Why We Love Philly: South Street

With all of its tattoo parlors, hemp shops and bars, it takes a real Philadelphian to embrace our most misunderstood street.

No one knows the identities of those I’ve come to call the Brick Thieves of South Street—at least, I don’t think anyone does, or else the bricks in question wouldn’t keep disappearing. I continually find myself thinking about the Thieves, about what they’re doing with all of those bricks.

There’s a pedestrian footbridge that leads from the very end of South Street, at Front, over the yawning chasm that is I-95 to a parking lot on Columbus Boulevard. It’s rarely traversed, because who walks to Columbus Boulevard? I do, because I have an odd address. But it’s rare to see anyone on the bridge, save the occasional teenage couple looking for an out-of-the-way corner in which to be carnal and clandestine.

The path is made of brick. Or is trying to be. There’s a section on the south side where the bricks have been steadily removed, one or two at a time, until over months a gaping zigzagged hole is created. Invariably some minions come in and replace the bricks before it gets too ugly, and then the whole process starts again—a pair missing on a Tuesday, then five gone two weeks later, until the next batch vanishes. I fear one of these days someone is just going to come and pour cement and be done with it. Which would be a shame, because the bricks add so much charm. And is there anything that needs charm more than South Street?

It’s the street of tattoo parlors and hemp shops, of unbathed teenage boys and the doughy girls, poured into t-shirts too tight and jeans too small, who smoke with them. It’s the avenue of the pierced, the profligate and the Italian princess, where frat boys file into the Blarney South to cheer on the Flyers, and the bums wander and plop, palms up, asking meekly for loose change. People will tell you it’s unsafe. But South Street has always been more dodgy than dangerous.

And yet I adore it, every last hardscrabble inch. It’s our yellow brick road, seedy and overgrown, winding through its own peculiar glitter. The street is ugly in spots, merely vulgar in others. But it’s alive, in a way that a street can only be alive in Philadelphia, filled with warring sounds and smells and strata of people. To walk South Street, which you should, is to experience the city, all of it, in its every fabulous and filthy manifestation. It’s often tacky, and sometimes confusing. But it is relentlessly interesting.

 

“Oh, I hear it all the time,” Michael Harris, the loping, avuncular head of the South Street Headhouse District, says as we wander down South Street one autumn afternoon. “They say, ‘I haven’t been there in 20 years.’ Or, ‘I haven’t been there since it was “good.”’” He raises his fingers in air quotes for this last bit. I smile, nodding. I have a friend who does marketing for Atlantic City, and I get this same sort of thing from him. It can’t be easy, I think, to constantly be picking up the broom, wearily trying to sweep back relentless waves of bad reputation.

That’s the thing about Philadelphia: Once folks decides something’s over—the Inquirer, Andy Reid—it’s almost impossible to get them to change their minds. But someone has to try. Harris takes me into Brauhaus Schmitz, has me shake hands with Doug Hager, the owner. Schnitzel on South a big hit—whodathunk it? Doug shrugs. “The neighbors will say, ‘Oh, we need to reinvent South Street,’” he says. “No, we don’t.”

He gets it, like I get it. What makes South Street the most amazing thoroughfare in all Philadelphia is that it’s all of Philadelphia, dumped onto one crazy, mishmashy strip of loony. Come to South Street on a weekend night and here is what you’ll see: A Russian couple—he looks amazingly like Vladimir Putin—struggling to put money in the parking kiosk before going to dinner at Supper. Grungy young men jostling and hollering at a video game of the Punisher inside Atomic City Comics. Teenage girls in pairs. Teenage boys looking for the teenage girls. Neon. Rap music blaring from passing cars. Well-dressed white people at Percy Street Barbecue. Flashily dressed black people wandering the street. Odd taquerias with signs that say IRISH FOOD, though they don’t sell anything that remotely resembles Irish food but do sell a wide variety of hookahs. Suburban wives in chic black cloth coats and expensive blowouts, arms linked protectively into their husbands’. Tourists waiting in line at Jim’s Steaks. A bored busboy standing outside, smoking. Cop cars and taxis that idle too loudly. Hipsters in felt fedoras. A fat white guy sitting in the window of Hot Diggity, eating a hot dog and texting. People moving. And looking. And giggling and shouting and crossing in the middle of the street. People everywhere, pumping blood onto South Street, hour after hour.

The Orlons used it as the answer to their musical query—“Where do all the hippies meet?”—back in 1963, in a song that made the Billboard Top 10. There are few hippies left on South Street. Everyone else is here, though. South Street is the one road left where you cross paths with people from every other neighborhood in the city. Look around and see it. I mean, truly see Philadelphia.

Like most of the city, South Street didn’t start out as what it became. For most of its existence, it served as the city’s thriving garment district, a hub of sewing machines and pushcarts that hummed along until it was clocked by Ed Bacon, who decided an expressway connecting the Schuylkill to I-95 would look great there. His proposal died, but the damage was done.

Out went the commerce and the immigrants; in came the starving artists, the hippies and the criminals. The Orlons’ catchy spin notwithstanding, the avenue’s decline was more the stuff of harsh urban poetry. In 1976, soon-to-be Temple professor David Bradley, who would go on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award, published his first novel, a clump of grit simply titled South Street, which told the tragicomic stories of a ragtag group of Philadelphians weaving into, out of and around the street’s long shadows: “A little way downtown, near the junction of a nameless alley and South Street, was a dim entranceway, a hole in the wall with a thick wooden door hanging open, and out of it came belches of heavy-beating jukebox music and stale tobacco smoke.”

There is not as much smoke on South Street. In pockets it manages to telegraph city mod, like Northern Liberties. The beacon of it all is the Whole Foods at 10th Street, which keeps women in hair bands and BabyBjorns cascading in for organic bell peppers and shiitake mushrooms. On rare moments, during a sunset or a blanketing winter snow, the street can look achingly beautiful, drenched in color like a Homer painting. But the slightly sinister air lingers, like an English fog drifting about the heath. You have to look deeper to cut through it, see the street for what it really is.

On a chilly Saturday night, I stop across from Paul’s Fresh-Cut Idaho Fries (homemade funnel cake a specialty) and find Kenzie, 19, and Nate, 21, singing. I ask their last names, and they seem suspicious; South Street isn’t a last-name kind of place. Nate is from Louisiana and has been roaming the country, busking, since he was 16; he met Kenzie last year. They ended up on South Street the way most people do: They simply wandered on.

A black dog—a stray they picked up somewhere—sits to the side, its jowly face planted on the cold cement, listening like the rest of us. Kenzie plays the saw, knifing the violin bow back and forth like a symphony soloist. Her voice is high and thin, wan and haunting, and belies her black-boot-and-torn-tights tough-chick look. Nate, with piercings and hickory tattoos, is pretty, a dirty James Franco. He has a richer, more plaintive voice, soaked in bluegrass. He’s strumming a banjo. They’re singing “Chocolate Jesus” by Tom Waits:

When the weather gets rough
And it’s whiskey in the shade
It’s best to wrap your savior
Up in cellophane.

I glance around. The well-dressed black woman standing next to me is weeping; the Russians watch with impassive eyes. There are three white girls on their way for cocktails, and a 50-something couple from New Hampshire, burping up their cheesesteaks. Three 20-something black guys in baggy denim, each exposing more of his underweared ass than the next, stand at a distance, their head-bobbing to the music just barely discernible. And for two lovely, lonely minutes, the only sound you hear on South Street is two anguished voices in two-part harmony, asking Jesus to love them.