It’s no secret that I loooooove being part of the Salesforce.org Open Source Sprint Community… I’ve written about it here, here, here, and… well… HERE! I’ve attended sprints in Baltimore, Orlando, Denver, Long Beach, and Detroit and this week, I’ll have the privilege of playing hostess to a sprint gathering in my *own neighborhood!* This is especially special because most of the other sprints I’ve attended have been in remote, suburban hotel complexes (or near retired cruise ships), so it’s new and exciting to be in the hustling, bustling energy of a city, and a neighborhood at that.
Read on for some of my recommendations for West Philly’s best food and drinks; then, I hope you’ll humor me in learning about some of the history and contemporary dynamics of the neighborhood where you’ll find yourself. I can’t help myself – I have a lot to say on the subject, and I think nonprofit technologists will resonate with many of the grassroots, social change efforts that have been rooted in this neighborhood for decades!
I’m over the moon to share this piece of my heart with the Sprint Community and can’t wait to see you in person! Safe travels and lace up those running shoes!
Fiume (review) (45th and Locust, upstairs of Abyssinia) is a neighborhood treasure. Think speakeasy divey bar (with mocktails to boot!) that fits approximately 15 people. You can order divine Ethiopian food from the restaurant downstairs. Legendary bluegrass on Thursday nights (see sketchbook snapshots here). The cocktails are rumored to be great, though a typical Philly order is a Citywide (PBR and a shot of Jim Beam). Cash only!
Lulu Cafe (learn more) (45th and Walnut) is a teeny, tiny bubble tea and appetizers joint. My favorite flavors are black milk tea, taro shake, or wintermelon. Tapioca pearls are guaranteed to be squishy and delightful, and the adorable decor melts my heart. I used to live around the corner and was tempted to visit pretty much every day.
Makkah Market (review) (42nd and Walnut) is another neighborhood treasure, boasting around-the-clock hours, acclaimed curried goat, rice, baklava, dates, and imported Halal treats. Highly recommended for a midnight (or 4 am?) snack. Looking at you, Michael Kolodner and Corey Snow. Do you ever sleep???
LaTao (website) (37th and Chestnut) is a fabulous purveyor of hot pot meals, where you select a broth flavor, heat it up on the table (fondue style), and then order copious quantities of bbq skewers, raw veggies, and meats to cook at your table. If that’s not fun enough, there’s also a buffet of sauce ingredients where you can create custom dipping sauces. Highly recommend!
Manakeesh and Saad’s (45th and Walnut aka Little Lebanon) both feature EXCELLENT falafel, shawarma, gyros, and more. Hummus and baba ghanoush are heavenly (perhaps more accurately, Jannah in Arabic) and served with homemade flatbread (at Manakeesh, where they also offer a smoothie station and a cafe/bakery atmosphere). Saad’s is older and much beloved. I can’t claim that either is better than the other – perhaps you’ll have to just visit both!
Honorable mention: Metropolitan Cafe (40th and Walnut) (bold claim: best iced mochas in the city!); Satellite Cafe (50th and baltimore) (relive the “magic” of the 90s in this vegan-friendly, punk joint where you just might find the drummer your band has been looking for); Dahlak (48th and Baltimore) (excellent Ethiopian food and bumpin’ neighborhood bar, sometimes featuring karaoke).
Looking to decompress for a mindful minute? I highly recommend visiting Penn’s Biopond and volunteer-run (best kept secret), neighborhood Bird Sanctuary.
Clark Park (43rd and Baltimore) is where you’ll find (a) “puppy bowl” (former pond, now grassy pit) where pets run off leash after the evening commute (b) old men playing dominoes, chess, and bocce depending on time of day (c) drum circles (d) kiddos with homemade, foam swords charging toward each other (e) abundant Saturday morning farmer’s market and more. Worth a stroll if you have the time!
Like museums? There are a couple good ones near by, most notably the ICA (free contemporary art museum on Penn’s campus) and the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (which is undergoing major construction at the moment, but some wings are still open). My favorite part is seeing the preservationists working in the bullpen!
If you’re a public transit or public art buff, West Philly’s iconic love letter murals (there are 50!) will certainly appeal to you. Despite being sweet and romantic, the artist is known as quite a curmudgeon. Go figure! Visible from the subway between 46th and 63rd streets. Speaking of public art, this isn’t quite in West Philly but it’s my favorite piece in the city.
