Why We Love Philly: The Philly 76

The traditions, oddities, foods, sounds, landmarks and characters that make us deliriously happy to call this place our own.

1. The PSFS Sign

The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society may be long gone, but its signature 27-foot-tall sign, perched high above what is now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel at 12th and Market, shines on. When Loews reopened the building as a hotel in 2000, there was discussion of projecting its name behind the PSFS letters; that proposal was quickly scrapped. CEO Jonathan Tisch said it was “not worth tampering with an icon of the Philadelphia skyline.” Indeed not.

2. The Flagship Anthropologie Store on 18th Street

One of the retail world’s most revered brands—born and bred and based in this city—is housed in one of the oldest, and inarguably most gorgeous, buildings on Rittenhouse Square, the former home of financier and Philadelphia Orchestra benefactor Alexander Van Rensselaer. As you browse the artfully displayed collections of hip fashions and shabby-chic dinnerware, your brain frenetically hops between such thoughts as, “Oh, they better not have run out of that sweater in my size” and “God, I wish I lived here.” Sigh. Us, too.

3. The Pink Sisters

Ethereal, serene and mysterious, the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters live a life cut off from the world at their pretty Fairmount convent, where they spend their days in mainly silent contemplation and prayer for the burdens and evils of the world. Since 1915, the order’s nuns have been identifiable by their peppermint vestments, a symbol of joy and their dedication to the Holy Spirit. On the rare occasions when you see them out—at Mass in the city, or simply walking through the convent garden in quiet reflection—these visions in rose remind you of the humbling power of shared sacrifice.

4. The New Hope & Ivyland Railroad

Chugging along for more than a century, the smoke-billowing steam-powered choo-choo (with dining car!) never fails to provide a dollop of throwback Petticoat Junction charm.

5. The Corner Booth at Mcglinchey’s

Walk into McGlinchey’s and you step into a bygone era, one where the booze flows cheaply (and often without cessation), the smoke clouds linger long, and picturesque grittiness abounds. From the Glinch’s grungy corner booth, near the jukebox, the house’s whiskey-soaked details come into focus, shedding light on any number of broken spirits visible from the street through the stained-glass windows. Yuppies don’t dawdle, thanks to the unabashedly unkempt restrooms and the raucous proto-punk that hammers one of the city’s best jukeboxes. This is a trip through a Philadelphia time machine back to an age when bars were bars. Just add alcohol.

6. Driving the Deserted Schuylkill

Brutal at 8 a.m., bliss at 2 a.m.

7. Getting Turned Around and Mixed Up at King of Prussia Mall

It doesn’t matter how many YOU ARE HERE signs you look at—you’re going to get lost in our behemoth retail Oz.

8. Getting Excited When a Movie Is Shot Here

We bitch, bitch, bitch about the street closures—then feverishly scan every frame of the finished film to I.D. the local spots.

9. Eating Pho at Every Vietnamese Place on Washington Avenue

Not the prettiest food crawl, but surely one of the tastiest.

10. Cleaning Out the Supermarket Before a Snowstorm

It never ceases to amaze how Hurricane Schwartz can transform an Acme parking lot into a scene from Cormac McCarthy.

11. St. David’s Episcopal Church

Almost three centuries ago, a group of Welsh colonists who had settled in Radnor built a small stone church for weekly worship. There’s a bigger version now, all white pews and gold chandeliers, where the last remaining Wasps come together to bow heads, praying for forgiveness and tax breaks. But the original chapel, a beacon of grace so beautiful that it was immortalized in poetry by Longfellow, still stands in the old churchyard, a vestige of the elegant legacy of the old Main Line.

12. Trash Fires in the Italian Market

The Italian Market isn’t really all that Italian anymore, since it now serves up a clutch of ethnicities: Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese. But the trash-can fires abide, pulling us toward them with a rough combination of urban grit and romance—each sooty ember a city snowflake, black and beautiful in a brisk 9th Street wind.

13. The LED Display in the Comcast Center

Beyond the technology that makes it possible, the appeal of the living art displayed on the giant video screen in the Comcast Center lies in how it makes us feel: young. You see it in the faces of the businesspeople who stop to take it in: that unmistakable sense of wonder, something akin to seeing your first Broadway show. Only this isn’t Broadway. It’s the lobby of a Center City office building, where adults get to feel like kids.

14. The Sons of Ben

Dedicated and knowledgeable and eager (very eager), the boys who serve as the unofficial cheering section of the Philadelphia Union aren’t ready to accept that Americans haven’t exactly embraced pro soccer. Beer and “DOOP” chants serve as distractions for marginal fans, but in the River End of the Union’s stadium, they’re rites of passion. The Sons embody their “Ad Finem Fidelis” motto, faithful to the end even as the team sells its stars, misses the playoffs, and battles its former manager in court. Oh, to love anything as much as these guys love their Union.

15. Seeing a Movie at the Ritz

If your taste in movies tends to Marvel comic-book stories or whatever film Vin Diesel is in, go elsewhere: There are characterless cineplexes in Bensalem and Brookhaven and dozens of other places where you can pay your $10 (or more) to be wowed by the special effects and ear-splitting surround sound as you down stale tortilla chips laden with that disgusting “nacho cheese” sauce.

On the other hand, if your tastes are a bit more, shall we say, sophisticated, and you don’t have an aversion to subtitles, chances are you’ve spent a fair amount of time at one of the Ritz cinemas in Old City, whether for Saturday date night (Toblerone from the snack bar, check) or the discounted Wednesday-night screenings, with better popcorn than most and one of those expensive bottled juices they sell at the concession stand.

