11 June 09: INDEPENDENCE PASS
by Steve Weinik
Cars are made for destinations. You pick a place and you go there. Public transit is made for exploration. You pick a place and follow a network of asphalt and rail
until you get close enough that you can get off and walk the rest of the way. My approach was a little different from that of Steve Ives or Chris Dougherty. For better
or for worse, I took virtually no photos while riding Septa or waiting at its stops. My intention was to go to an area and wander.
Here's a set of loose rules that I made for myself:
- Stay within city limits.
Here's how it worked itself out:
- Visit places you've never been, or never explored on foot.
- Cover a lot of ground.
- Ride the 23 from end to end.
- Eat good food along the way.
From 12th and Market I walked underground to City Hall, where I caught the el to Frankford Terminal. The highlight of the trip was a conversation with a 60+ year old
man sitting in front of me. We talked about electric cars, flying cars and killing people for a $500 debt. He flashed me a thick wad of hundreds to illustrate his
killing people over money story, and as we both got off at Frankford Terminal he left me with the advice "don't get pussy whipped." It was 9:30 in the morning and he
was pretty drunk.
From Frankford Terminal I hopped the 58 to my first destination: the Russian neighborhood in the far Northeast. Even as a native Philadelphian, I know virtually
nothing about the Northeast and even less about the Russian district. Following the advice of Wikipedia, I got off at Bustleton and Grant and headed
In my mile or so hike through Bustleton, I found a couple Russian heavy strip malls, browsed a grocery store that sold veal brains, giant cans of wild
mushrooms, whole pickled apples and 100 kinds of sausage/smoked fish. I hung around until noon, when a restaurant I'd been eying opened. There I got a deep fried meat
crepe and zucchini cakes. Both were good, but a little bland. The only other people in the restaurant were a group of well dressed and surly looking Russian men,
drinking vodka and looking generally unfriendly to the idea some jackass with a camera. Heeding legends of the Russian mob, I decided not to photograph them or
anything near them. I left my camera in the bag as I waited for my lunch.
After getting my pants covered in crepe grease, it was on to the second leg of my
journey. I hopped back on the 58 and rode it to Bustleton and Cottman. From there I walked to Cottman And Torresdale. In my limited knowledge of the Northeast, I think
of Cottman Avenue is some kind of divider between lower and upper, greater and lesser . . . something or other. I thought that skirting the border would make for some
interesting contrasts and was right. The 2 mile trek made for some good photos.
For Toynbee tile fans, I should also note that there are 4 tiles along that
stretch of Cottman Ave. Cottman and the Boulevard, Cottman and Frankford and 2 large ones at Cottman and Torresdale.
The walk worked my appetite back up, so I
got on the 70 and rode clear back across the city, briefly into Cheltenham and eventually to the third leg of my trip: Olney. I got off at 5th and Godfrey and made my
way down towards Olney Avenue a mile or so away.
I was just south and/or west of the Korean bbq's where I'd wanted to eat, and most of the restaurants I did
find were closed anyway. At 5th and Olney I changed up my plans and stopped into a small Caribbean spot for some chicken roti and fresh grapefruit juice. The bread
was homemade, the flavor mild but excellent and the in-store DJ a nice touch.
From there, I started down Olney Avenue towards the R8 stop at Mascher Street,
but after a couple blocks spotted a 26 and caught that instead. The bus was crowded, but the ride to Broad Street was less than 5 minutes. At Broad and Olney, I hopped
the L bus to the top of Chestnut Hill. After a pit stop at the Borders bathroom and culture shock at the ridiculous wealth of the Hill, I was back on my
Which brings me to the 23:
Even though I took almost no photos ON the buses and trains, my 100 minutes on the 23 deserves some deeper
acknowledgment. Starting in one of the richest neighborhoods in the city, the bus descends into middle class Mount Airy and working class Germantown.
By the time we hit Germantown and Chelten in downtown G-town, the bus was packed and sounded like a party. Music was playing, people laughing, food and drink flowed
freely, some dude with no shirt got on . . . The fun lasted to Wayne Junction. Next come the Nicetown and Logan neighborhoods, where the the stability of the northwest
begins to lose its grip. Somewhere across Broad and Erie, it drops off a cliff.
I say this reluctantly and as someone with only a tenuous right to judge, but Fairhill
is a wreck. Tenth street between Germantown and Susquehanna is like some shell of a former civilization. I say this as someone who's been to every non-northeastern
corner of this city. Last week I spent the day at 6th and Indiana and felt a lot of optimism for the West Kensington neighborhood formerly (and recently) known as "The
Badlands." But a few days later exactly 4 blocks to the west, I look out a bus window of the 23 at upturned sidewalks, shells of houses, garbage, decay and deserted
streets and just about lose hope for the city and for humanity as a whole.
Things improve as the bus rolls up 12th street towards the shimmering decadence of
Center City, but the damage is done. I now see Center City as that same post apocalyptic landscape . . . just one covered in a thin veneer of temporary affluence. A
rehabbed building can become a shell too easily. The cracks in the corners can and will spread until the building, the street and the entire city is consumed. It
takes almost nothing to tip the scales from wealth to poverty to total collapse. The line is thin and easy to cross.
My pessimism eventually gave way
somewhere near Washington Avenue. My mood change probably had something to do with the fight against entropy that new blood brings. In upper South Philly, Asian and
Central American immigrants have brought plenty of new energy and have wasted no time in putting it to use, rehabbing buildings and opening new businesses.
At 10th and Oregon, just a few blocks shy of the end of the 23, something compelled me to abandon the bus and take a walk around deep South Philly. I was running a little
late on the 6PM deadline, but wanted to take one last walk on what was turning into a perfect summer evening. The walk was worth it. At 9th Street, I was hired on the
spot to take photos for a new cell phone store and its owner, Stanley. At 10th, I ran into a block party, where people were playing halfball. Honest to god halfball!
But I was running late.
The last part of my trip was an unceremonious ride up Broad Street on the Orange Line. At City Hall, I walked off the train and
officially closed the circle.
CLICK HERE TO LAUNCH PHOTOS.
There are 40 photos, 9M in total size, so please just give the page a moment to load.
For more of Steve's work, please visit his brand new web site, steveweinik.com.