American cities are getting to be pretty grim places, and Philadelphia is no exception according to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ 2022 “State of the City” report, just released yesterday. “Two years into the pandemic, Philadelphia is showing signs of an economic and public health recovery, yet some serious challenges remain,” runs the introduction, and boy, they ain’t kidding:
The pandemic interrupted a period of unprecedented growth for Philadelphia, but some harsher realities underlaid that success story. For example, before COVID-19, the city’s economy was expanding, with an impressive increase in total jobs. However, those employment gains were not equally distributed. Opportunities for city residents tended to be low-wage positions in low-paying sectors of the economy; as a result, wages for Philadelphians working in the city declined by 5% over almost a decade. The loss of jobs from the pandemic, concentrated in lower-wage sectors such as the retail and leisure and hospitality sectors, had a disproportionate impact on city workers in those positions — especially Black and female workers.
And in recent months, safety remained a major concern for Philadelphians, threatening all aspects of Philadelphia’s return to pre-pandemic life. In a 2022 poll by The Pew Charitable Trusts, 70% of residents cited the combination of crime, drugs, and public safety as the biggest issue facing the city. At the center of this challenge is gun violence, which rose throughout the country in 2021, with Philadelphia alone reporting 2,326 shootings that year. Despite a slight decrease in total violent crime in the city, gun violence soared — including a 28% increase in robberies with a firearm in the past year.
In addition, the number of homicides in Philadelphia has been rising each year for the past eight years; in 2021, it reached 562, a historic high — and more than double the number recorded in 2013.
On the other hand, the Phils are still second from the basement in the NL East ten games into the season. So there’s nowhere to go but up (except last place itself).
While I was in Philadelphia this past weekend, the big sports news, apart from the launch of another disastrous season for the Phillies, was the debut of Blob, the mascot of the Philadelphia Stars, the new United States Football League soccer team. The unlikely name, chosen via an online poll a la that for Boaty McBoatface, does seem appropriate: Those narcoleptic drooping eyelids and insipid slackjawed smile over a pile of red velour protoplasm suggest a vaguely disconcerting oversized globule of apathy. Not that Philadelphians themselves will have a chance to see Blob meandering around the field in a marijuana-induced haze any time soon; all of the eight games the Stars will play this season will take place in Birmingham, Alabama. The excellent Billy Penn web site has the whole story.
Sports mascots have had a pretty ambivalent history in Philadelphia since the introduction of the Phillie Phanatic at Veterans Stadium in 1978 to attract more children and families to home games; unlike the cheery, coked-up, but kid-friendly Mr. Met, there’s something disturbing about all of them. The frantic, oversized green Big Bird mutant, for all his appeal to youngsters, has been called “the most-sued mascot in the majors,” having been dragged into court several times on personal injury charges, leading the Philadelphia Daily News to dub it the “big green litigation machine” in 2010. Once memorably described as “the mascot version of a stab wound,” Gritty, the mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, is just as frantic as the Phanatic, but exhibits more than a touch of a bug-eyed, amphetamine-fuelled sociopath as well, and I have no doubt he’ll also end up in a courtroom sometime soon.
All sports mascots have a bit of the stupid in them, and in a way the Phanatic, Gritty, and now Blob — together the cast of a nightmarish acid trip — are allowing Philadelphians to provide something of a metacommentary on that stupidity. By christening Blob with his weird name and embracing the psychotic antics of Gritty, Philly sports fans indulge in a little comic hostility to the whole idea of giant furries traipsing about a stadium, getting in the way of the game and generally wreaking dumb havoc.
You can keep your Mr. Met. I’ll throw my lot in with the sociopaths and Philadelphians. As the Billy Penn reporter concludes, “All hail Blob. Go Stars!”
I’ve just gotten back from a visit to Philadelphia, my first in eight months, which was far too long. Though only in town for a long weekend, I managed to take care of some unfinished business — a first drink at the Pen & Pencil Club, introducing my wife to Dirty Frank’s — and perhaps even inspired myself to write more about the City of Brotherly Love in the near future.