Honorable mention: Have kids? Don’t miss the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park (slightly north of West Philly, but delightful nonetheless). Bartram’s Garden is technically in Southwest, but just a short trolley ride away from the conference hotel and a serene setting an urban farm, riverfront path, and stone mansion. It’s one of my favorite places in the city! Also, check out John Heinz at Tinicum, America’s first urban wildlife refuge, that is completely accessible for visitors who use mobility assistance devices like strollers, walkers, and wheelchairs! We also boast two independent bookstores – House of Our Own (39th and spruce) (cofounded by an old family friend!) and Bindlestiff Books (45th and Baltimore) (which may or may not be open, since it is mostly run by volunteers)
Race, place, and social justice
I honestly believe that there is progressive work led by good people in every neighborhood of the city, but West Philly has been a particularly influential and innovative hub for social movements for the last 50 years. This is largely attributed to a group of Quaker activists who moved to the neighborhood in the 70’s and established Movement for a New Society (MNS) following years of fierce, strategic, and nonviolent resistance to the Vietnam War. I’ve lived in West Philly for nearly 5 years, and the previous 3 years I spent as much time here as I could. So while I’m by no means an expert or a historian, I am a passionate, loyal, engaged nerd – and I want to share some of what makes this neighborhood so special to me with ANOTHER community that is important to me, namely, YOU!
In retrospect, many of us have asked if launching a social movement hub with mostly White people in a majority African American neighborhood set the stage for the waves of gentrification that have dramatically changed West Philly in the intervening years (and which I’m complicit in). I think this question needs to be reckoned with – and believe me, I reckoned with it in 120 pages that I wrote on the subject in my undergrad thesis in urban studies. My opinion has evolved and will likely continue to evolve; there are no easy answers here. When I compare these choices to the dramatic “White flight” that was happening concurrently… and when I acknowledge the outsized and deliberate influence that Penn, Drexel, CHOP, and the VA have had on development patterns in West Philly (which they re-branded University City), it no longer seems justifiable or historically accurate to blame gentrification on a scrappy crew of activists and bohemians, who never counted more than 300 in their ranks.
Ok, back to MNS… Their theory of change featured a combination of nonviolent direct action AND lengthy group processes to mitigate and address sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia (they called this work personal development) (precursor to Salesforce’s #EqualityForAll campaign?) They emphasized training and often sent group members on speaking tours to facilitate workshops with small groups of activists in other cities. In Philadelphia, one of their most high profile actions was sending a flotilla of civilian kayakers to blockade an arms ship destined for East Pakistan from leaving the port, while simultaneously organizing Longshoremen to picket the boat’s docking. They also organized solidarity with the American Indian Movement (mid 70’s) and supported the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance throughout the 80’s. I’ve often returned to these stories as a source of personal inspiration in my political organizing.
MNS-ers were well-known for banding together with meager resources, and they established a slew of cooperative businesses, many of them still operating! If you walk west on Baltimore Avenue (a short stroll away from the conference hotel), you will see a food cooperative, a credit union, a community garden, a shared storefront for grassroots organizations, and (less visible, but nonetheless noteworthy!) a land trust that operates a housing cooperative with nearly a dozen properties. They also launched a social justice press, which is still releasing new books and pamphlets. All of these businesses are directly connected to MNS, and even though MNS closed up shop in the late 1980s, folks have kept these organizations going for decades. Many credit MNS influence for the fact that there are essentially no fast food restaurants or corporate chains in the 12 block stretch of Baltimore Avenue from 40th to 52nd ish, despite rapid development on nearby university campuses.
Speaking of MNS’ legacy, whether you found contemporary social movements like Occupy Wall Street and Arab Spring inspiring or repulsive (I found them inspiring!), we can thank MNS for developing and introducing concepts like the spokes council model, consensus decision making, and what we now call “prefigurative politics” but they coined as the catchphrase “Live the Revolution Now!” (In other words, in the on-going debate between means and ends, MNS chose means, which had many implications for their membership and may have contributed to their demise in the 80’s as their internal focus began to overshadow their external, political impact). Learn more about MNS in Dr. Andrew Cornell’s phenomenal book Oppose and Propose!, or this article, or this interview. (Andy’s research contributed to some of the historical fact-finding for this blog post; also, thanks to my MNS friends who have regaled me with stories over the years!).
