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30 things to love about philadelphia
new affection from a new aficionado
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
9.5.07
general

Is it love, or infatuation? Am I completely enamored of Philadelphia because it’s the first new city I’ve moved to in almost a dozen years? Or because I’ve heard so many expectation-lowering information sessions, so many qualifiers and apologies, that I couldn’t help but find the city to be better than advertised?

Or, is it possible that Philly is... just awesome?

Only time will tell, but in my first 30 days here, I can tell you I’ve found at least 30 reasons to love Philadelphia, no questions asked.

1. History, history, history. I live a few blocks from the Liberty Bell, sure, but it’s more the accidental history that gets me, the little plaques that mark things here and there. You discover them as you go about your regular business. Oh look, there’s Napoleon’s brother’s house. And the theatre next to the bus stop is the oldest theatre in the United States. When I went to return some pillows at West Elm the other day, I noticed that the building used to house Thomas Eakins’ studio. Surprise! It's history!

2. Food carts. Now, I’m not necessarily going to make a habit of the $2.75 kung pao, but I think it’s awesome that it’s available. You’ll definitely find me back at the food cart at 20th and Market, where you get falafel, grilled chicken, pita, and whatever else Christos feels like giving you that day, in quantities no normal human can consume, for $8. Breakfast and lunch, Chinese and Greek, fruit salad and French fries -- if it can be eaten, you can find it on a street corner in Center City.

3. Hipster coffeehouses. Particularly this one, but I gotta tell ya, there are about two dozen more I want to try.

4. A mix of people on the street that is always worth watching. Blue collar, white collar, pink collar, no collar. And while I don’t advocate viewing fellow human beings as decoration... they sure are interesting to look at.

5. Water ice. Not that I love the taste, it’s just that the name makes me giggle. It’s water! Made into ice! Water ice! Nobody else has it, do they?

6. Claudio’s Fresh Mozzarella Store. Yes, that’s right. Not a store. Not a cheese store. A store that sells, specifically, fresh mozzarella made with a machine that costs more than a Honda Civic. If you know your scamorza from your burrata, walking into this place is accompanied by that unmistakable choir-of-angels burst of song.

7. How close together everything is. Center City really is the center. It’s like living in Dupont Circle and Penn Quarter and Capitol Hill, or Chelsea and Midtown and SoHo, all at once. If I can’t find it within a mile and a half radius of my apartment, I don’t need it.

8. Reading Terminal Market. Too many charms to list, but among them, along with the prices and the nectarines and the Amish, I’d be remiss not to mention the guy at DiNic’s who’s a dead ringer for Milo Ventimiglia. Mmmm, FauxMilo.

9. Okay, the pork sandwich at DiNic’s is good too. Better than good. Who-cares-about-cheesesteaks-anyway good.

10. Washington Square Park, a pretty and welcoming patch of green inhabited, on a recent Sunday afternoon, by inhabitants reading books, breastfeeding babies, riding skateboards, snoozing on benches, and generally minding their own business in a cheerful, open kind of way.

11. The architecture, which mixes the last 20 decades or so in a knee-to-elbow mishmash that somehow ends up looking cool.

12. Capogiro Gelato. The choirs of angels are working overtime. The flavors change every day at both locations, and it’s almost a shame not to call out specific flavors as items of note. As a matter of fact...

13. Cioccolato Scuro

14. Rosemary Honey Goat’s Milk

15. Lemon Opal Basil Sorbetto

16. Stracciatella

17. Thai Coconut Milk... okay, I gotta stop this, I'm getting hungry.

18. The massive concentration of hospitals in my neighborhood, which not only makes it feel like a pretty safe place to have a medical emergency, but also results in an endless parade of folks in scrubs, who are occasionally so thick on the ground it feels less like a street scene and more like a pajama party.

19. BYOB. Now, this has taken some getting used to. But as an idea, bringing your own bottle of wine to a restaurant instead of paying a 3x markup over retail, that’s a pretty good deal. I love it, it just still feels weird, especially when the “B” extends into hard liquor and I find myself walking around with a bottle of Jose Cuervo sticking out of my purse.