But where to begin? Philadelphia’s charms are hard to define, but Philly native Agnes Repplier, one of the most celebrated essayists of bygone days, took a stab at it in the introduction to her 1898 Philadelphia: The Place and the People, and for now I’ll let her offer it in her own words, which might be mine had I her talent for elegance:
And now, after two centuries have rolled slowly by, something of [Philadelphia founder Quaker William Penn’s] spirit lingers in the quiet city which preserves the decorum of those early years, which does not jostle her sister cities in the race of life, nor shout loud cries of triumph in their ears, nor flaunt magnificent streamers in the breeze to bid the world take note of each pace she advances.
Every community, like every man, carries to old age the traditions of its childhood, the inheritance derived from those who bade it live. And Philadelphia, though she has suffered sorely from rude and alien hands, still bears in her tranquil streets the impress of the Founder’s touch. Simplicity, dignity, reserve, characterize her now as in Colonial days. She remembers those days with silent self-respect, placing a high value upon names which then were honoured, and are honoured still. The pride of the past mingles and is one with the pride of the present. The stainless record borne by her citizens a hundred and fifty years ago flowers anew in the stainless record their great-great-grandsons bear to-day; and the city cherishes in her cold heart the long annals of the centuries, softening the austerity of her presence for these favoured inheritors of her best traditions. She is not eager for the unknown; she is not keen after excitement; she is not enamoured of noise. Her least noticeable characteristic is enthusiasm. Her mental balance cannot lightly be disturbed. Surtout pas trop de zêle, she says with Talleyrand; and the slow, sure process by which her persuasions harden into convictions does not leave her, like a derelict, at the mercy of wind and wave. She spares herself the arduous labour of forming new opinions every morning, by recollecting and cherishing her opinions of yesterday. It is a habit which promotes solidity of thought.
To those who by right of heritage call themselves her sons, and even to such step-children as are, by nature or grace, attuned to the chill tranquillity of their foster mother, Philadelphia has a subtle charm that endures to the end of life. In the restful atmosphere of her sincere indifference, men and women gain clearness of perspective, and the saving grace of modesty. Few pedestals are erected for their accommodation. They walk the level ground, and, in the healthy absence of local standards, have no alternative save to accept the broad disheartening standards of the world. Philadelphians are every whit as mediocre as their neighbours, but they seldom encourage each other in mediocrity by giving it a more agreeable name. Something of the old Quaker directness, something of the old Quaker candour, — a robust candour not easily subdued, — still lingers in the city founded by the “white truth-teller,” whose word was not as the words of other men, — spoken to conceal his thoughts, and the secret purpose of his soul.
Anthony Bourdain visited Philadelphia in 2012 as part of the second season of his series The Layover (I’d never heard of it either; it lasted all of two seasons on the Travel Channel). One of these episodes was devoted to Philadelphia, where he spent 48 hours sampling food and drink, among other things, and watching the episode a few nights ago I experienced a most uncanny sense of déjà vu. I’d just come back from a five-day sojourn to my home town, and I was surprised to find Bourdain had visited and enjoyed … well, most of the places I had. He stayed in what was then the Four Seasons Hotel on Logan Square (now The Logan, a Hilton hotel, where my family and I also stayed); like Marilyn and myself, he enjoyed a tour of the Italian Market and stopped by Di Bruno Bros. on 9th Street to sample a few cheeses; he spent several hours enjoying the bizarre exhibits of the Mütter Museum; he spent several more hours at the Barnes Foundation; he threw a spotlight on City Tavern, Walter Staib’s restaurant that fell victim to the coronavirus last year; and, like any good Philadelphian, he drank at Dirty Frank’s and the Pen & Pencil Club late into the night. I have happy memories of all of these, and except for the City Tavern, I can enjoy them all again: some things don’t change, and Philadelphia is in many ways one of those things.
The engagingly irritable Bourdain concluded his visit to the city by observing that “Philadelphia is a town with a low tolerance for bullshit and a whole lotta heart.” The native Philadelphian in myself is tempted to respond with a raspberry to that “whole lotta heart” comment, but he’s not far off the mark.
