Local Life and Lore in Philadelphia

Philly’s unique culture distinguishes it from other cities.

MANTRAS

Native Philadelphians rarely have a good thing to say about their hometown.

“Philadelphians are terrible ambassadors for the city,” says city deputy mayor Andrew Altman, recalling one discredited late 1970s tourist slogan “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”

Outsiders put themselves at risk, however, if they disparage the city. Remember, too, that unless you are born here, the natives will never consider you a Philadelphian, no matter how long you live here. The honor, however, will be accorded to any of your children born here.

Philadelphia has a love-hate relationship with New York.

Take Amtrak from 30th Street Station and you'll be in Manhattan in one hour and 11 minutes. Philly longs for the global recognition the Big Apple is accorded, yet resents the second-tier status that proximity to New York has handed it.

This means that a guy drinking in a South Philadelphia bar will bad-mouth the New York Giants, Mets, Yankees, Jets, Knicks and Rangers as he walks to the jukebox to play Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” for the 100th time.

Living in the shadow of New York and Washington, Philadelphia has developed a culture apart from both. This is changing slowly with the younger generation.

Natives refuse to go along with name changes.

Christopher Columbus Boulevard is still Delaware Avenue; Kelly Drive remains East River Drive; Martin Luther King Drive is still West River Drive; the Market-Frankford Line remains “the El,” not the “Blue Line,” nor is the Broad Street Subway the “Orange” line, and the Avenue of the Arts is still Broad Street.

The John Wanamaker Department Store may be a Macy’s now, but one still meets friends by the “Iggle” (Eagle) at Wanamaker’s, or listens to concerts performed on the Wanamaker organ. The other downtown department stores: Gimbel’s is now a parking lot; Strawbridge & Clothier’s has state offices and Lit Bros., a cast-iron complex of 19th century buildings restored in the late 1980s, is an indoor shopping mall.

GEOGRAPHY

  • North-south streets are numbered, but first is Front Street and there is no 14th Street. That is called Broad Street.
  • “Downtown” is South Philadelphia, not the central business district.
  • There are three Delawares: the river, the state and the county south of the city, and two Chesters, the city and the county, also south of the city.
  • The other river is the Schuylkill (pronounced Skook-l), which means “hidden river,” so “river” after Schuykill is unnecessary. Schuylkill is also the name of the expressway that parallels the river, but is known by locals as the “Surekill,” because of its inadequate design. City tap water, which comes from the river via reservoirs and much purification, is called “Schuylkill punch.”
  • Second Street in South Philly is called “Two Street.” After the Mummer’s Parade on New Year’s Day ends at Broad and Market Streets, the string bands, fancies and comic divisions “strut” down Two Street for the neighbors. NYA, means New Year’s Association; clubs participating in the parade are the so-and-so NYA.

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