20. DiBruno Brothers. Sure, some of their stuff is a rip ($17 cocoa? Really?) but if you shop right, you can find the good deals. At the front café they’ll toast a bagel on the panini press. With butter it will set you back $1. Add in an iced coffee, and that's breakfast for $3.03. The prices are the same at both branches so if you're going to pay $20 a pound for cheese you might as well do it in the comfort of the well-staffed Rittenhouse location unless you're already in the Italian Market for other reasons.

21. It’s easier to cross a one-way street than a two-way street, since you only have to look in one direction. And Center City is almost exclusively one-way streets.

22. City Hall: Best. City Hall. Ever. And I’m not just saying that because the City Hall in the town where I grew up was also the police station, fire station, and library. Philadelphia’s old City Hall really is that gorgeous, and like the Washington Monument, you just look up every once in a while and there it is, and you go, Ah-ha!

23. Rittenhouse Square. Not as peaceful or welcoming as Washington Square, but bustling and fun and always worth walking through. Some days you might find yourself in the audience of a free outdoor concert; others, walking through the filming of an M. Night Shyamalan movie (The Happening, due out summer 2008).

24. 30th Street Station, neither so grand nor so central as Grand Central, but tall and open and elegant in a very similar way.

25. The bread at Sarcone's. Chewy, durable, perfectly seeded. Ruins you for all other breads. Like the DiNic's pork sandwich with provolone and broccoli rabe, the Sarcone Special hoagie will make you wonder what all the fuss is about cheesesteaks when they're maybe Philly's third-best specialty sandwich.

26. Obviously I'm going a little overboard on the food-related reasons to love the city, since food is one of my great passions, but I can't fail to add one more: the Italian Market, where not only can you get the best of all things Italian (see #6), you can get just about any meat you're curious about, including the only-slightly-unusual goat and rabbit or the next-step-out-there gator, turtle, and kangaroo.

27. A grid system that's simple as pie to negotiate once you learn the set of central streets (Market, Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, Pine, South) and figure out that there is no 14th Street, because that's Broad.

28. A wide-open rental housing market that will give you what you need, whether you've got $2500 or $500 to spend per month. The variety is almost absurd. Warehouse lofts, chopped-up 1830s mansions, big clean highrise condos. Former parlors, former walk-in closets. There's something out there for everyone.

29. Just the right mix of glamour and grit.

30. The feeling that after another 30 days, there might be another 30 things that are just as excellent that I haven't yet spotted. That constant awareness of the possibility of discovery.

Of all the things I've found to love in Philly so far, that's what I really love.


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry

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COMMENTS

russ carr
9.5.07 @ 12:32a

I love ignoring commas and reading "breastfeeding babies riding skateboards."

And yeah, now I'm hungry too. But since I can get none of those magical parochial angelical things here in the Midwest, I'll have to settle for...a cheesesteak.

adam kraemer
9.5.07 @ 9:19a

Oh, I love Philly. Though I may be a bit biased, having grown up in its suburbs.

Oh, and Montreal's City Hall was designed by the same architect, I believe. Possibly he also designed D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza.

And you totally forgot scary, soggy pretzels in a paper bag with three pieces of salt on them sold by a guy you wouldn't trust to water your plants.

For the record, by the way, there's a big difference between a cheesesteak and a steak and cheese sub. Even a "Philly-style" one. That difference is the Amoroso rolls that you can only get in Philadelphia and maybe one or two places that import them into NYC (Fetch, for example). Also, gotta love the Whiz.

[edited]

neil feldman
9.5.07 @ 11:17a

I've had fun every time that I have been to Philly, but there is one giant negative about the city that you are omitting: Eagles fans.

jael mchenry
9.5.07 @ 11:45a

Heh. I was going to say something about sports, but I haven't done much in that vein yet, and heaven knows it's... a divisive issue.