As it happens, I’m writing from New York, which is where I’ve lived for about 25 years, and in writing about Philadelphia I feel a little like James Joyce writing about Dublin from Paris and Trieste (without Joyce’s talent, alas). But I was born in Philadelphia and lived there for most of the first half of my life, and perhaps what keeps me a Philadelphian is my temperament — that low tolerance for bullshit and the city as the place that served as the landscape for my maturation, if not the whole lotta heart. Philadelphians are famously stubborn and, as Bourdain’s conversations with the city’s residents prove, prone to plain-talking, humility, and the ability to reel off a few yards of conversational obscenities unparalleled in rather more upscale communities. After all, this is the city which once proudly rolled out “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” as a promotional slogan.
New York has its own unique and undoubted virtues and attractions to be sure, but a low tolerance for bullshit is not one of them, and this may also speak directly to my own temperament. New Yorkers themselves can’t be entirely to blame for this. As the self-described “greatest city in the world” and a powerful center of the financial, entertainment, publishing, advertising and marketing, and non-profit industries, much of their livelihood depends on the continued generation and distribution of this bullshit, and the concomitant need to believe in this bullshit requires them to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.
What is clear as I walk through Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is that the city’s greatness (if it can be called that) is a ground-level greatness. New York may be a walkable city too, but the walk is of a profoundly different nature. Manhattan is a city of skyscrapers, buildings reaching far into the air and rendering the people inside and below them insignificant atoms of a hulking concrete, steel, and glass beast. Until 1987 and Willard Rouse’s construction of the 945-foot-high One Liberty Place, a gentleman’s agreement prevented real estate developers from exceeding the 548-foot height of the William Penn statue on the top of City Hall (the construction of which itself was ridden with political corruption); additional skyscrapers were built in the following years, transforming the city’s once-unique and easily recognizable appearance into something resembling hundreds of cities around the world (although in recent years developers have been more careful to preserve at least some of City Hall’s centrality to its skyline).
A walk through Philadelphia’s streets and alleys exposes the walker to an art, history, and domesticity that validates the walker as an individual, with individual quirks, histories, and significance himself. Apart from Center City, little of Philadelphia rises above four or five stories high. As Bourdain’s visit and my own experience prove, that ground-level appeal is consequently not limited to the city’s architectural features. The Mural Art Project and Isaiah Zagar’s colorful mosaics can be experienced throughout the 142 square miles of the city limits, stopping the solitary walker in his tracks. It is a rare route through the city that fails to traverse cobblestone streets and two-century-old buildings that remind the walker of the city’s and the nation’s history. And the longer one stays in the city, the more frequently one comes across ghostly reminiscences of their own history: after drinks at Dirty Frank’s and visits to Independence Park, the walker begins to see the city as a mirror of their own experience, as an individual, as a Philadelphian, as an American. One senses one’s own paradoxically ghostly permanence as the city itself curates its own history.
This is not to say that Philadelphia is some kind of metropolitan Eden. It isn’t, and its failings are legion. The public school system is reputedly in disastrous shape and has been for decades. Gun violence plagues Philadelphia to a degree greater than in other cities. And the tragic history of racial relations in Philadelphia continues to cast a pall on the present day; the career of Frank Rizzo and the self-inflicted 1985 MOVE firestorm in West Philadelphia remain palpable scars on the city’s psychic landscape. A later Philadelphia advertising slogan, “See what people who believe in the power of each other can do” — ironically launched in 1985 as well, in conjunction with that year’s Live Aid concert — rings particularly hollow in this context.
All right, that campaign was bullshit too, but hypocrisy is a human, not a geographical, vice. Regardless, as I contemplate my 60th year (which will begin very soon), I do keep thinking back to how my temperament and character were at least in part formed by Philadelphia, for good and bad; it’s a temperament and character that was profiled pretty accurately by the late Mr. Bourdain. But maybe closer to the mark is an observation from Peter McAndrews of Philly’s La Porta Ristorante, who also appeared in the program: “New York is a place where people go to reinvent themselves; Philadelphia is a place where people discover who they are.” And no degree of reinvention, however many years you spend in New York, can ever change who you are.
