Streets of Philadelphia
Take a walk through the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection
Saturday 02 July 2022
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Six lanes narrow to three, then two. Eighteen wheelers become increasingly infrequent, and I watch neighbourhoods bloom, then change; each block is different to the last, a testament to the diversity of people living here, and the income inequality and wealth disparity endemic in the US. Red brick is swapped out for bright pastel paint, trees sometimes disguise electrical wires that otherwise hang low, waving at weeds, watching over hopscotch games and practice-run alphabets in colourful chalk. The city glows white with the heat of politics. Each surface sears the story of some struggle or other onto passers-by, while shade and mid-day sun breathe joyous, wheezing, belly-laughter into those who find liberty in a breath that comes easy in the early summer heat.
I arrive at South Sartain Street, and find my ground-floor, corner apartment across the street from a communal garden in which an old woman tends her plot. Keycode entry is painless, and two doors later I’m in a tiny studio equipped with bed, bathroom, countertop and coffee pot. I swap shirts, flop on the bed, and feel the subway rumble beneath me.
Back on the street, the first thing I see is a pink, white, and baby blue striped flag hanging above my closest bar, next to its rainbow coloured counterpart. As heart-stopping serendipity would have it, I’m staying in Philadelphia’s queer quarter, officially termed the “Gayborhood”. Philadelphia was the first city in the US to host demonstrations in favour of LGBT rights; on every street corner is a plaque or sign commemorating John E Fryer, Gay News, or any one of many other Philadelphian institutions that advanced the movement. This part of the city is safe, quiet, and spectacularly beautiful. Streets are narrow, sometimes cobbled, overseen by tall trees and punctuated by a wealth of bars, cafes and restaurants.
In fact, within a ten minute walk north of Sartain Street are two restaurants that come at the recommendation of Luke, co-founder of Evil Genius. Both Vedge and Charlie Was A Sinner offer eclectic small plate menus that are great for sharing and varied tasting. Both are so tastefully plant-based as to satisfy even the most dedicated carnivore.
At Charlie Was A Sinner, I order Turkish lamb koftas and oyster mushroom calamari; the koftas are perfectly spiced and so gently oiled as to emulate the fat of lamb without overburdening the light grains that make the “meat”. It’s served on a lemon-tahini yoghurt with pine nuts, fig relish, fig agrodolce, and giant couscous. As for the calamari, what can I say? As a vegan I have missed good batter, and hot damn I miss aioli – in both instances my long term longing is perfectly satisfied, with the creamy citrus sauce singing sweet nothings in the ear of crispy mushrooms and accompanying kale. Here the cocktails flow, the wine is good, and for what and where you’re getting it, this place is inexpensive.
Several days later I eat at Vedge, a restaurant run by James Beard nominated chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. Here I order portobello carpaccio and chermoula tofu, both of which take me on a journey through smoke and mirrors to an epicurean dreamscape. Portobello’s are well known for their fleshy emulation of meat, but here caper vinaigrette, fennel remoulade, nigella seeds and course black pepper transport me to meat-eating deli-counter days of corned beef and speciality ham, all the while invoking more elegant cured meats, even ceviche – the varied elements speak to so many meats, all of which this dish invokes at different moments.
The tofu behaves similarly, being charred and smoky like a pork chop, but as soft as white fish. This dish’s base of fregola with spring peas and leeks, tomato and preserved lemon offers a flavourful base that encourages consideration of the more traditional flavours often eaten with pork, while the green olive salad invokes a sauce vierge you might see feature alongside hake, haddock or cod fillet. The wine list here is spectacular, with a shorter but very respectable craft beer offering.
It might just have been my luck, or a testament to bad habits, but I struggled to find bars open around mid-day, where I could stop for a beer, just as it was getting hot and before I continued wandering. Milk Boy, the bar from which I write these words, and where I was just referred to as a “French Vanilla Cream Queen” by a passer-by, offers inside and on-street seating perfect for sun-starved Brits. The selection of beers here is second to none; I enjoy a Tröegs IPA, then a Captain Lawrence Kölsch (sorry Philly). Equally wonderful is Strangelove’s, a sweet bar filled with sweet people. Sly Fox is on the menu here if you fancy a pint on draft to wash down an excellent sandwich.
If food is the feature you want to centre your trip to Philly around, then Fishtown is a must. This part of the city was historically home to working class Irish, Scottish, Polish and German immigrants who initially worked as fishermen and later managed commercial docs that supported the booming textile industry in neighbouring Kensington. This is interesting to consider within the context of the American Civil War, given that so much of it centred around Northern States, like Philadelphia, cutting off the financial lifeline of Southern Confederate States by discontinuing the purchase of cotton from them, sourcing material only from Abolitionist Union Members. Luke, from Evil Genius, is a fountain of knowledge on the subject, and tells me that many of the wealthy and powerful members of the Union League of Philadelphia, that supported this embargo on the South, worked in textile businesses based in and around Fishtown.
