Former New Yorker that I am, I’ve often told friends that where I live now is kind of like Park Slope, in Brooklyn. But as I’ve lived here, I’ve had to adapt that analogy, which applies pretty well to one of our main commercial strips; other parts remind me more of Berkeley, California, while so many admit to no comparison at all (like the 19th-century stone houses at right).
I’m writing this on one of our first warm days, after a brutal winter; behind me the kids are running around, kids who call my fiancee “Miss Rachel” just as we call our neighbors Mr. X and Miss Y; it’s the local tradition. Scout, my feline muse, is alert, looking out the window and wondering where all these small humans come from all of a sudden. (For so long, there was only snowy, silent streets).
Today we went wandering off to the 40th Annual Mount Airy Day, in Germantown proper. Actually, legally we’re in Germantown too; I suspect the term “Mount Airy” was originally coined by realtors, just like my old NY neighborhood “Hudson Heights.” (The latter now distinguishes the blocks northwest of uptown’s Dominican communities, even though the synagogue next door still has WASHINGTON HEIGHTS carved into its sidewalk.) We saw a good number of people we knew and met some we hadn’t; the whole event made me decide it’s time to write here again, and with a list of ten things that tell me I was right to move here.
1. It’s the history, stupid. Old City, which I love, has all the colonial grandeur, the City Tavern and the teensy streets. But while liberty was being secured there, the area’s estates in Germantown were witnessing battles and coming to grips with their then-recent slave-owning past. (Today’s event took place in Cliveden Park, formerly part of the estate of the Chews, then the most prominent enslavers in the city.) 200 years later, in the 1970s, people actively worked to prevent redlining and keep the area diverse. And I’ve just told you most of what I know. The idea of learning much, much more is intoxicating.
2. Actual non-chain bookstores. At today’s event, I ran into Maleka of Big Blue Marble, the bookstore( in the Berkeley part of town) that helped me decide to move here. I’ve been able to get them to host readings for my writer peeps, but I love more what a community center they are. On their Web site, you can see the community room where they host writing classes, children’s reading groups, etc. And having a huge used bookstore, Walk a Crooked Mile, not far away is a huge bonus.
3. Artists everywhere. Speaking of the arts, just yesterday the final local Poetry Slam was held at Infusion, a coffee shop in the Brooklyn part of town. And at the event today was the Mount Airy Art Garage, whose actual space is near Blue Marble. Its participants are quite serious, many quite good. AND they know that they won’t be famous tomorrow, the collective hallucination of New York creatives. That attitude was part or what I liked about San Francisco, I told an actor I was interviewing recently who’d found her theatrical home in Philly. “In Philly this is a life calling for these people,” she agreed. “No one’s getting rich, but everyone’s committed to doing excellent work. And because it’s not Broadway, maybe, the community of artists there are more willing to take risks, to let you take risks.” In this neighborhood meet playwrights, painters, poets with a similar sense of balance.
4. The Mount Airy Lesbian Social Club. I know it sounds like a 19th-century tea society, but it’s actually the only Meetup I know that has actually gotten me involved. For dykes over 35, it features otherwise incredibly diverse, 500-strong membership — including jocks, artistes, doctors/lawyers/ministers/teachers. It reminds me of the group through which I met my girl, ba-cyberdykes, which I nicknamed “Lesbians with Modems.” If I’ve made any new friends at all since I moved to Philly, it’s largely due to MALSC
5. Coffee coffee coffee. What journo working at home gets on without it? If I want to work in a cafe there’s Point of Destination four blocks away,High Point across from Blue Marble and the food co-op, and Infusion in the Brooklyn part of the nabe. Not a Starbucks on the list, though I still depend on the latter when I’m traveling.
6. A little bit of Brooklyn, but not. In addition to the above-mentioned Infusion, the three blocks of Germantown Ave. north of Mount Pleasant include the Video Library, which includes a screening room and an ice cream shop; TWO good brew-pubs; craft stores, one of which specializes in organic materials; and restaurants galore, including a couple of medium-upscale dinner spots as well as sources of good Chinese and Mexican food. All within a half-hour walk of where I sit now.
7. Satyagraha squared. Including today at Mt. Airy Day, in the past six weeks I have attended two film screenings at Greene St. Friends, one about Bayard Rustin and one Howard Zinn; cheered on a friend who was welcoming Soulforce to Valley Forge; met a Brandywine Peace Center guy who spent years getting arrested along with Phil Berrigan; and hung out with the local chapters of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom. All nonsectarian, non-creepy people committed to non-violent action, even though the big Quaker power centers are elsewhere. Like #1, a symmetry with my book and my own past.
8. Public transit quietly plentiful. , Here’s to the R8,with twosom stops within walking distance, and the 23 bus. I wish they both ran more frequently, but that’s for the regional planners to figure out. For now it’s OK, and enables a compromise between my city-self-that-would-prefer-Center-City and my bike-riding, park-loving girl.
9. About those parks: In New York, that gap was partly bridged by Fort Tryon Park, with its carefully sculptured interior you could get lost in. I ran through it three times a week. Wissahickon Park (left) feels even more limitless, like a mysterious weave of leaf and stone. If Philly is a city of parks, as Penn planned, then this is a cloak of nature hiding the fact that it’s in a city at all. I’ve yet to truly feel at home in it, but I feel its calm.
10. The kids.Whenever it is I move from here, I’ll think of the nearby 11-year-old twins who were raising kittens when we met them; the toddlers whose faces twisted in concentration when choosing Halloween candy; and the precocious middle-schoolers I met at Blue Marble, both of whom went to Friends schools and one of whom had pleaded to move back here from Texas. because it was strange and not at all like Mount Airy.
I don’t mean to say I think it’s a perfect place, or even perfect for me. There’s plenty of civic tumult, and on a personal level I still feel kind of isolated at times. I wonder if it will ever feel completely like home. But it certainly still feels like a good choice now. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.