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.

26. Terry Gross

She is our more curious, more compassionate, better self, which makes her show seem less like an interview and more like you’re eavesdropping on a private conversation. Especially when she goes deep with someone as only she can. Of course, the guests Gross interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air, broadcast nationally for an hour each weekday “from WHYY in Philadelphia,” are often A-list: Neil Young, Steve Martin, Jay-Z, Stephen Colbert, June Carter Cash, Zach Galifianakis. There have been thousands of cultural and artistic icons over 37 years, all of whom have smoothly settled in to explain how their lives beget art.

But the guests we’ve never heard of—that’s when 61-year-old Terry, all four-feet-11-inches of her, really comes through.

Tig Notaro is a comedian who was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts in August; a day later, she went up onstage at Club Largo in L.A. Terry replayed how Notaro opened her act: “Good evening! Hello! I have cancer, how are you? Hi, how are you? Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer, how are you?” Her cheerfulness is eerie; the Largo audience gasps and titters.

Talk about life begetting art. Notaro, raw and strange, was a perfect guest for Terry, who told her she’d had an internal debate over whether to laugh when she first heard the bit. “And then I’m listening to the audience respond … ” Gross went on, carefully building. “Some people are laughing, and some people are shushing, and you can kind of hear the silence of some people. What response made you feel best, as the set kept going?” Oh, such a nice way of asking: Are you an abject narcissist or … incredibly brave?

“It was the first time in my career where I’ve looked into an audience and seen people crying,” Notaro replied. “I suggested that I should call it a night, and this guy spoke up: ‘Absolutely not!’ … I almost started crying—oh, please don’t cry, you can’t walk out here and tell them all this stuff and then start crying onstage. I would have felt so defeated.”

Our answer: brave. Plucked clean and sweet once again by the best interviewer in radio.

27. Wawa

Good, cheap coffee that’s never burnt. Soft pretzels stuffed with cheddar cheese. Customer service that’s small-town friendly but doesn’t actually require you to interact with other humans. (Hello, touch-screens!) Sandwiches served on damn-good rolls and made fresh right in front of you according to the specifications you punch into one of those touch-screens. And 24-hour convenience in a city where it’s otherwise impossible to buy a carton of milk after 10 p.m. It’s like God traveled deep into our regional psyche and said: “Let there be Wawa.

28. The Manayunk Wall

In 1985, two men looked at Manayunk’s Levering Street and saw serious potential: a grueling 17 percent-grade hill that would make the quads of the most seasoned European competitors beg for mercy. Twenty-seven years later, the race they founded—the Philadelphia International Cycling Championship—is the crown jewel of U.S. cycling, with names like Phinney, Heiden and Hincapie among its alumni. That hill, now known simply as the Wall, is legendary. And no easier to climb.

29. The View of the Parkway From the Art Museum Steps

Every metropolis has photo-op spots. Philly, not always immediately thought of as picturesque, actually overflows with these. But perhaps none is as lovely as the view from atop the steps of the Art Museum, and it hasn’t got anything to do with an underdog boxer. Look out over the flag-lined Ben Franklin Parkway to the majestic Logan Fountain, and on to the gorgeous Beaux Arts City Hall, and you feel everything is waiting for you. Your life, in your city.

30. Conshohocken State Road

This great Schuylkill relief valve, this winding shortcut out of standstill traffic—this is the way savvy commuters beat the bedevilment that is the Conshohocken Curve. But the woodsy path also offers the best in Main Line voyeurism: At each turn, you can peek up hills, along driveways and over fences to glimpse the pretty manses of some of the most monied Gladwynians. (Carpool for safety, of course.) There’s a bonus: PA 23 also leads to more “secret” routes that put distance between you and the honking on 76. But it’s the gawking that makes it worth the trip.

31. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition Scale Model

For the centennial of the nation’s independence, city fathers built a whole new metropolis in Fairmount Park, one that almost 10 million visitors—about a fifth of the U.S. population—would see. There were roads, a monorail, a lighthouse, police and fire departments, a sewer system, and more than 200 buildings, including the Main Exhibition Hall, then the largest building in the world. Exhibits highlighted art, industry, agriculture, women, photography; first-time introductions included Heinz ketchup, Hires root beer, the Remington typewriter and the telephone. Among the organizers was marble magnate John Baird, whose monumental wares dot Laurel Hill Cemetery. As befits a man in the business of memorializing, Baird couldn’t bear to see this extravaganza crumble into dust, so he paid $25,000 to have a perfect scale model of the 285-acre Centennial grounds created. Today, barely a handful of Centennial buildings stand. But at the Please Touch Museum inside one, Memorial Hall, you can still see Baird’s model, a painstaking portrait of a moment when Philadelphia felt wonderful and new, and anything seemed possible.