The Ritzes actually haven’t been part of Philly that long, even though it feels like they have. The first—the Ritz Three (which eventually became the Ritz Five)—was opened in 1976, on the occasion of the Bicentennial, by Philadelphia entrepreneur Ramon Posel, who was also responsible, for better or worse, for some of the region’s earliest strip malls. Posel’s father, a Russian immigrant, owned seven movie houses in Philadelphia back in the days when people dressed up to go to the movies. (Yes, this actually used to happen.) There are now three Ritzes left, all of them in Old City.

Before the Ritz, repertory and art-house films in Philadelphia simply didn’t exist. You typically had to haul your ass up to New York to catch anything smacking of celluloid high art. The Ritz, and everything that name carried with it, changed all of that, bringing Philadelphia not just good cinema, but great cinema. As Inquirer movie columnist Carrie Rickey observed in Posel’s obituary in 2005, “The Ritz has become as irreplaceable a Philadelphia cultural institution as the Museum of Art.”

What would we do without the Ritz? Thankfully, we don’t have to think about it. Pass the Toblerone.

16. The Toynbee Tiles

For decades, sharp-eyed Philadelphians have glimpsed them embedded in the city’s blacktop and wondered in regard to their urgent message that links historian Arnold Toynbee, the resurrection of the dead and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: WTF? Are the now-world-famous Toynbee Tiles proof of alien invasion? The work of a schizophrenic sufferer? An art-student prank gone viral? Recent repaving projects have threatened their omniscient creepiness, but luckily, last year’s Sundance-winning documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, directed by native son Jon Foy, captured the enduring urban mystery of the linoleum plaques’ creation and disposition—in the middle of I-95, yo?—as well as the fanaticism they engender in a trio of young investigators, who gradually reveal the gentle neighborly compassion that lurks beneath the hard-ass exterior of the City of Brotherly Love.

17. The Subway on Phillies Game Days

Heading to Passyunk and seeing all that red—a sea of jerseys, hats and t-shirts—roots a person, baseball fan or no, down deep in the muck and stone of the city’s collective consciousness. Philly is only Philly during a home stand, and no man with eyes could ever believe he was anywhere else on earth.

18. Main Line Gossip

“Did you hear?” “No, do tell.” “Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but … ” Name a better way to start a lunch conversation on Lancaster Avenue. The curve from Wynnewood to Malvern may no longer be God’s Country, but it’s still a house of worship for scandal and rumor. Is there any other reason for the Guard House to still exist? (If only tight-lipped bartender Joe would spill what he knows.) From Hope Scott’s earthy jokes to the Luries’ divorce, we never tire of the innuendo, intrigue and occasional flagrante delicto of the Body Fabulous.

19. The Counter at Little Pete’s at 3 A.M.

Short-skirted young women cram clown-car-style into a booth, chowing down fries. Frat guys crack themselves up at the counter. The waitresses are a blur, dropping “hons” and “dolls” as quickly as they slam down heaping plates of eggs. At the register, transactions ring up—Ching! Ching! One group goes, another drifts in. And amid the late-late-nighters you spot that one guy in the flannel shirt, sitting eating breakfast for real before his workday that starts at four. Then it’s your turn to leave, slightly startled by the first golden rays of sun just hitting the buildings outside.

20. Franklin Field

With Xfinity Live’s Bud Lights and bull rides now the epicenter of Philly sports fandom, we could all use a nostalgia lap around America’s oldest operating football stadium, the only one in town not named after a bank. It’s the field where the country’s first scoreboard was raised in 1895, where the Army battled the Navy, and where nearly 80 world track records have come to pass. And it’s a field of reckoning—where players become athletes, athletes become heroes, and all men, even Santa Claus, must face their foes.

21. Philadelphia Pale Ale

It’s Yards’s flagship beer, and a beer named for Philadelphia is a lot more Philly than any brick of cream cheese. But in the end, it comes down to this: Citrusy. Floral. Light. Eminently quaffable. Questions?

22. Federal Donuts

It’s not just that Federal Donuts is a doughnut shop. And it’s not just that it serves fried chicken, either. As important as fried chicken is to the soul of any metropolis, it isn’t enough on its own to move the needle on the civic Love-o-Meter. No, what makes Federal Donuts special is that its operator, Michael Solomonov, has committed significant blood, sweat and flour to bringing things like spicy PB&J and chocolate-covered-banana-flavored doughnuts and fried chicken glazed with dill pickle spice into our edible consciousness. After years of cheese-steaks and soft pretzels, we can hold high a box of fried chicken or a maple-bacon doughnut, wave it in the direction of Manhattan or Chicago, and proudly say, “Yeah, now don’t you wish you lived here?”

23. Christmas Eve at Tenth Presbyterian

No matter how cold or sacrilegious your heart, it’s hard not to be warmed by the annual Christmas Eve caroling service at Spruce Street’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, known to regulars as Tenth Pres. The singing is conducted entirely by candlelight, casting a warm glow over the Christmas tree, which is adorned with a single white dove and towers over Rittenhouse types and their kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, everyone decked in the finest festive attire. Though the assemblage doesn’t always agree on things once they leave the pews (this is the Square, after all), the spine-tingling, haunting sound of the congregants’ collective a cappella “Silent Night,” which caps the service, is as serene and unifying as … Christmas. You feel chills, and not from the night air.

24. The Barnes

Forget the drama that came before: The opening of this beautiful museum was a shining moment for all of us. Walk through it, and you’ll understand why.

25. South Street

It takes a real Philadelphian to embrace our most misunderstood street. Click to read more about  why we love South Street.

>>Click here for numbers 26 to 50, and see exactly what we think about the Philadelphia Parking Authority.