50 Years of Best of Philly: City Life

In honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of Best of Philly this August, we’re taking a monthly look back. This month: City Life!

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BOP50: The Boathouse Row lights won for Best City Decoration in 1981. But, like the rest of Best of Philly’s City Life section, that was not without controversy. / Photograph by James Drake/Getty Images

When you think of Philadelphia, what’s the first image that comes to mind? The Art Museum? Independence Hall? For many of us, it’s Boathouse Row, twinkling along the Schuylkill. It wasn’t always that way, though.

In the fall of 1978, lighting architect Raymond Grenald dreamed up a way to draw attention to the crumbling Victorian structures: Light ‘em up! The plan wasn’t without controversy — one 1979 letter to the editor in the Inquirer said the proposal “smacks of vulgar ostentation.” But today, the lights serve as an iconic Philadelphia image.

The editors of the 1981 edition of Best of Philly named the new lights the Best City Decoration. Over the years, the civic illumination has also been honored by us as Best City Lights and Best Nighttime Attraction.

This section of Best of Philly — City Life — serves as a bit of a catchall, a home for the many interesting and funky things that happen over the course of a year that don’t fit neatly into other sections. Maybe it’s the balloon artist who decorated our stoops during the first year of the pandemic. Or, in 1995, the best place to watch the O.J. Simpson trial: New City Cafe, “where you can sit all afternoon nursing a drink at the huge horseshoe-shaped bar with a good, clear view of the tube.”

And then there are wonders like the lights on Boathouse Row, memorialized in Best of Philly and now, decades on, an irreplaceable part of our city, vulgar ostentation be damned.

BOP50 City Life Timeline

Notable wins and winners

1980

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Back in the ’80s, Bookbinder’s had the tea. / Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philly

We asked Daily News gossip columnist Larry Fields his best places in the city to pick up gossip. His list? Saloon, Cous’s Little Italy, Palumbo’s, Old Original Bookbinder’s, and Franky Bradley’s.

Our picks in 2024? Palizzi Social Club and drop-off at Meredith Elementary.

1981

Boathouse Row / Photograph by R. Kennedy for Visit Philly

Best City Decoration went to the Boathouse Row lights (more on that above)

1983

Locust Walk at Penn / Photograph by J. Fusco for Visit Philly

Best Penn Tradition: “Feeling superior.” Poignant in its simplicity, and true to this day.

1984

Quaker City Cab / Photograph by B. Vartan Boyajian

Best Cab Company: Quaker City. “You call them, they come — fast.” By 2012, we were naming Uber “Best Reason to Never Ride in a Cab Again.” Sorry, Quaker City!

1992

As the AIDS epidemic swept through the city, a significant tonal shift appeared in Best of Philly. Out went the previous decades’ more lewd portrayals of the city’s queer community, and in came categories like Best AIDS Resource, handed to the AIDS Library of Philadelphia, “the most comprehensive publicly available selection of AIDS-related books and literature in the country.”

2002

Kimmel Center / Photograph by J. Fusco for Visit Philly

“Whether you love or hate the architecture,” we wrote, “the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall and Perelman Theater have reinvigorated the city’s cultural life.” Hey, some debates never die.

2011

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North Bowl’s photo booth / Photograph by Trevor Dixon

According to us, the photo booth at North Bowl was the best place to make out. It’s surely worth checking to see if that’s still true in 2024.

Published as “BOP 50: City Life!” in the June 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.