I congratulated a Phillies fan the other day on their July achievement of being the first team in professional sports history to lose 10,000 games. He was not as amused as I was. I'm thinking about not doing that again.



ken mohnkern
9.6.07 @ 2:04p

Don't forget PA's State Store System. Competition? Variety? Booze on Sunday? Who needs that stuff?

(Though they've started keeping the bigger, better, more interesting stores open on Sundays. But still.)

jael mchenry
9.6.07 @ 2:36p

Well, I think I'll save the state store system for "things I don't love about Philadelphia." It took a couple of weeks to find the wine and liquor, and then another week after that to find the beer. And then I found out I live two blocks from The Foodery, which has a pretty extensive beer selection... though I'm not sure about their prices. The deli where I bought a six-pack of Magic Hat certainly didn't advertise that said six-pack would set me back $12.

It's enough to make me drown my sorrows in a pint of Cioccolato Scuro. (Which is, of course, only slightly cheaper, but feels less exploitive.)

sandy smith
9.6.07 @ 2:42p

So you love City Hall too?

For a good while, many Philadelphians didn't. Most do now.

Here's a little history for you.

tracey kelley
9.7.07 @ 11:04a

I've only been there once, but I did enjoy it. We walked and walked and WALKED and walked and walked. Visited many cool things.

I want to learn to row. That aspect of big river culture is so foreign to me, and yet, very cool.

Reading Terminal Market is incredible. We had a blast in Chinatown, too, and yeah, the history.

alex b
9.7.07 @ 6:14p

I've never been to Philly or ever thought of it past the Liberty Bell, but now I'd like to see it!

lisa r
9.7.07 @ 6:36p

I've lived an hour from Philly for the past 5 years, and the only place there I've ever been was the airport. I'd love to tour it--and touring things by myself isn't a problem--but I don't want to deal with the traffic.

Maybe the next time Tracey's in the area we can tackle it together!

Jael--I hear you on the state alcohol control craziness. I grew up in NC, where you could buy beer, wine and fortified wine in the grocery store. The only thing you had to buy at the ABC store was the hard stuff and liqueurs. I've lived in several other states with varying versions of what could and could not be bought outside of the state's control, but PA is the most restrictive. What I find amusing is that they have retail beer outlets and wineries can have their own outlets away from the actual premises of the winery, but neither beverage can be sold in a grocery store. I suppose the idea is that the more troublesome it is to buy the stuff, the less likely someone is to drink it. Come on, should I really have to go all the way to a Wine and Spirits store to get a bottle of wine to make beef bourgignon? I guess since legislators only have to go about a block from the state capitol in Harrisburg to get their own booze when in session, the inconvenience to the rest of the state's citizens is irrelevant. Besides, they're too busy trying to help the Philly casinos compete with Atlantic City.

All grumbling aside...let me wish you a belated "welcome to the neighborhood!"

[edited]

adam kraemer
9.8.07 @ 3:08a

but I don't want to deal with the traffic

It's funny, but I could swear there are trains running into Philly all the time...

lisa r
9.8.07 @ 9:58a

Adam,

There are--and Amtrak comes right through Lancaster--but you're talking to a southern gal who's never used public transport except planes (except for Disney buses and monorails!). I'm not about to tackle Philly's public transport system on my own when I don't know the city or the routes...something my local friends with more experience there have said was a wise decision.

However, I'm looking forward to finally hitting King of Prussia for shopping. ;)

adam kraemer
9.8.07 @ 10:02a

I highly recommend it.
I also recommend staying off the subway. The commuter rails are good. The subway, not so much. Just a heads up.

ken mohnkern
9.9.07 @ 12:32p

you could buy beer, wine and fortified wine in the grocery store

Fortified wine? What's that - Colt 45 Mad Dog?

I always liked that Philly was a low city. Wasn't there once an ordinance that no building could be higher than Penn's statue on top of City Hall? That ordinance is history now, and Philly's got its share of skyscrapers.

