but these don’t stand up to New York. Sure they offer indelible charm, community and beautiful natural landscapes (See here for more), but certainly are not New York.

But what about our nation’s first capital? No, not D.C. just yet, they’ve got a ways to go. I’m talking about Philadelphia. Home to Ben Franklin, Cheesesteaks and those rebels who declared independence from our colonial overlords with the great accents and tea. Isn’t that all there is to this town? That’s all we were taught in school, and surely there wasn’t a reason to come back down here after the capital was moved in 1800. Anecdotally, I was told tales of a far off land, two and a half hours down 95, run rampant with crime, decay and weird accents (I’m thirsty, does anyone have a wooder?).

Growing up, I went to the Jersey Shore, the real jersey shore south of exit 63, not that nonsense currently rerunning on a dying MTV. Only a short drive away, I had family who lived in Philadelphia, went to school in Philadelphia and had good things to say about Philadelphia. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. How could anywhere stack up to the Big Apple? And if Philadelphia was so great, then why didn’t we go more often? Sure, we went to my dad’s college reunions at his Big 5 Alma Mater, had the cheesesteaks and went to some games. Philly does have a great sports culture, though, if not a little barbaric (okay, a lot barbaric, its like Mad Max or the Roman lion pits down there. Look at this, this, or even this!)

 

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Philadelphia Stadiums, with Skyline in background

But Philly has a lot going for it, and I mean a lot-another quick anecdote if you’ll allow before my initial impressions on the city.

I recently started an internship with a real estate development and preservation firm in Philly. Coming in to town, I was curious as to what I’d be greeted with, was it more than just colonial splendor, and could it offer this New Yorker the comforts and amenities I was accustomed to back home? Within the first week, I quickly and happily discovered that my concern of the city was unfair and misguided.

From viewing all the buildings in our portfolio and seeing some of the various different neighborhoods, primarily in West Philly and Center City, I gotta say Philadelphia is nothing short of beautiful. What. A. Town.

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Now I can only speak to the neighborhoods I’ve been to, but of these, they really blew me away. This surprised me because I had grown up hearing from my dad, his classmates and many others that when they were at school, Philadelphia was like the wild west. Amongst stories I’ve heard from those I work with and people I’ve met around town, corroborating my dad’s accounts, Philadelphia was little more than a lawless census designated place. Many parts operated with little to no police intervention, services offered from the city were minimal, corruption was rampant, and with a declining population due to suburbanization and white flight in the latter half of the 20th century, the city was left for dead. Though there are numerous tales to be told of the city’s sordid and regrettable state, I’m an optimist and choose to look forward to the positives a city will inevitably have in the future. Real Estate is cyclical, sometimes theses cycles have small diameters (The New York Market) while other cycles have much larger down periods (Detroit, but it’s slowly coming around as well!)

With a population peaking at 2,071,605 in 1950 and sustaining a loss of 554,055 people at a 2000 base of 1,517,550, and seeing the first population gains in the past decade after fifty plus years of losing people, Philly is in the midst of a renaissance.

While this is undoubtedly a story of gentrification in certain parts of the city, such as the outer reaches of University City in the South 40’s, the story of modern Philadelphia is one of redemption. As the only UNESCO World Heritage City in The United States, Philadelphia has over 11,100 historically preserved buildings, many dating back to the 19th century. In the 20th century decline of the city, many of these buildings were left abandoned, with nothing to do but deteriorate.

 

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Philadelphia is a UNESCO World Heritage city thanks in no small part to Independence hall and the Liberty Bell, where we declared our independence and adopted our constitution

That’s all changed in recent years. To paint a picture of these neighborhoods in Philadelphia, think of a classic street in Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope or the West Village with their quintessential Brownstones and Federal Style Townhouses, trees and charm. In the context of Philadelphia, make the streets more narrow (and often one-way), have more trees on certain blocks, far less on others (no real uniformity in plan, which is odd) and make the townhouses of Colonial, Victorian more colorful and ornate, especially with regards to Federal Style, with a splash of Red Brick-Haussmann homes for good measure as well. With a uniform height of 3-5 stories depending on the block, these types of homes are more or less the only building typology in the neighborhoods of Center City (Rittenhouse Square, Fitler Square, Washington Square West, Hawthorne, Bella Vista, Society Hill, Old City, Graduate Hospital and Queen Village.) Of course there are taller buildings around Rittenhouse Square, and dotted in all of the neighborhoods with contextual new development, but for the most part the blocks are one way, tree lined, mostly bereft of retail except on major or specific corridors and vibrant. Marked with color and charm on the doors, shingles and window sills of these historic homes, Philly is like a Jackson Pollock

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It feels like a fairy tale to walk around Waverly Walkway and Addison Street, free from cars with small pedestrian only blocks. Philly’s Gayborhood, concentrated in Washington Square West along Pine, Chestnut, Juniper and South 11th Streets is gorgeous, charming, and teeming with successful and vibrant local businesses, as all gayborhoods seemingly tend to be. For an urbanphile (this may not be in Webster’s or on dictionary.com, but it should be) such as myself, the streets take your breath away. The energy is palpable, with each store front begging you to analyze their quirks and the small alleys luring you into them, daring you to discover. For the health conscious, you’ll be delighted to know in my 5 hours in the neighborhood walking the streets and exploring I walked more than 20,000 steps. Now I don’t know exactly what that means, but the Women at my Mom’s Mahjong club tell me its quite good.

