The Philadelphia Stories (Why Philly? Or Why, Philly?)

“There’s a thunder storm a brewin’. And the day is turning gray. There ain’t much to say about the weather.

The shower stall is leakin’. And the ceiling’s fallin in. And I’m getting twenty bills to every letter.”

– Fall in Philadelphia, Hall and Oates

 

A vacation trip to Philadelphia is an experience everyone should have at some point in their lives. The City of Brotherly Love. The home of Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, and Independence Hall. Where the “Stars and Stripes” was created. Where electricity was discovered. Where the concepts of democracy and freedom were first hatched in the New World. Where the cheesesteak was invented.

 

Philadelphia was originally a Lenni Lenape Indian settlement along the Delaware River called Shackamaxon. Even though the area had been under the control of the Dutch, Swedes, and Finns, it was finally acquired and settled by the English.

 

To help pay off a debt, King Charles II of England gave the colony to William Penn in 1681. Penn wanted to name it New Wales, but ended up calling it Pennsylvania – Penn’s Woods – after huge protests from old Wales. He immediately started a new tradition, still in practice today. Penn paid off the local Lenape chief, Tammany, for the land even though the English had already conquered it. They traded wampum belts at a spot referred to today as Penn’s Landing. This exchange turned out well for Penn considering he bought 46,000 square miles of land as well as a permanent peace with the local tribes for a glorified waist minder. Of course it was later revealed that the wampum belt Penn gave to Tammany was actually a knock-off made in China and really wasn’t worth the trade for Pennsylvania. At the time, Tammany’s Lenape relatives in New York were highly critical of the deal because they had actually received $24 in trinkets – also made in China – and they only had to give up Manhattan Island in their negotiations with the Europeans.

 

Part of the Penn and Tammany treaty, though, specified that the English were required to forever use the same really weird, hard to spell names for locations that the Lenape used. So today as you travel through the city, it’s like a wonderful adventure in Indian torture language as you drive down streets with melodic names like Aramingo, Moyamensing, Manayunk, and Susquehanna. And let’s not forget Wissanoming – not to be confused with Wyomissing.[1]

 

Officially chartered as a city in 1682, Philadelphia was, at one time, designated the second largest city in the British Empire. It was also around that time that the first incidence of the famous Philly sport known as voter fraud was discovered. Depending on which politician’s list they were on, people just never died. That helped to inflate the population numbers and made Philly number two. It also gave rise to the Philly slogan “You may live and die in Boston, but your vote can go on forever in Philadelphia.”

 

Upon leaving the airport on I-95 North, the waste disposal plant is among the first major landmarks you’ll notice. Some very far-sighted city planners determined that the aroma of Philly that emanates from this modern marvel is a truly welcoming way to greet a first time visitor to the city. Especially in the summer, the sweet bouquet alerts the curious sojourner to its presence well in advance of their actually seeing this engrossing architectural artifact of 20st century life. What a wonderful way to greet the weary traveler.

 

Traveling north toward Center City, you soon come face to face with what could be considered some of the greatest man-made structures in the Philly metro area – if not the entire east coast – the Philadelphia sports complex. Where modern gladiators earn their exorbitant income participating in highly valuable, socially redeeming activities such as baseball, football, basketball, and hockey. In Philly, as in many other major US cities, hockey continues to be viewed as a real sport even though it doesn’t have a ball, is hard to bet on in the casinos, and still doesn’t have enough black guys in the whole league to start one team.

 

Philly’s football fans are some of the most enthusiast fans anywhere. The “Boo Birds,” as they are affectionately named, have been known to drown out the sound of planes taking off and landing from the airport with the loud volume of their catcalls. And that’s while their own team had the ball.

 

The traffic jams on Interstate 95 – which should be referred to as 95 or just the “Interstate” when speaking with a local resident – are worldrenowned. While listening to the symphony of car horns, screeching brakes, and highly creative pre-road rage screaming, you can lose yourself for a while daydreaming or at Daydreams. [2] As you wait, you’ll be taking in the view of the rusty, vehicle-packed Walt Whitman Bridge, which was named for the famous poet who actually lived in New Jersey. While sitting alongside the Delaware River, you might also get to see the highly synchronized Ballet of the Longshoremen operating their cranes and unloading huge cargo nets of plums from Peru, hearts of palm from Brazil, as well as cocaine from Columbia and Mexico. You will also catch a glimpse of the regal S.S. United States, once considered the fastest sailing ship in the world. With its glorious color scheme of red, white, black, and rust, it sits abandoned next to the river as it has for the last 20 years.

 

As you continue toward Center City, endless arrays of empty warehouses, strip clubs, and fast food restaurants dazzle you with an unending mix of dark shadows and neon light. You are passing through South Philly, where most people do as much talking with their hands as they do with their mouths. In other cities, it might have been called Little Italy, but here it’s just known as Sout’ Philly.