[edited]

brook dain
9.9.07 @ 11:02p

Thanks for the article on Philadelphia.... I went to Drexel University and lived in philly for 5 years. It was my first big city living experience... Life in Philadelphia was hard .... But not as hard as it seems to be for you! How did you survive "a couple of weeks" with out knowing where the liquor store was?

Thank god I moved to California where you can buy beer, wine, and booze in the grocery store, 7-11 and just about every where (even on sunday)..... anything else is just barbaric.

Great article though, made me think of alot of things I hadn't in years...... I lived eating out of street vendors food trucks..... Yummy.... No really I mean it.

jael mchenry
9.10.07 @ 4:52p

I am so not used to good food trucks -- DC only lifted its near-complete ban on street food vendors a few weeks ago -- but I don't doubt you could live off them around here, quite happily.

Ken -- to quote from Sandy's article linked above -- For most of its history, City Hall was the tallest building in Philadelphia, thanks to an unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” that limited building heights to the 549-foot-high brim of William Penn’s hat...that agreement was broken in 1987. Which is nice, because Philly feels like New York to me in a lot of ways, and the thing I like least about New York is the skyscrapers blotting out the light. In Philadelphia you can almost always see the sky.

lisa r
9.10.07 @ 9:57p

Ken--

Fortified wines are things like port, sherry, marsala, etc. They're called fortified because they've had additional alcohol added to them, usually in the form of brandy. So basically, they're wine with liquor added to increase the alcohol content.

And thank heavens for them...what would life be like without veal or chicken marsala or sherry cake? ;)

ken mohnkern
9.11.07 @ 12:10a

Thanks, Jael, for reading the links so I don't have to.

And Lisa, I didn't know the term fortified wine. Now I'm thirsty for port.

dan gonzalez
9.11.07 @ 3:11a

I've been reading so much bad news lately, I inadvertantly read this title as '30 Things to love about Pedophilia' and my fist thought was 'where in the hell is Julianelle going with this one?'

As a Cowboys fan, I normally wouldn't go to Philly unless I felt a sudden need to urinate indiscriminately, but Jael has, once again, eloquently convinced me to sober up, zip it, and experience real cultural enlightenment.

lisa r
9.11.07 @ 10:24a

Ken, it's the trivial stuff I'm good at. Now if I could just figure out where I put my cell phone bill....

sandy smith
9.21.07 @ 4:15p

Ken: It wasn't a city ordinance, but rather an unwritten, informal "gentleman's agreement". Old Philadelphia had many such "understandings," and they were generally observed. However, Willard Rouse did ask City Council if there would be any problem getting approval for him to break the height limit with his One Liberty Place tower.

It's a good thing he did break it, too. When I moved here in 1982, Philadelphia had one of the most monotonous skylines I'd ever seen: All the tall buildings went up to, but not above, Billy Penn's hatbrim, giving downtown a buzz cut. One Liberty gave builders permission to give Philly a real skyline.

Lisa: Next time you're in Center City, stop by SEPTA headquarters at 1234 Market Street and drop $19.00 on SEPTA's Official City and Suburban Street and Transit Maps ($9.50 each). These very detailed maps list all the streets and neighborhoods/communities in the city and its environs, with rail and bus transit routes overlaid. Information about the routes and street indexes are on the back.

And I wouldn't worry overmuch about using the busy Market-Frankford Line ("the El") during the day or most of the evening, either. Taking the Broad Street Line ("the Sub[way]") through North Philly is a little dicier. There's no easier way to get to the stadiums in South Philly than via the Broad Street Subway, though.

Perhaps I should give my credentials here to back my opinion: I'm a regular SEPTA commuter with a Zone 3 monthly TrailPass. I ride the R3 out to Swarthmore every morning, there to catch the bus to Chester, from which I take the R2 back into town every night. Occasionally, if I miss the train or need to run an errand on the way home, I will take the combination of the 109 bus to/from 69th Street and the El into/out of Center City. Then again, a lot of people don't believe me when I tell them that there is a nice part of Chester, either.



[edited]



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