32. The Curtis Institute

Quick: What local school claims Anna Moffo, Lang Lang, Jennifer Higdon and Leonard Bernstein as alums? Bite your tongue if you said Penn. Each year since 1924, the Curtis Institute—the most selective music conservatory in the country—has provided free educations to just enough musicians to man an orchestra pit and an opera company. Its grads—taught to exacting standards and expected to fill their days with practice, practice, practice—perform and compose all over the planet. And their classy headquarters remains a bastion of tradition on Rittenhouse Square.

33. Herb Lusk

In the storied legacy of the NFL, Herb Lusk will always be “The Praying Tailback,” the first pro football player to drop to one knee and offer celestial thanks after a score. In Philly, the former Eagle is known for something else. Pastor of North Broad’s Greater Exodus Baptist Church since 1982, he’s built both membership (from 17 to more than 2,000), and an aggressive social-service arm. When North Philly didn’t have a prayer, he kept his eye on a Broad Street renaissance and pushed. Touchdown.

34. Kelly Drive

No one who’s been on Kelly Drive on a sunny spring day, watching the hordes swarm its paths and river trail, can imagine Philadelphia as one of the country’s fattest cities. By foot, bike or blade, you never feel more alive—and happier you live here—than you do traversing the curving road that hugs the river.

35. 13th Street

In the early ’90s, 13th Street was a desolate and scary stretch of city; the only people who walked it were those looking for a shady buck or a good porno. Fast-forward 20 years and it’s a bustling epicurean corridor swarming with 20- and 30-somethings sipping fancy cocktails and nibbling designer pizzas. It’s the embodiment of a new Philadelphia, one hungry to shake off its inferiority complex. So thank you, Amis, Sampan, Lolita, Jamonera, Barbuzzo, Zavino, Capogiro, El Vez, Vintage and the Corner. You feed our bellies and our egos.

36. Outrageous Weddings at St. Monica’s

Crashing weddings isn’t the most flattering thing to admit to, but sometimes we sneak into the back pew for nuptials at St. Monica’s at 17th and Ritner. St. Mon’s weddings are notoriously glitzy. The betrothed arrive in super-shiny Rolls-Royce limos (Hummers, if the groom did the ordering). Bridesmaids—never fewer than eight—sway down the aisle in fluffy dresses of assorted pastel hues, fingernails covered in acrylic falsies painted to match. Brides, glowing with spray tans and excitement, wear puffy white gowns so wide they brush the edges of the polished brown pews. And the weeping! Single aunts in leopard print, unmarried cousins with volcanoes of hair, all bawling in celebration of the couple and their own secret fears of becoming old maids. It’s the best free show in the city. And there’s (almost) always a happy ending.

37. Midnight Pretzels at the Pretzel Factory

The rest of the country may look down their collective noses at our habit of eating soft pretzels for breakfast, but here’s what the rest of the country doesn’t realize: The only way to have a citywide supply of pretzels ready bright and early for the morning commute is to start baking those pretzels late the night before. Which means come midnight, if we go to the bakery in Mayfair, we can walk in and buy pretzels straight off the line. Pretzels that are still so piping hot that we have to wait a full five minutes before laying into all that chewy, salty goodness. So yes, pretzels for breakfast, sure. But even better, pretzels for a midnight snack.

38. The Philadelphia Parking Authority

Wait, you’re saying, the PPA? The PP-freaking-A, here amidst this lovefest of a list? The guys who are so mean? So rude? So abrasive? To which we say: Yes, the PPA, for the simple reason that in a world where no one does his job very well, the PPA does its job—stopping you from parking where you’re not supposed to park—very, very well. So you can complain about their rudeness, whine about their surliness, rail about their ruthlessness, scream till you’re blue about how unfair it all is. But the truth is, it’s not unfair: You parked where you weren’t supposed to park. Now pipe down. And pay up. And then thank God we have at least one taxpayer-funded agency that actually does its job.

39. Sophy Curson

Now that stores like H&M anchor Philly’s once-coveted street corners, the days of Nan Duskin, Bonwit Teller and John Wanamaker seem unimaginable, part of a Downton Abbey age. Perhaps this explains the small pang you feel when passing Sophy Curson, a monument to the Old Guard, capital letters intentional. Even the nameplate is quaint: unassuming script that stretches across the brick exterior, unchanged since 1953. It’s elegant, and a tad intimidating—you still need to ring a bell to enter. The truth is, most Philadelphians haven’t; to do so would destroy its myth, its magic. Instead we imagine the shop as it was, a place in which hatboxes were daintily presented to gloved women, where saleswomen in pearls swung tape measures with exacting flair, and where Grace Kelly’s wedding guests bought their gowns before sailing off to Monaco.

