Living the Past, in The City That Loves You Back

This post is a bit long. If you get bored, click Bruce for some mood-setting music.

History is king in Philadelphia. Independence Mall jingles with horse carriages for tourists, and first-time homebuyers fix up cornices on three-century-old rowhouses. But this city’s romance with the past goes deeper than appearances. The place isn’t just adorned with historical quirks. It’s submerged in them.

Anthony, the barber down the street from me in South Philly, keeps a couple of sleepy dogs in a shop Google reviewers say “looks like his living room” and “has excellent character.” He has been working there for three decades, since he was a kid. He’s watched Bella Vista, a quiet utilitarian neighborhood, change from working-class to roughneck and then, over the past 15 years or so, into the kind of place people like me might want to live. He bought a small three-story rowhouse, around the corner from his shop, in the 1990s for a few thousand bucks. Now, the median home value in the neighborhood is a quarter million dollars.

Property taxes are still 99 bucks a year. Many of the streets are too narrow for cars. Across the street, Ma Ma Yolanda’s Italian Restaurant hunkers under green awnings, straight out of another decade. Sarcone’s Deli a block over is still “all about the bread,” through it’s moved one spot over from its old corner address. The old landmarks are still here, even if the people are richer.

Here’s a Street View image taken inside the barber shop, which says more about South Philly than I could hope to:

When I walked into the shop, Anthony was getting his own hair cut by his uncle John, who owned the shop before him. John’s an old dude now, and if he cut some famous manes back in the day, he surely didn’t charge 19 bucks to do it. But the rest of the city, the basic working parts, seem to be more out of John’s era than Anthony’s. While moving to a big city usually involves learning new technologies, systems, and shorthands, here it’s more like learning the rhythms of a rambling, patient parallel universe. Some examples:

– To ride the buses, trolleys, or the two subway lines through the city, you need to either pay exact cash or use tokens. Not a smart card or ticket, mind you, but tokens, the kind you might have used in, say, 1960. If you want to transfer to another line, you get a little paper slip for a buck. The city is planning a move to “new payment technologies,” but instead of actually doing it, has set up an ominous website and spurred citizen committees that can’t agree on anything to scrutinize its every decision. I’m stocking up on tokens for the near future.

– Yes, I said “trolleys.” Really, really old ones.

– When I wanted to sign up for natural gas service, I went to the website of Philadelphia Gas Works, which has been pumping the stuff into Philly’s homes since 1836. The site was a 1990s nightmare, and didn’t provide a clear way to sign up for service online. So I went down to the office, which had a sign like this:

Inside, nothing has changed since the 1980s. They make you present a social security card. It’s kind of charming, actually, but also insane. The people were friendly.

There’s also an entrenched bureaucracy like nothing I’ve ever seen. I find that this usually goes hand-in-hand with places that shy from innovation: like the narrow, crooked, one-way streets, this system has worked since Ben Franklin’s time, so why change it now? More examples, and excuse me if this looks like a hipster-gripes blog for a minute.

– The Philadelphia Parking Authority, a widely feared quasi-governmental company that enforces the city’s parking limits, wouldn’t give me a residential permit because the lease I showed them was filled in by hand. They were, however, perfectly willing to engage with me as a new customer through other means:

– I went down to the strip-clubs-and-refineries district to pick up a blue recycling bin. The lady in the booth informed me that I wasn’t allowed to drive into the lot because my car had an out-of-state tag. I had to park 15 feet away on the street and walk in. “This city is weird,” I said. “I know,” she said.

– At this point, I’ve lived in two cities that claim to be “The City that Works,” and two claiming to be “The City of Neighborhoods.” This is definitely a city of neighborhoods, and it definitely doesn’t work. Odd things, like: there are no streetside trash cans. Nowhere to throw dog shit except your own house. This is because street maintenance, parks, and a bunch of other stuff is managed not by the city but by a consortium of neighborhood civic associations. Combine that with the city’s tangled mess of Democratic Ward leaders and committeemen, and no wonder you need the shadowy-sounding Committee of Seventy to explain things for you.

But really, I’m not complaining. The fact is, all this stuff is kind of charming, and things seem to get done eventually. Recent renaissance aside, this city is not used to exhibiting itself to out-of-towners with sleek innovations of urban convenience.

This resistance to change turns into an excuse. In a PhillyMag piece this month that put into words many of the pangs and fears of a new, unrooted resident like me, Christine Speer Lejeune quoted a local woman during a political discussion at dinner:

I once got into an argument with a longtime Philadelphian at a dinner party after casually suggesting that our city’s tolerance for nepotism and political dynasties seems to run rather high.

“That is the way it has always been,” she said. “It works for us.”

“Maybe things could work better with some fresh blood,” I replied.

“Maybe you should find somewhere else to live if you don’t like the way we
do things,” she retorted.

This week, the city has been embroiled in a courthouse “ticket-fixing” scandal in which judges quietly erased the traffic violations of well-connected residents, many with ties to the Democratic Ward system I mentioned. The Inquirer has been hot on the case, but judges have been reluctant to even acknowledge that the practice merits attention.

“This is Philadelphia. We do things a lot different in Philadelphia,” Judge Bernice DeAngelis told a Bucks County district judge when he was assigned to the hackatorium—dialogue straight out of The Untouchables, albeit with a change of venue. “Everything you’ve learned, throw out the window, because this is what we do down here.”

You’ve got to hand it to the lady for being so forthcoming. And, to tell you the truth, this city’s combination of personal directness and comically baffling power structures is exactly what I was looking for after Florida. This, for me, is a new city, but it’s still home. People are concerned yet sarcastic in a way that seems perfectly natural to me. And every big American post-industrial city is a crumbling relic, anyway. Why not be up front about it? Why not enjoy it?

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