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.

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