The grassroots organizing, training, and collective-living tradition that MNS ignited is still alive and well in West Philly, with grassroots, social justice groups like Earth Quaker Action Team (full disclosure, I’m a board member!), Books Through Bars, Philadelphia Folklore Project, and Media Mobilizing Project capturing the hearts (and time) of community members. Many MNS elders are still in the neighborhood, which is so special!
We can’t look at activism as happening in a Utopian bubble. While generations of West Philly neighbors participated in political resistance and community building efforts (inside and outside of MNS), West Philly has a history that, of course, transcends MNS (itself a subculture, and a fringe-y one at that!).
Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country, and like many cities on the eastern seaboard experiencing rapid gentrification, it is also home to extreme inequality and anti-black racism. In West Philly alone, communities hold memories of both historic and recent police shootings, all while Penn and the University City District expand their private police force. (We’re almost guaranteed to see these yellow-jacket police around the conference hotel).
In recent generations, West Philly has been predominantly African-American and predominantly low income; and even more recently it has become home to African, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern immigrants – but this hasn’t always been true. West Philly (as you might guess by seeing ornate Victorian style housing), was once a financially prosperous section of the city. Additionally, in the first half of the 20th century, West Philly was considerably more racially integrated than it is now.
One thing that makes West Philly unique is connection to transit – Amtrak, commuter rail, subways, buses, and trolleys all converge in this section of the city. Moreover, as you follow West Philly thoroughfares like Lancaster Avenue west, you will pass through middle class, working class, and poor neighborhoods, and end up in the suburbs where there is some of the most concentrated wealth in the country. Keep going further west (on the same road!) and you will end up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, mostly populated with Amish and Mennonite farmers. Taking a broad perspective, across time and space, you can see that West Philly is a serious mix of multitudes!
This phenomenon certainly complicates the story of racism, displacement, agency, and power that I’ve been alluding to. And this is important to me because West Philly also had an era where it had many (dozens?) of synagogues and middle class White Jews, a contingency that almost completely disappeared during White Flight (lest we conflate Whiteness and Jewishness, Philadelphia also has a predominantly African American synagogue, plus Jews of Color in leadership positions across the city). What does it mean that Jewish people are flocking back to the Cedar Park, Spruce Hill and Walnut Hill neighborhoods of West Philly? We now have one of the only growing synagogues in the city, which has garnered national attention. (Full disclosure – also a board member of the delightful Kol Tzedek Synagogue, translated as “Voice of Justice”). West Philly is certainly changing demographically – and it’s not the first time.
Lest you think I was done, there’s still more to share about West Philly beyond the activist enclave that has been so influential for me. The iconic 52nd Street Corridor is undergoing community redevelopment after being a center for jazz and shopping in the 1950’s, but later withstanding decades of economic decline, disruptive construction, and violence. It was truly fascinating to read this planning document about transit-oriented development (TOD) west of 52nd street. North of the Market Street thoroughfare, and a bit farther East (46th street), are the public housing highrises known as West Park Apartments. Just last week, the Housing Authority announced a plan to sell two of the buildings and relocate residents to alternate apartments while they build rowhouses and lowrise apartments. I’m not sure yet if this is a step in the right direction, but seems consistent with their ongoing strategy to pursue scattered site and single family housing accommodations. Ch-ch-changes on the horizon also include the multi-billion dollar investment in an “innovation hub” called “Schuykill Yards” – planned to bring more tech talent and medical R&D to a mixed-use urban development on the banks of the Schkuykill River (pronounced Sk-oo-kull), adjacent to 30th street [train] station. Time will tell how this may have other resounding impacts on West Philly… thankfully we dodged the (much scarier) Amazon HQ bullet last year.
As you can see (if you’ve made it this far!) West Philly is a complex, endearing, historically significant, vibrant bunch of neighborhoods, constantly in flux, facing some steep challenges, and yet home to families who have rooted themselves for generations in its cozy blocks, who are committed to remembering its legacy and fighting for an equitable future.
With all that being said, WELCOME SPRINTERS! I hope you get a chance to step into one of West Philly’s magical spaces and witness how special and unique the community is!
One thought on “A Sprinter’s Guide to West Philly”
oh my goodness Sam I love you and I love this and I love west philly