A walk through the city

Anthony Bourdain (center) and friends at the Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia in 2012.

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.

Down memory lane to the corner of 13th and Pine

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.

I don’t want to go more deeply into my own history; the history of the bar speaks for itself, anyway; Dennis Carlisle has a more comprehensive narrative of Dirty Frank’s at Hidden City Philadelphia.

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.

Philadelphia online

Women programming the ENIAC computer, built in 1943-45 at the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (where my father earned his Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering).

As long as I’m at this, I may as well point to a few Philadelphia web sites that I visit on a fairly frequent basis. (You’ll also find these under “Philadelphia Links” in the right-hand column of the page; I’ll add to this list on occasion.) The list is far from complete, but I do recommend these sites to anyone in or outside of Philadelphia who wants to maintain their relationship to the city, even in this increasingly virtual world.

Each of these has associated Twitter and Facebook links; many of them, too, maintain newsletters. It’s worth signing up. And if you have a personal favorite or two you’d like me to know about — well, that’s what the comments section is for.

Son of Philadelphia bookshelf

The original home of the Library Company of Philadelphia at 105 South 5th Street.

Many thanks to all of those who offered their own additions via comments and email to my impromptu “Philadelphia Bookshelf” over the past few days. I was gratified by the response, and the little men who keep track of these things tell me that the post last Wednesday was surprisingly popular, perhaps meeting a previously unmet need.

Suggestions included some important books about the sociology of the city, particularly E. Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (The Free Press, 1979) and Sam Bass Warner’s The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), both of them classics of their kind, I understand. But I was particularly pleased to note several books about race relations in Philadelphia down through the years. John Edgar Wideman’s novel Philadelphia Fire (1990, Henry Holt & Co.) was inspired by the disastrous MOVE debacle of 1985; another correspondent suggested this recent biography of the 19th-century Philadelphia civil rights leader Octavius Catto (an excellent brief video biography of Catto, produced by the good folks at HistoryMaking Productions, can be found here). Not to mention, of course, W.E.B. DuBois’ classic 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro. You can see all of the comments to that original post here.

A special note of thanks to Billy Penn, a web site and daily newsletter from Philadelphia’s public broadcaster WHYY. It was a mention on their newsletter that drew all of these excellent suggestions, and I should note that the Billy Penn project itself deserves your attention and support. As a current exile from the City of Brotherly Love, I find that it keeps me generously up-to-date on current events in my old home town. (For meditations on Philadelphia history itself, you can’t do better than Hidden City Philadelphia.) If like me you’re a former Philadelphian but remain one in spirit, you should sign up for the newsletter and drop a few pennies their way. I plan on doing so today.

Philadelphia bookshelf

The Free Library of Philadelphia at Logan Square.

UPDATE (July 29, 2019): But wait, there’s more!

In my occasional Googling I’ve been unable to find a good list of books about Philadelphia — a city that once described itself as being “not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” — so I leap into the arena with my own below in the hopes that others may find it valuable. Certainly cities like New York and London have generated libraries, and Philadelphia has generated a few shelves as well — and in both cases, it’s hard to know where to start to dive into them. No doubt I’ll be able to add to this list with time, but this is enough to go on for now.

Roger D. Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History (Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2017) is a short (156 pages), breezy tour through the city that should be your first stop for Philadelphia’s history. Simon manages in these few pages to highlight the dynamics and contradictions that have been a part of the city’s life since its founding in 1682 by William Penn; he focuses particularly on the working classes that were instrumental in establishing the tenor and atmosphere of Philadelphia life. I reviewed it in a little more depth here.

Simon relies fairly heavily upon the now out-of-print Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (W.W. Norton/The Barra Foundation, 1982), which stretches comprehensively to 842 pages. Because each chapter was written by a different expert, it does have its ups and downs, but sometimes the devil is in the details, and you’ll find a lot of them here. The volume itself was a herculean effort, stretching over more than a decade in its composition, but it wound up being more than equal to Gotham, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s monumental history of a city 100 miles to Philadelphia’s north.

