Philadelphia Metropolis

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Reading the City

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By Samantha Kirk

My father, a Navy veteran and contented suburban Maryland home-dweller, has trouble understanding why I love the city. When I talk about the row house I'm moving into in North Philadelphia, with its bathroom window offering an unobstructed view of the neighbor's bedroom, its crumbling drywall, its nightly chorus of stray cats, he waxes poetic about the Jeffersonian virtues of the countryside and the joys of homesteading. He knows I love the wilderness and the country; so why, he asks, have I spent most of my adult life seeking out the experience of the city?

It's true that I am quite the nature lover. I hike, I climb rocks, I garden; plant identification is one of my hobbies. Being able to read a forest or meadow by the leaf shapes hidden within it is a wonderful thing. Much, in fact, like walking down a city street and reading the ages of the houses by the shape of the windows and doors--and, for good or ill, reading how rich or poor an area is by seeing which fonts the shop signs use and counting the number of check-cashing joints per block. For the obsessive symbol-analyst, the urban and the rural both tell incredibly complex stories. I'm an editor, so I read words all day. (Actually, I read half the day, and then I spend the rest of the day answering the phone and looking at sales reports. But let's not split hairs.) It's only natural, I think, for me to want to read everything else. 

So I read Philadelphia. It is a visual city in so many ways. Its residents are visual. It has, by my count, five [visual] art schools within the city limits--that's four more than D.C., although I doubt anyone's surprised. Its buildings are bold, both the good and the bad; the crumbling face of the Divine Lorraine is just as proud and fierce in its own way as the once record-breaking tower of City Hall.

My street at the very edge of Northern Liberties features its own little series of essays. In them I read about people who love to garden, people who've lived in Northern Liberties since it was just "that place near Fishtown," people who've moved into the neighborhood in the past 10 years with their small children and their dogs and their graphic design jobs (there's that visual element again). And when I put those stories together, I read a larger story about urban renewal in Philadelphia, or maybe about gentrification. I see a specialty food market eyeing a grubby deli from down the street. I see ground breaking for a major grocery store a block and a half from the local strip club. But mostly I see what happens when a group of property owners start thinking and talking about themselves as a neighborhood. 

I love all of this visual negotiation. I never noticed as much of it at my previous home in College Park (a suburb of D.C.). We certainly all complained about the new high-rise student housing and the vacant properties on Route 1, but what I thought of as the real center of that town--namely, the University of Maryland campus--was a fixed set of structures, a pleasant but static place. The conversations College Park had with itself about being a neighborhood weren't as easy to read in the landscape as they are in Philadelphia. And aside from the college campus, I think the reading difficulty was also because reading the suburbs is like reading Keats with no annotations; plenty of people do it, and it's still an enjoyable experience, but parts of every poem remain silent, unexplained, like closed garage doors in suburban houses. I like to buy the annotated edition, I like to peek in garage doors. These impulses made College Park begin to chafe at me.

Then, conveniently enough, I fell in love with a man who lived in Philadelphia, specifically Fishtown. He described it to me in detail over Guinnesses at McGlinchey's when we first met, not knowing how much I loved to read places

His description of that Irish immigrant neighborhood was the beginning of two important relationships for me; one with the man, and one with the city. My father, like most fathers, may not like the part about the man, but he at least understands that kind of relationship. To help him understand the other kind, I think I'll take him with me on a reading tour of the city. I can't decide if I should start with City Hall or the Divine Lorraine. 

 

 Samantha Kirk is an editor who lives and reads in Northern Liberties.

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