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Definitely stop by Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on 10th and South when in the neighborhood, you won’t regret it. The largest collection of mosaics by prolific artist Isaiah Zagar, the gardens are full of glass, kitchen tiles, spare mechanical parts, plates, and miscellaneous household items among numerous other types of items to create striking art, unique from anywhere else in the world. While walking the streets of Washington Square West or South Philly, many of Zagar’s mosaics appear on buildings seemingly at random, yet always appreciated.

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Rittenhouse Square is the Heart of Philadelphia. More akin to Union Square and Washington Square Park in New York than Central Park, it is one of the most beautiful Urban Parks in the country, and largely unknown to those outside of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southwestern New Jersey. On all sides of Rittenhouse, restaurants offer al fresco dining facing the park, not parallel, facing it! I know this is something small, but to the Urban Planning student this small change in direction of seating brings about so much more interaction with the street and city as a whole. With towering art deco masterpieces next to regrettable mid-century modern behemoths, Rittenhouse Square is tranquil, and serene yet entirely of the city. I highly recommend getting a good book, finding your own park bench, and people watch while intermittently reading.

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Fitler Square, tucked along small one way streets close to the River is a very charming and quaint park. Smaller than its sibling to the east, Fitler also has great on street parking, on street parking! I didn’t know that was a real thing in cities, its evaded me much like the holy grail and Emilia Clarke’s phone number.

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Townhouses on small street around Fitler square

Apart from Center City, I was able to see quite a bit of West Philadelphia, and let me tell you, its more than just the backdrop for the Fresh Prince of Bel Air Intro

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The gateway to West Philly, University City via the Market Street Bridge or Chestnut Street bridge from center city, University City is a neighborhood that lives up to its name. With Upenn, Drexel and University of the Sciences calling its borders home, University City is one of the liveliest sections of the city and full of new trendy restaurants, food trucks, park space and an overall dynamic and exciting vibe. Of course the University of Pennsylvania is one of the prettiest campuses, this is generally accepted-though I will at a later point address it’s beauty. Less appreciated is Drexel University, and Powelton Village, which houses a lot of Drexel buildings and off-campus housing. Sure, there are deplorable mid century modern and brutalist concrete structures that drain the life out of the street in front of them, but Drexel is nullifying these mistakes by capitalizing and doubling down on the many historic Queen Anne Style homes and buildings in the neighborhood while also building beautiful new neo-modern glass buildings. There’s even a Shake-Shack and Wahoo’s Fish tacos; I’m all for mom and pop restaurants and small businesses but Wahoo’s and Shake-Shack are two chains that are welcome to my block and neighborhood anytime.

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Locust Walk, Upenn
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Drexel’s campus

Moving west away from the college campuses, the streets become narrower and lined with street car tracks. Suddenly, every block for about a mile radius, perhaps even more, is lined with beautiful trees, new restaurants, parks and townhouses-oh the townhouses. The townhouses of West Philly can be  distinguished from their center city cousins in that they are mostly detached homes. Most take the form of Victorian, Queen Anne or Dutch Revival (you just gotta love Dutch revival and their stepped gables, its like you’re in Amsterdam!)  and are begging to be cast on the Philadelphia equivalent of Portlandia.

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When exploring, make sure to check out the Historic Clark Park on 43 and Baltimore. On weekends there is a farmers market that borders the park, and what a park it is. Around Clark, new trendy restaurants have moved in to commence the process of Brooklynification.

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DSCF2941-1-768x512The charm, the hipster-ness, the trees! Speaking of the hipsters though, gentrification by Young Creative types has become a serious conversation in the neighborhood. “The Line” where the historically black and minority West Philly and the Young and recently educated University City is pushing westwards like Lewis and Clark. Formerly undesirable streets to the University City crowd are now home to Clay studios, ironic tattoo parlors, breweries, yoga & clay studios, custom bike shops, and did I mention Clay Studios? Clay studios are the definitive mark that gentrification has come to your neighborhood.

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On the one hand, to see hundreds upon thousands of older homes having life breathed back into them and their streets being taken care of is amazing, but on the other the pushing away of the neighborhoods original residents is more than disheartening. When developing and improving neighborhoods, we have to be sure to include the community previously living there before development-if we don’t we are only furthering divides in communities already pitted against each other.

If you don’t believe me about Philly’s renaissance, take Curbed’s word for it, with this nice map and renderings perfect for the easily excited (me).

With all the good though, there has been some noted bad. North Philly is not good. And by not good I don’t mean the people there, the food there or the relative distance and time to get there because all three of these have been very good to me when they could have been far worse. North Philly is bad because the city has continued to neglect, and seemingly ignore its existence. While Center City, West Philly and South Philly are great, a majority of Philadelphians do not live in these three enclaves, and their neighborhoods and services do not reflect the demography of the area. And unsurprisingly, but alarmingly, the demography of North Philadelphia is primarily African and Latin Americans. Why do we as a nation continue to ignore these groups of people in our cities? Instead of blaming the city, its planning, services and infrastructure for our bad neighborhoods, we blame the racial classes who live there-this is unquestionably wrong, and requires an immediate remedy. The bones of the neighborhoods in North Philly are beautiful, we shouldn’t let pride and or prejudice get in the way of continuing to remedy our past ignorance, and make the lives of all who live in this city better. Isn’t that what brotherly love is all about?

Alas, though I’ve only been here a week there is far too much to say for a single post. Neighborhoods will be looked at, buildings will be analyzed, and food will be eaten! For those still reading, I commend your patience and scrolling skills. For those who came for the pictures, I came for the same thing. And for those who aren’t quite sure why you’re here, welcome to the rest of us.

Signing off,

Coby

 

 

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