All cities have their landmark bars — in New York they might include McSorley’s and the Cedar Tavern, for example, not to mention Pfaff’s; the latter two are with us no more — but unquestionably one of Philadelphia’s is Dirty Frank’s. We’ll be taking the kids down to Philly sometime in the next few weeks, and if we manage to swing by Frank’s, I’ll be introducing the third generation of the Hunka family to this cash-only watering hole.
My father first started going there in the 1950s, I believe, about twenty years after its opening on November 8, 1933, in the wake of Prohibition. In the 1950s, as in the 1980s when I spent countless evenings and much of my salary at Frank’s, the bar was a vibrant heterogenous mix of humanity. This was largely due to its location. Frank’s had been located just around the corner from the offices and presses of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin at 13th and Filbert Streets, though by the time I started frequenting the bar the paper had closed. (I myself worked for a Philadelphia legal newspaper at the time, but alas never managed to join the nearby private Pen & Pencil Club, an omission I’ll always regret.) But this didn’t stop the many newspaper writers from gathering regularly at Frank’s; many were the times I saw Philadelphia Daily News columnist and later acclaimed novelist Pete Dexter nursing a club soda at the end of the bar, or Clark DeLeon collecting anecdotes and stories for his regular column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Frank’s was just around the corner as well from the University of the Arts, so in those days it also attracted its share of budget-conscious painters, sculptors, and others. In fact, it still does; the north wall of the bar is an informal “Off the Wall Gallery” featuring the work of students and local artists. A few years ago Drew Lazor described the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything clientele of Dirty Frank’s in Vice:
In truth, Frank’s has always had a “type,” but the profile was not built using banal criteria like sex, race, religion, education or income. It instead takes a shine to individuals who can’t be neatly filed into the natural order, and don’t wish to be — a “crossroads for errant individualists,” as the Philadelphia Inquirer put it in 1982. … “Dirty Frank’s is an American melting pot with drinks,” the Inquirer wrote in 1973. “Its clientele includes sanitation workers, lawyers, students, dropouts from virtually anything, artists, clerks, poets, reporters, straights and occasional gays, blacks and whites, adventurous post-teeny boppers from the Northeast and a beloved old man who always wears a blue beret.”
During my time there the bar was occasionally closed down by the health department; it was a dive bar, after all. Then as now there was a Pennsylvania law that all bars serving alcohol also had to serve food; Frank’s tried to get around it by keeping a can of tuna, and a can opener, behind the bar to display to any visiting liquor board inspectors. (It didn’t work.) At some point in the distant past, a sign above the bar offered “MEATBALLS” as a menu item, but more recently some wag had vandalized the sign to read “RATBALLS.” I lived just across the street from Frank’s, and on one occasion the manager asked to borrow my vacuum cleaner to tidy up before a health inspector’s visit. And, of course, the men’s room urinal was kept constantly stocked with ice cubes to keep any noxious aromas from creeping too far into the main room.
For me, most of Frank’s appeal (apart from its low prices) was that it was a “melting pot with drinks” — Frank’s welcomed a panoply of individuals from all walks of life, urging them to relax, to drink, and to talk — especially to talk, to share anecdotes and observations, and just as importantly to listen. (And, I should note, laugh — for all the virtues of Frank’s jukebox, it came in a distant third after talk and laughter as elements of Frank’s soundscape.) Those who sat at Frank’s bar and at the tables surrounding it disdained one’s identification with one’s own cultural group and valued, more than anything else, individuals and their contributions to the communal dialogue. That it was located in Philadelphia is revealing: as Peter Thompson noted in his book Rum Punch and Revolution, Philadelphia taverns were where American democracy was first hammered out in the colonial era. Through all of Dirty Frank’s existence, its drinkers and talkers reflected the spectrum of human experience and demonstrated that, at least at the bar, it was possible for a wildly diverse community to find liberty and freedom in talk and conversation and laughter: in one small way, a dream of America itself.