In contemporary times, Fishtown is being rapidly gentrified, quickly filling up with boutiques, sandwich shops, beautiful street art, spectacular restaurants and, of course, condos. Love it or hate it, this place has become home to some great destinations for food. The Evil Genius Taproom is within two blocks of two James Beard nominees, one of which won the esteemed award, so grab a beer then head to get fed. Located in North East Philadelphia, my recommendation is that you take in Centre City and the Riverfront by foot, then hop in an Uber to head north – I don’t rate crossing six lanes of traffic while the pedestrian walkway is blocked with long haulers.
En route to the area take in the Other Half Brewery and Taproom, and park up in Johnny Brenda’s when you get there for an evening of music from local artists, elevated bar food, and top quality beers.
CENTER CITY & HISTORIC QUARTER
On your way through the city, stop at Reading Terminal Market and take in a crowd that pulsates to the rhythm of cleavers cutting fresh lobster, friers engulfing buttermilk chicken, cheese hissing over steak, and pho bubbling to the whisper of steaming bao. Food here is fast, delicious, inexpensive, and varied. Sly Fox’s Peter Giannopoulos insists that although people often think the best sandwich in Philly is the cheesesteak, it’s actually the Italian Roast Pork Sandwich that’s found at DiNic’s in Reading Terminal. He recommends you try sharp provolone and broccoli rabe. Reading Market also borders on Philadelphia’s Chinatown if you fancy a wider variety of Chinese, Japanese and East Asian food.
A little further south and closer to the Delaware River is historic Philadelphia where you can visit Washington Square, Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, The Constitution Centre and The African American Museum. Many of these are free to attend, and all provide comprehensive information and introductions into the US’s revolutionary history, and the role Pennsylvania played within that. All of these locations border on green spaces that are not entirely frequent in Philly, so this is a great spot to find some shade, read a book or have a coffee.
BELLA VISTA & SOUTH PHILLY
The South Street Corridor slices Philadelphia in two, separating the north from the south, and running from one end of the city to the other. In the 1960s, this area of the city was designated for demolition so a cross city expressway could be built. With an expiry date being placed on the neighbourhood, real estate plummeted and artists, craftspeople and small business owners moved in. Among these were Julia and Isiah Zagar, who had just returned to the US after spending time in the Peace Corps in Peru. They settled on South Street and opened the Eyre Gallery in 1968, to exhibit textiles, wood carvings and ceramics that the Zagars had collected during their time in South America. Together with the community that had sprung up in this unloved part of the city, the Zagars successfully campaigned for South Street to be preserved.
During this time Isiah began making mosaics around the neighbourhood out of materials found in surrounding abandoned warehouses. To this day, his work can be found plastered on the walls of lanes, alleyways, house and shop fronts all over the neighbourhood, with the epicentre of his creative work manifesting in the yard beside his studio, where he spent eight years sculpting 3,000 square feet of multi-layer mosaic. In 2004, Zager won a legal battle with the plot’s Boston-based land owner who wanted to sell the lot to capitalise on rising property value in the area; from that point, the surviving area and work, officially titled ‘Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens’ became an important part of the area’s identity, and speaks to the spirit of Philadelphia as a whole. Entry to the gallery is just $15 and well worth the cover, for the spectacular story it tells.
On the day that I find myself wandering along South Street to Bella Vista, it’s hot. This part of town is as bohemian as you might expect it to be, filled with laundrettes, thrift shops, adult stores, vintage boutiques and bars that don’t open until late; everyone looks mismatched in the way one only can when they’ve places to be. By what feels like divine intervention, I stumble across Brauhaus Schmitz, a traditional German bar that serves me a cold Kölsch I promptly inhale to combat the sticky mid-day heat outside. This will be the last reminder of Pennsylvania’s Germanic roots before we reach the Italian Market’s many miles of stalls and canopied store fronts.
There is nothing fancy about this part of town, it’s deliciously dilapidated if dilapidated means the glass counters covering fresh fish, meat and cheese are greasy with fingerprints, and old neon signs advertising “Superior Ravioli'' were never replaced because, well, the crowds queuing to get in don’t need to be reminded. Locals flock from the surrounding area to purchase fruit, vegetables, and a wide variety of ingredients from Latin America; people also sell old bicycles, kitchenware, records and statues of Jesus. As sweet serendipity would once again have it, the sky parts and torrential rain is thrust on South Philly, and I thank all the saints and deities I smell various varieties of incense burning for, that I find myself in a sheltered part of town for the downpour. Inspired by a long line of men who pass the time taking shelter by eating foil wrapped sandwiches from a shallow, standing counter outside Geno’s Steaks, I order a Philly Cheese and join them. As hot rain and the juice of peppers, onions and mushroom run down my arms to my elbows, I say a silent prayer of thanks for life, liberty and South Philly.
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