 

South Philly is also the location of a bona fide foodie Mecca – the hallowed intersection of South 9th Street, Wharton Street, and Passyunk Avenue (another fine example of Native American verbal revenge.) This intersection is where Geno’s and Pat’s Steaks are located, both of which lay claim to the creation of the cheesesteak. Pat’s first opened and starting selling steak sandwiches in 1933. Geno’s, which opened a couple of years later, claims to be the first to put cheese on the steak and therefore actually inventing the “cheesesteak.” Remember, when ordering your cheesesteak at either one of these fine Michelin 2-star rated establishments, order it “wit” or “wit out,” which lets the highly trained culinary artists behind the counter know if you want the tasty Cheese Whiz on your sandwich.

 

South Philly is also home to a plethora of other well-known people and businesses such as the fish store where Rocky Balboa worked, Rita’s Italian Water Ice, famed short-termed and short-statured Mafia boss Nicademo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, and the Honorable Frank L. Rizzo.

 

Born and bred in South Philly, Rizzo was a highly popular police chief and mayor in the 1970’s. He once declared that the Philadelphia police department could successfully invade Cuba and make Attila the Hun look “like a faggot.” This statement was chronicled in the book The Sayings of Chairman Frank or I Never Saw My Mother Naked.[3] During the riots in Philadelphia in 1964, Rizzo, a deputy police commissioner at the time, distinguished himself by referring to his boss, then-police commissioner Howard Leary, as a “gutless bastard” after Leary told his officers to refrain from using violence to stop the rioters. Rizzo knew the Philadelphia police were capable of bashing a few heads and that’s what he would have done. While mayor of the fourth largest city in the U.S., he also had the distinction of being Richard Nixon’s favorite Democrat. His statue, outside the Municipal Services building, across the street from City Hall, still cuts a striking figure clothed in his formal tuxedo and matching night stick. His book remains a top seller in Philadelphia and is required reading at the Philadelphia Police Academy as well as the Philadelphia Institute of Old School Politics and Cronyism.

 

As you approach the city on I-95, take the Vine Street exit. That will put you into the Old City section of Philly. Going back 25 or 30 years, Vine Street was also known as Skid Row. The city, state, and federal government contributed to beautifying the area by turning Vine Street into an expressway and burying it below street level. The homeless were moved to Race Street, a much smaller avenue that runs through Chinatown. The socially unfortunate are more hidden from view on Race Street for which the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce remains eternally greatful. The Vine Street Expressway was built as a link between I-95 and I-76, which is also known as the Schuylkill Expressway in the Philadelphia area.

 

An enjoyable side trip is an end-to-end drive down the Schuylkill Expressway, which is named after a local river of the same name. The word Schuylkill itself is a difficult to spell – and pronounce – leftover Dutch name. The road is also referred to by locals as the Surekill Expressway. This colorful nickname is a reflection of the “abandon all hope” attitude local commuters tend to express about this rarely freeflowing monument to car fires and rear-enders. The twentyfive mile long parking lot starts at the Walt Whitman Bridge and ends at Valley Forge. Avoiding blown truck tire debris is a favorite past time for drivers on those rare occasions that traffic is actually moving. And if you are hit by a piece of tire thrown up by another car, well, then, tag. You’re it. If you’re new to this game, the best time of day to try it for the first time is 2AM. That’s also a good time to observe the Pennsylvania State Police demonstrate their “Whack-A-Drunk” skills.

 

Center City has many enjoyable sites. In addition to Independence Hall, there is the National Constitution Center where we can reminisce about the U.S. Constitution, that great document that originally gave us the freedoms we used to have. The Liberty Bell is on display in Philadelphia across the street from Independence Hall. And yes, the bell still has the crack. Also across the street from Independence Hall is the first chartered national bank in the US. The first bank being set up literally across the street from the first US government set the tone for the close relationships we see today between money and politics. Thus the origins of the original American oligarchy and a wonderful example of how Philadelphia helped shape today’s version of democracy.

 

These are just a few of my Philadelphia Stories. You should visit Philly and write some of your own.

 

[1] Actual street names in Philadelphia.

[2] Daydreams, Erotic Dance Club, 5200 Unruh Ave, Philadelphia; adjacent to I-95 in South Philly

[3] The Sayings of Chairman Frank, Or I Never Saw My Mother Naked, Published 1977, Publisher: Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for democratic Action

One thought on “The Philadelphia Stories (Why Philly? Or Why, Philly?)

  1. Really good article about my birthplace Philadelphia, and the tough words to spell that fill the area. Now I know why you don’t like hockey, theres no ball involved. I’d rather get hit with a basketball, baseball, volley, soccer, or tennis ball then getting hit with a puck. NHL players are perhaps the toughest team sport players, a lot tougher than football players. Back to the article, when you write about things you know it makes for good reading, thanks.

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