Philadelphia Metropolis


The Van Seat

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By Christine Fisher

Whenever company asks how to get to my apartment in South Philadelphia, I tell them I live in the apartment between the flower shop and the van seat chained to an alley. These are the landmarks that define my corner of the world and while the flower shop is nice, it is the van seat that is the most popular feature in my neighborhood.

The grey seat, taken from your average soccer-mom van, hosts a rotating cast of characters. By day men who work and live in the neighborhood take breaks on the seat. They fan themselves in the heat and smile when my roommates and I come home.

In the evening the family who owns the flower shop gathers around the seat. One of the women bounces her adorable, chubby toddler on it. The toddler clambers around learning to walk and taking some of her first steps on the soft, grey fabric.

Sometimes a couple from around the corner naps on the seat. I found them there when I left the house at 5:30 one morning. Occasionally, when I return from work, they are sitting straight up, heads tilted back, mouths agape, eyes closed.

I tiptoe around them assessing their worn clothes, their frail frames and the open sores on their skin. I wonder if they have fleas or some sort of substance abuse problem? I wonder if they realize that the van seat is chained to the alley and not actually going anywhere.

When my un-air conditioned apartment becomes too much to handle in the summer heat, friends and I sit on the seat in the cool of the night air.  Other times the bench serves as a waiting place when friends arrive before I do, and on rare, scandalous occasions it is the site of late night make outs.


The South Philly Van Seat

Van Seat in question.jpgOne frightful day, I came home to find the seat unchained and lying in the pile of trash on the curb. I feared it would be gone forever and snapped a few pictures to remember the memories friends and I made on it. I felt I had developed a bond with the neighbors who shared it, and it upset me to see it in the trash.

Two days later, I came home wondering if I would be able to find my apartment. Now it was just "that apartment next to the flower shop." Without the van seat chained to the alley would I even recognize my front door? Just when I had nearly lost hope, I turned the corner to find a newer van seat chained to the alley.

This one was at least a foot wider. It had not yet lost the bounce in its cushion's springs, and there were no tears in the fabric. Within that week I noticed two more van seats along the street. Each offered a place for passerby to sit, relax and catch up with neighbors - a South Philly stoop, if you will.

In the weeks that followed, I grew more attached to my South Philly neighborhood and the van seat that served as my landmark. I lived in North Philly for two years before moving to South Philly, and while I appreciated the experiences I had in North Philly, I came to see the benefits of living in South Philly -- the diverse mix of people, the mixed uses that the neighborhood hosted and the sense of community. These things, I believe, are missing in North Philly. But something else is missing too. In North Philly there are no van seats chained to alleys or doorways. People have stoops, but they are not communal. They are not cushioned, and they are not cared for or replaced when they run down.

Maybe such shared spaces are what the rest of Philadelphia needs -- to build community and foster a sense of ownership and responsibility for your neighborhood and for the city. Maybe what we need are more ratty old van seats, strategically placed, to serve as a modern version of the stoop.


Christine Fisher can be found sitting on the van seat on South Ninth Street.








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