Why Real Philadelphians Instinctively Hate Shiny New Things
Not long ago a treasured possession of mine — an audio tape my dad made when I was about four — got ruined. Somehow the tape in the cassette disappeared and now when I try to play it there’s a vast nothingness where sound should be. On the tape, I am pretending to be a lecturer at the Academy of Natural Sciences, schooling my dad in all kinds of animal facts — some true, some invented, and some attributed to Mommy, who was giving me some seriously inaccurate information (the natural diet of the elephant is not, in fact, buttered popcorn). When I’d get off track, my dad would prod me: “And where do giraffes live, Elizabeth?” “Africa!” That kind of thing.
A lot of people have such keepsakes — childhood recordings and home movies. The fact of the tape itself wasn’t unique. But I kept this tape in a special box, so that I’d never lose it, for two reasons. First of all, one side is comprised, entirely, of my dad methodically repeating curse words — “Shit. Shit. Shit. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” — slowly, in a grave tone. He sounds like a serial killer, but it’s also weirdly hilarious. He used to leave the tape playing for his parrot, Miles, hoping the bird would pick stuff up. He never did.
The other reason I treasured this tape was because it contained absolute, touching proof of my Philadelphia origins — proof that was better than a birth certificate because it could be heard in one key exchange:
“Where does the hippo live, Elizabeth?” my father asks.
“In the wooder,” I say.
“Wooder.” Not “water.” Not even “wuh-ter.” But “wooder.”
It’s a beautiful moment, and one I enjoyed listening to, and playing for friends, even though I’d always get emotional. To be so obviously Philly at such a young age, it just delighted me. From the time I could articulate concepts beyond “Cheerios in face hole, please,” I was aware of, and proclaimed, a fanatic attachment to my hometown — as though Philadelphia-love was genetically encoded, along with that Philadelphia accent. Until the tape broke, I liked being able to return to that atavistic version of myself, when I was just pure Philadelphian, nothing more — before the rest of the world intruded, before I was labeled all kinds of other things.
Of course, it’s good that the rest of the world intruded. It’s good that I mastered a bland, non-regionally specific accent. It’s good that I traveled abroad, and went elsewhere for school, and lived in other cities. I needed to broaden my horizons, and get some perspective. Yet despite the layers of experience, there are times when I return, unwittingly, to my pure Philadelphia self. I’m not talking about uncontrollably lunging for someone’s cheesesteak (though I’ve done that); I refer instead to a pattern of thought.
Let me give you an example.
This week the city announced a partnership between the Fairmount Park Conservancy, the Department of Parks & Recreation and Avram Hornik of FCM Hospitality called Parks on Tap, a program that will bring mobile beer gardens to city parks. Between June 29th and July 4th, there will be two concession trucks, seating, restrooms and amenities on the Schuylkill Banks at the Walnut Street Bridge; then the same vibe will be installed at Shofuso Japanese Garden, then at Belmont Plateau, and so on, for a total of 14 parks across the city, from Clark Park to FDR. One truck will serve craft beer and wine (and non-alcoholic drinks); the other will have food. If you’re trying to imagine what it all might look like, think of Hornik’s other projects: Morgan’s Pier, a PHS pop-up garden, Winterfest at Penn’s Landing.
There’s not much to say in response to this announcement, other than, “That sounds nice.” The project is intended to promote the city’s parks and bring people out who might not go otherwise. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the park system. Each pop-up only lasts a couple days, so any inconvenience (whatever that would be) is temporary. There is literally nothing to hate about this program. Who doesn’t enjoy sitting in a park on a pretty day with food and drink? Some Scrooge-like person. And yet, when I first read the Parks on Tap announcement — no, while I was still reading it — I felt my eyes roll and heard myself say, “Ugh. Seriously? Fuck off.”
Where the hell did that come from? Philly, that’s where.
Whenever something that smacks of new urbanism comes to the city — like a parklet or outdoor planters — my first reaction is negative. I’d even call it hostile — not generically hostile, but pure Philadelphian-hostile, which is marked by discrete characteristics: a defensive response to any perceived incursion, a resistance to change, a rejection of anything that seems bourgeois. If this attitude were a person, it would be a guy who, upon getting a new shirt as a gift, says, “What are you trying to say? That I’m a slob? Fuck you and your new shirts. I’ve been wearing this T-shirt since my first trip to the Vet. I wear this to work. I wore it to my grandfather’s funeral. I’ll wear it to your funeral.”
Pure Philadelphians seem to feel there’s an implicit critique in new projects — especially those carried out by non-natives — that suggests the status quo isn’t good enough. And if we Philly natives lived here all along and never noticed this need for improvement, what does that say about us? Were we too unsophisticated? Too lazy? Short-sighted? It makes me want to say, “Yeah, well, I thought about putting pop-up beer gardens in the city parks, like, in 10th grade. It just seemed stupid so I never did.”
I can actually recall times when I have rooted against urban experiments that were clearly good ideas, just so I could be right in saying: There are some things that’ll never work in this town, because we’re special and not sheep and we’re tougher than everyone else and we’d never diss our cabbies for some smartphone-based fancy-pants car service.
I’m always wrong. Every time I’ve said that Philly will never go for X, Philly goes for X, and usually for the better.
Take the Porch at 30th Street Station. When the University City District said it was going to transform that concrete wasteland outside of the train station into a colorful, pleasant public square with activities and places to relax, I thought they were out of their minds. I simply could not imagine my Philadelphians embracing it. I almost didn’t want us to — it sounded too happy for a gritty East Coast town. But guess what? Now that it’s here, who do you think is out on those swings almost every day, reading her book, wind in her hair, smiling at children and chatting with strangers? Yep, that’s me. I love it there.
The same goes for Spruce Street Harbor Park, a veritable paradise of community bonhomie, and for Winterfest, where I played Jenga by a fire as fireworks popped outside, and for bike share, which took far too long to get here, and a plethora of other projects that have made the city a more enjoyable place to live.
I know that Philadelphians in general, not just me, have a reputation for being negative about new developments, but I’m hoping by confessing my own sins of this kind, I might inspire others to similar reflection. And it’s not like you have to give up all your native cynicism; I don’t intend to. When I first heard that trucks will be serving “Pie in a Jar” at Parks on Tap, for instance, it just fueled my rage, and even now that I’ve embraced the overall PoT concept, I will smack any person who tries to get me to shell out hard-earned money for a rustically commodified gimmick. Either give me pie on a plate or pony up a soft pretzel with mustard. There’s only so much artifice a pure Philadelphian wooder-drinker can take.
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