Leaving the cats to fend for themselves in Flatbush, we headed down to Philadelphia for a weekend to celebrate Spouse's 50th birthday...having procured upon short notice what seemed to be the only bed-and-breakfast room left in the City of Brotherly Love. In a Civil-War-era townhouse blocks from the Italian Market, it was quaint and quirky, stuffed with high Victorian antiques and overlooking clouds of cherry blossoms.
It is wonderful to get away from the CrazyStable once in awhile, and we did what we came to do: walk around endlessly and stuff ourselves. (We never made it to a cheesesteak, so seduced were we by the charms of the Italian Market and its roast pork hoagies, gelato, and pasta with "gravy.") And, while I won't give an inch that Brooklyn is the coolest place to explore in the world, the old parts of Philly are incredible, an old-house lover's Elysian fields--a vast grid of colonial Hobbit villages, tiny mewses and alleyways, secret roof gardens and cobbled courtyards. Any one chunk of them would be a mega-precious landmark district within the 5 boroughs of New York City, on a par with the juiciest bits of Brooklyn Heights or the West Village, yet they seemed to stretch on forever. We stood and watched petals sift down by lamplight as church bells rang at dusk--it was like a dream of a city, not a real one.
The apotheosis of this Cute Urban Overload is Elfreth's Alley, which (as prominent signage attests) is America's oldest continually occupied residential street. This picture is not of the alley itself, but of an even tinier, cuter alley that intersects it, leading to an ivy-clad pocket-sized courtyard in back. By this time, I was babbling idiotically about moving here. (Spouse pointed out that the houses' interiors appeared to be about the size of our kitchen and one bedroom, combined.)
Which isn't to say the city lacks rough edges. Indeed, the Italian Market and many other areas are still apparently recovering from a hell of a bout of blight in recent decades. (I was about to say a "rocky recovery"--there is something about Philly that had us making terrible puns all weekend.) You can tell the parts of Philly that were or are scary; they have inspiring murals. Like this one, an allegory in which St. Teresa (I think) implores mercy as Rhea Perlman holds up a baby Marlon Brando (or something). Even in the adorable sectors, there are countless vacancy and for-sale or for-rent signs; some storefronts stand like time capsules, abandoned decades ago by eccentric old owners and still floating undisturbed in the first dusty stirrings of gentrification (like this storefront for 'Sundial Shoes' --paging Kevin Walsh, we need a 'Forgotten Philadelphia'!) Even the areas that are on fire with new galleries and condos have plenty of funky old spaces still up for grabs.
And it was something of a shock to encounter rubble-strewn lots and building shells (from townhouses to looming factories). First reaction: Wow, I remember those, and hasn't New York come a long way since the Seventies and Eighties, when broken glass and plywood were still the motif of so many blocks and neighborhoods. Curiously, however, this spurt of superiority was supplanted by an ache--not of nostalgia for "edge" and "grit," no thank you, but for a time, here in Brooklyn at least, when it wasn't all locked up. When there were still places wild enough to inspire hope that those of us with scarce resources and big dreams could buy something broken and fix it up. Now, if you see a shell in Brooklyn, it usually means only one of two scenarios: the owner is crazy, or the property is tied up in an estate or lawsuit. Here, the frontier is closed; in Philly, while there are wagon trains pouring in, there's still some space left for a crazy urban homesteader seeking a place to settle.
But probably for not much longer...go down, have a hoagie, maybe buy a funky little house. And please don't tell Bruce Ratner.
I’d like to see Paris before I die. Philadelphia will do.--W.C. Fields as Cuthbert Twillie in My Little Chickadee, in response to a hangman who asks him if he has a last wish