About ten years after the publication of the above book, Edward G. Rendell was elected Mayor of Philadelphia, and Buzz Bissinger’s chronicle of his first term, A Prayer for the City (Random House, 1997), brings the reader up to speed about Philadelphia history after 1982. Rendell was one of the city’s most charismatic mayors, but as Bissinger points out, the city was in fiscal, racial, and political crisis, and there was only so much charisma could do. But the book is far from being merely a treat for urban affairs policy wonks. Philadelphia’s problems are also exemplified in Bissinger’s profiles of four “typical” Philadelphians: a welder whose job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard is in jeopardy; a policy analyst working with Rendell; a criminal prosecutor; and an elderly woman from one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.

The late historian John Lukacs, who lived for much of his professional career within 20 miles of Philadelphia, wrote primarily about world history, but he was also the author of a charming series of essays about Philadelphia in the early 20th century, Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950 (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981). As his subtitle suggests, Lukacs provides portraits of several mostly-forgotten Philadelphians such as publisher Edward Bok, writers Owen Wister and Agnes Repplier, and politician Boies Penrose, all of whom made lasting contributions to Philadelphia’s patrician (and philistine) culture. Lukacs is witty and far from objective about their personalities and achievements (if you could call some of them that).

Out-of-print but worthwhile if you can find a copy, Herbert Kupferberg’s Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra (Scribner, 1969) covers the history of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, in part, its former home, the landmark Academy of Music. More than just a paean to the orchestra in its heyday under the batons of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, the book is also instructive in how the patrician class built and supported the orchestra, detailing both successes and failures in its outreach to patrons and audiences both wealthy and otherwise.

If you’re as interested in early American and colonial history as I am, you won’t want to be without George W. Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia (Westholme Publishing, 2016). Despite its title, it’s more than a tourbook; it’s an in-depth, well-illustrated survey of some of the most and least famous historical buildings and locations in the Philadelphia area, many of which have been restored and are still publicly accessible. It’s as readable as a novel and worth carrying about as you make your own investigations into the streets of the city.

For more recent excavations of Philadelphia history, you couldn’t do better than Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple University Press, 2017), a lovely coffee table book — and more — from photographer Joseph Elliott and essayists Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall. They visit many 19th- and 20th-century historical, domestic, and business sites upon which the dust of the past has drifted, often obscuring them from public sight, but these sites even now reveal a stratum of Philadelphia history that informs the city’s present and, quite possibly, its future. I review it in a little more depth here.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of two biographies that provide idiosyncratic insight into the city and those who populate it. Franklin himself is an inescapable presence in Philadelphia’s historical district, and rightly so: in many ways, and to many minds, he represents the practical, realistic spirit that is so much a part of the Philadelphia character. The Autobiography covers his experience as a youth and young man in Philadelphia, and perhaps the most charming passages come early in the book, when he walks up Market Street from the edge of the Delaware River, observing the personality of the city circa 1723. Thanks to restoration efforts, you can do so yourself now and get a good idea yourself of just what it was he observed. Among the best of the brief biographies about the man is Edmund S. Morgan’s Benjamin Franklin.

My idiosyncratic choice for the second exemplary Philadelphian is W.C. Fields, the subject of James Curtis’s excellent biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). When I was in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, a tour guide wryly observed, “Philadelphians tend to listen politely to authority, then turn around and do whatever they want” — certainly a trait of Fields’ characters in films like The Man on the Flying Trapeze and It’s a Gift, put-upon middle-aged men with a fondness for the occasional mid-day nip. Unlike his con-man persona of his later films, Fields’ middle-class characters here are modest and humble (sometimes to the point of self-loathing), but capable of a grumbling, misanthropic wit which, I’ve found, is a specifically Philadelphian trait.

Finally, to round out the list, a little fiction. Philadelphia has produced few novels about itself to rank with, say, Edith Wharton’s about New York. But it has, like New York, produced a slew of excellent newspaper columnists — Pete Dexter, Clark DeLeon, Stu Bykovsky (who recently left the fine Philadelphia tabloid the Daily News — at least, it was fine during its heyday a few decades ago). Some of these columnists have gone on to write novels as well, and among the best is Third and Indiana (Viking, 1994), a bleak novel about Philadelphia’s drug-ridden Badlands by former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez is faultless in portraying the life and argot of Philadelphia’s working and petty criminal classes, as well as the defeated neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. A second highly-regarded Philadelphia novel, currently on my bedside table, is Dexter’s 1984 God’s Pocket, a somewhat lighter portrait (I understand) of South Philadelphia.