Guest Blogger Wednesday: Angela Smith

I thought since Rich has written so much over the past year about visits home, and his dual identity as a Californian and Pennsylvanian, I would tell all the readers of Sad Salvation (many of whom are from the Bay Area) more about what makes Philly so special, and why I've chosen to remain here.

I live in South Philadelphia, which is an island of sorts, bordered on the sides by the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers, at the bottom by the confluence where they meet, and at the top by Center City, the downtown core, which is in its way just as much of a journey to cross as the rivers are. People who live here don't say they are from Philadelphia—they specify South Philly, and while it is less of a separate world as it used to be, it's still figurative as well as literal miles away from Market Street. Until the 1850s, it wasn't part of the city at all. Until the Sesquicentennial in 1926 developed the area where the stadiums stand now, there were farms there. And South Philly was the first and largest mixed-race neighborhood in the country, admittedly not without intermittent uneasiness.

I'm just giving background, of course. This isn't to say that I don't love the rest of the city. West Philadelphia is a hilly mass of trolley tracks and enormous (by city standards) houses, many painted in glossy brights, many crumbling. The Ivy League school planted right by the river is both as thrillingly erudite and as snooty as you'd imagine. Manayunk and Mount Airy to the northwest are suburban, sort of; filled with twin houses, old industry, and still more hills. The Northeast is, like South Philly, its own world, much more a car-owning part of the adjacent suburban counties than a part of Philadelphia itself. North Philly has stretches of wasteland, true, but it also has the beautiful old mansions on Broad Street, the Zoo, a rich cultural heritage. All that blight amidst the ghosts of prosperity makes it seem slightly less hopeless than someplace which has never seen beauty at all. After all, almost everyone in the city believes in resurrection, either in religious terms or as a sporting metaphor.

One of the things which seems to characterize this city is that there are pockets of both prosperity and decay nearly everywhere. I've often joked that you are never more than five blocks (half a mile) from a millionaire here, but you're also never more than five blocks from a crack den. I used to live on a rough block, with drug sales and the accompanying violence and whoring right outside my door. Less than a thousand feet away as the pigeon flies was the picturesque block where they filmed the Sixth Sense and where a well-off and successful rapper lived. As a result, we always seem to believe that there is either hope or death around every corner. We're usually at least half right.

It is a city of public art. Philly has over 2400 officially-sponsored murals, and many more painted by church groups, creative homeowners, and graffiti artists. You can't go a few blocks without seeing a painting which takes up the entire side of a three story house. The lack of public art is something that makes other cities seem flat and textureless to me. We have a gigantic Oldenburg clothespin right outside City Hall, for heaven's sake, and it gives me a burst of civic pride to imagine the cranky horror which its unveiling created during the Bicentennial, and the grudging acceptance and finally pride which followed. Just down the street from the clothespin is Love Park, site of countless business lunches and skateboarding videos. The Isaiah Zagar mosaics radiate outwards from South Street like an exceedingly decorative kudzu.

I have only lived in the city proper for about seven years. I'm originally from the suburbs, both of here and of New York City. I have roots here, though, and I unequivocally call it home. I think that if I left, I could probably love again, and I won't say I never hear the siren call of foreign lands (you know, like Chicago or Boston). But no place else is the same as here, and so I think I'll stay.

- Angela Smith


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