in October 2005
Next Great City: Philly, Really
WITH HER TOUSLED BLOND hair and cat-eye glasses, and dressed in stripes, paisleys, and polka dots, Elizabeth Fiend looks like she hatched from a church basement rummage sale. This punk rock version of Martha Stewart hosts "BiG TeA PaRtY," a public television show charting Philly's sprawling street life and politics (and offering cooking tips). I join Fiend to tour South Philadelphia, the city's famed working-class Italian neighborhood. We navigate our way to the Italian Market, redolent of fish, woodsmoke, and anise.
"There's only one way to do things around here," Fiend says of her neighborhood. "Their way. That's the Philly "addytude"—a type of honesty with a tough-guy edge."
I get a helping of Philly addytude while ordering a hoagie at Chickie's Italian Deli. Though it's only 3 p.m., and the place is packed with patrons, Chickie's will close in an hour. "It's not about maximizing profit," whispers Fiend. "They don't like working nights. They close each day at 4, or when the bread runs out, whichever comes first. But the food's so good, you work around that."
"Small?" barks the counterman.
"Okay," I gulp, "roast pork and...." I see a choice of cheese on the menu. "Make that sharp provolone." Fiend telegraphs approval.
I pause. Fiend hisses: "Ask for the broccoli rabe," a fancy relative of turnip greens.
"...and some broccoli rabe."
The man's face brightens.
"Well, awlright," he says.
"I thought broccoli rabe was yuppie," I say to Fiend, as we walk our carryout to her house.
"No way," she says. "The yuppies stole it from South Philly."
Fiend and her husband, Allen, live on a block of sturdy brick row houses. The plastic awnings, clean stoops, and front window religious displays epitomize the neighborhood character. Italian. Immutable. Unchangeable.
"But change is happening here," Fiend says, as we tuck into lunch in her green and lavender kitchen. "The kids who grew up in South Philly are moving out to suburbia to find their dreams. When the old people go, Vietnamese, Mexicans, and hipsters take their place."
Add Buddhist Cambodians, Catholic Lebanese, and Muslim Algerians. Recent immigrants are seeding the crowded streets with diverse languages and new restaurants. They're also, inevitably, diluting the old Philly addytude.
No matter. South Philly still takes care of its own. When a Cambodian temple caught fire in 2003, the men who rescued the Buddhist monks were their neighbors from two doors down, which happened to be a group of Mummers, Philadelphia's famous costumed clubbers that parade every New Year's Day. "We really cared about those monks," the Mummer's Museum executive director told the Philadelphia Daily News. "We have a history with that temple."
HOW DO YOU KNIT TOGETHER a rapidly diversifying city? Driving along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway—Philadelphia's version of the Champs Élysée—I hear city information officer Dianah Neff's answer: "Use invisible thread."
Neff's mission is to turn Philadelphia into one giant WiFi hot spot. That's geekspeak for putting "wireless fidelity" transmitters on light poles to beam an Internet signal into citizens' desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, or PDAs. Subscribers will pay a small fee, waived in some cases, and will get screaming fast Internet service that's almost as available as broadcast television signals.
Visitors will be able to Google train schedules in Love Park, find a shoe sale while strolling Market Street, read a biography of Ben Franklin on their way to tour Independence Hall, or pay a parking ticket without ever standing in line. It's one of the more ambitious wireless plans on Earth. "How soon will it be up and running?" I ask. "End of the decade?"
"Oh, goodness no," Neff says. "By next year."
She smiles. She knows she impressed me. We tour several pilot areas where the city has already affixed wireless transmitters. Cable and telephone companies have objected to the plan, for obvious reasons. But, Neff argues, those companies don't have a financial incentive to blanket the entire city, especially the poorer areas of North and West Philadelphia. Going completely WiFi, she continues, will be as advantageous to Philly in the information age as the Delaware River or the Pennsylvania Railroad were in the industrial age.
"The city's future depends on us being digital," Neff says, as we drive to the Powelton neighborhood, site of a program training low-income mothers to telecommute, doing data-processing via wireless connection. It's another good idea from a city that seems to have a fair share of them.
ONE OF PHILADELPHIA'S GREATEST assets is of a low-tech variety—its sidewalks. A city needs shoulders rubbing together to produce the friction that makes things happen. Philadelphia's density and sheer walkability insure that people will keep mixing it up—and all that debating, flirting, and bargaining generates ideas. Maybe that's why they wrote the Declaration of Independence here. The city was once, and is again, a place for creative solutions and big pictures.
Kyle Farley and I ended our walking tour in Rittenhouse Square, one of the five original parks that Penn laid out. Sunday shoppers stream into the tree-shaded square from all four corners. "Jane Jacobs, the urban theorist who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, loved this place," Farley tells me. "She said it's like a ballet, with people dancing across the stage."
Dancing, I thought—that's right. Philadelphia is like a stage, no matter whether the performance of the moment is a waltz, rock, or salsa. Keep the red curtain raised, Mr. Peale. This city is ready for its second act.
Contributing editor Andrew Nelson, a connoisseur of American cities, wrote about Charleston in the September issue and Los Angeles in July/August. This is freelance photographer Raymond Patrick's first feature assignment for Traveler.
*Contact the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation for more information.