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The Philadelphia Experiment

AnotherAbby's picture

Beginning our trip into the city this week, I wasn’t sure if I would be more or less scared to explore the Philadelphia than I have been to explore DC. The train ride was very different from what I’m used to—people actually came to collect my ticket, and there were no turnstiles in sight. That was the biggest tip-off that I was a stranger in this place.

In some ways, that thought put me at ease more than when I go into DC. I didn’t have to worry about tipping anyone off to my status as a “tourist” by openly checking a map, or taking pictures of a landmark. In DC, I’d feel ashamed doing those things, but here, hell, I’d even go so far as to ask someone for directions if I had to. I could approach Philadelphia with more anonymity and curiosity than I could DC by embracing the fact that it wasn’t “my” city.

Getting off the train, my fears were further alleviated. I’d been to this part of the city before with my family members who live in Philly. I remember sitting on the second floor of Mace’s Crossing—a pub overlooking the Circle—on St. Patrick’s Day three years ago, watching off-duty school buses shuttle drunk twenty-something’s along the pub-crawl route. I felt better. I had some knowledge of the area.

So, feeling less anxious and more empowered, we began our trek through the city. In the true spirit of Serendipity, we wandered with no particular destination in mind, ending up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Sadly, just after cresting its famous steps, we had to return to the Free Library in order to attend our section of The Quiet Volume.

The Quiet Volume was an interesting experience, and one that I’m glad I participated in. One thing it did for me was reinforce the idea that I was a stranger to almost everyone in the room, observing them and wondering if they were observing me, too. I recognized the unease it created as the same feeling I get when wandering around in DC; watching people but simultaneously hoping they aren’t watching me.

  I’m sure I could write an entire paper on what other thoughts and ideas The Quiet Volume brought up for me, but this particular essay is headed elsewhere, so I’m going to have to leave it at that. 

After the show was over, we again found ourselves out on the street, and everyone in my group was famished. Our collective hunger was more pressing than trying to be playful and serendipitous, so we picked out a place on Yelp!, headed in its general direction, and then prompted stumbled up on and stopped at a place with reasonable prices and food that looked good.

The restaurant was The Kite and Key, a cute bistro-diner combination that sat us outside, so we could observe the city as we ate. The neighborhood we were in seemed to be on the border of the newly-gentrified and the run-down, with fresh building facades, quirky niche businesses, and young trees on one side of the street, and a set of older, shabbier buildings—complete with a sketchy liquor store—on the other. The Kite and Key was part of the former group. It had quirky décor and looked to be patronized mainly by young, upper-middle class couples and families. The group next to us was sampling microbrews and ordering neat little appetizers before we got there and probably continued long after we left.

Sharon Zukin would have had a field day with this street. It was both figuratively and literally an intersection of the old city and the new city. In her interview, she states that gentrified neighborhoods were marketed as places where:

“…middle-class families could safely reside and find the cheese and the dog equipment and the baby strollers and all the things that a fairly young middle-class family would want in the city except for the sterile atmosphere that was associated with the suburbs.”


I counted four young women with strollers and babies entering surrounding apartment buildings during the hour it took us to eat our lunch. There was also a pet boutique a stone’s throw away.

Where we were seemed almost like a personification of what she described and warned against. There was a lack of diversity in terms of cultural background, but judging by the conversations I eavesdropped on, the diversity of ideas was nowhere near as lacking. Perhaps in past cycles of gentrification the opinions were as homogenous as the people taking over neighborhoods that used to be “authentic”, but based on my experience that day, the gentrified neighborhoods can draw in people with different levels of understanding on every issue, and allows them to connect with each other and share their ideas, enriching the intellectual fabric of the city.





  • Zukin, Sharon. "Big Think Interview with Sharon Zukin." Interview by Various. Big Think. N.p., 3 Feb. 2010. Web. 4 Sept. 2013. <>.