40. Running Over the Ben Franklin Bridge

It will cost you $5 to pilot your vehicle over the 8,000-foot expanse and back again, but it’s free in a pair of sneakers. Some things come to mind as you jog: Am I really running to Camden? Can I beat the PATCO train? Who the hell came up with the idea for that weird highway divider thing? On your return, your mind clears as you take in the city skyline. Just please: Mind the bikes.

41. The KYW Newsradio Ticker

That steady clack-clack-clack in the background—once a signal of reports coming in on the teletype, now just sound effect—still makes the news seem newsier.

42. The Flicker of the Departures Board at 30th Street Station

LED screens may be the future, but that mass flipping sound, like an electronic flock of birds, heightens the trip anticipation.

43. The Action News Theme

Still moving us closer to your world, my friend, 40 years later.

44. “Youz”

Of all the many awful manifestations of the Philly accent (“Schtreet” for “Street,” “Hü-gee” for “Hoagie”), the bastardization of the second person plural may be our most signature. (Youz guys know what we mean.)

45. The Eagles Fight Song

The only time the city bonds in our collective palooka-ism. Fly, Eagles, fly!

46. Bucks County

Less than an hour up I-95 and you’re there: a world that seems light-years from the buzz and fizz of the city, all winding roads that zigzag up the Delaware River, along the place where Washington once crossed, abruptly narrowing at creaky covered bridges (ah, to hear the legends of the ghosts who haunt them), offering panoramas of rolling hills and sprawling antiques-filled farmhouses. It’s where Philadelphians come to escape the chaos of the city, and where New Yorkers come when they tire of Hamptons flash. Yet the quiet character of Bucks County still feels authentic, untouched, even as more people discover its bucolic charms.

47. The New Green Bike Lanes on the Ben Franklin Parkway

When the city painted the hard-to-see bike lanes along the Ben Franklin Parkway a hard-to-miss lime green last year, it made just the right statement: that cyclists are welcome here, too. Never have a few buckets of paint done so much to transform the lives of so many.

48. Krimpets

There are people who will argue that a Krimpet is merely stylized sponge cake. These people have never rubbed a butterscotch Krimpet upside down on a table to ensure proper icing-to-cake ratio. They have never felt devilish joy when buying a three-pack—two would be plenty, but since there’s an extra … —at the corner store. And they have surely never, ever bitten into the squishy-sweet cake and quietly thanked the good folks of Tastykake for baking the perfect treat.

49. Philadelphia Eddie

Back in the early 1700s, Blackbeard was the most feared pirate in the Atlantic—connected, well-trained and utterly tenacious, a living nightmare for any crew that crossed his path. With lit fuses tucked in his hat, he attacked under a flag that insinuated a torturous violent death at the hands of the most ruthless man on the sea. His head ultimately ended up on the point of a ship’s bow off the coast of North Carolina, but he would be reborn roughly 200 years later as a tattooist named “Philadelphia Eddie” Funk.

The lit fuses and flags are gone, replaced by lines and layers of once-vibrant tattoos that cover Funk head to toe—the retired tattoo artist having long ago completed the mission he started in 1952 with his first tattoo on Coney Island. Time, as we all know, is not kind, and has muddied Eddie’s once-clean lines into an amalgamation of one enormous green ink slick composed of what must formerly have been hundreds of unique, bold pieces done by artists around the world. His beard is also gone; now what catches your eye is a pompadour hairstyle that evokes all the subtlety of an old Chevy hood ornament. The effect, however, remains the same.

His lifetime of raucous adventures, beginning with a grocery-store robbery to get his first tattoo kit in the ’50s, comes through clearly in his voice. Gravelly and taut, Funk’s signature growl hints at collective decades spent on bar stools, inhaling highballs of high-powered liquor, chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes and chasing women. The spice of mischief comes across, too, tinged with the bit of danger one is bound to encounter and eventually embody when traveling the world in search of treasure. That treasure isn’t gold doubloons and gems, but tattoo pigments and techniques, which Funk has made it a mission to plunder and redistribute through the Americas.

It’s often been said that Philly is a town of great characters. For more than half a century, spilling ink in his namesake studio off of South Street, our own Blackbeard has been one of our best.

50. Tailgating at the Linc

It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the drinking game. Click here to read more about why we love tailgating the Linc.

>>Click here for numbers 51 to 76 and to see how much we love hearing Jerry Blavat yell “my man!”