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West Philly Meander

krysg's picture

It does not seem like there is a point in my day in which I go on a “proper” Thoreauvian walk; in fact, it does not seem that many places around me offer the possibility of walking without guided action.  It was thus hard to imagine a free-roaming meander, a saunter, a true meditative exploration on the outskirts of University City. After all, every step you took has you along another path that someone has created specifically to lead you to McDondalds or Chipotle or the UPenn Library; down Locust Walk, where it is almost permissible to saunter, bikes zoom past you while sorority girls and frat boys drunkenly bop shoulders and shrill like windchimes. Between destinations your head needs to be up and perceptive; they key in this sentence is the assurance that one must always have a destination while walking; an aimless amble could put you in danger and lead you into the wrong type of situation.    

            I had to just dive in, I knew, instead of wondering so thoroughly about where my “center” of West Philly would be, or if my sauntering would cross me over a border where I did not belong. So, because it is the point in space that I come and go to and from most often, I chose my apartment at Chestnut and 45th as the center of “my” West Philly. I left from my apartment at dusk, around 6ish, when the sun was beginning to set and the children who still were not in school came out to play. Doors opened. This is my favourite time to walk around West Philly. All borders open.  It’s a step into a world very different from Bryn Mawr, and into (one?) very different than my own.

            The first direction I head from my apartment is North. I first walk past the smells of the Hallal restaurant down the street, past open home doors smelling of curries and the sounds of children playing inside as they await dinner.  I pass gated housing as I near Market St, and the scenery turns desolate. It’s funny how one can assume that the city is devoid of nature; and Thoreau would as well; but it is always refreshing to me to see that in the midst of commerce and ruined housing, a community garden has sprouted in an empty lot, turning what could be cold concrete into a much-needed space to dig your fingers into the ground. It is here that I disagree with Thoreau, who seemed to  scorn man-made gardens; but why, admist the upward growth of buildings, would I fault someone who would rather take a downward saunter into the soil with their fingers, in hopes that carrots or tomatoes could find a home?  I come to my first border: that that cuts the gentrifying University City into West Philly. Around 50th St. What many students have referred to as the “real” West Philly.

            I cut down along 50th toward Baltimore, heading South.  There are “Keep the Cops out of Our Neighborhood!” signs posted with images rendered in the negative of people being beaten by cops. There are no Penn bike police around this neighborhood like the ones that circle mine at all hours of the night. For many, this would indicate the neighborhood being unsafe. But there are families out on their porches, the young and old. They greet eachother as they pass on the street; seeming strangers; and it’s obvious that although no physical border is set, the people who occupy this community have created borders through the knowledge of their fellow occupants—through the creation of a community, in short. 

            Another turn down Baltimore and the air becomes thicker. There seems to be more bugs. I don’t know exactly why Baltimore Ave seems to have more mosquitoes than the rest of West Philly alone, but I get eaten alive. The air is humid even though the day is clear. There are more trees, plants. The houses become nicer.  As I near 45th again, the scenery becomes one that I’m familiar with: queer people roam the streets, queer families with their puppy, college students, children heading to the park.

            Clark park is not a place that one could saunter around, necessarily. Its borders are well designated and paths are well-trodden; nevertheless, those who do not pick a spot in the park to settle, those who wandered around just like I, seemed to have the mindset of sauntering rather than the physical path; there was a far-off look in their eyes that showed they may have been home in walking, but they were homeless in their thought.  There is a calming nature about Clark park,  no trees to climb but there are hills to scale and vast grasses to walk over where one could be alone.  It is in the park that you truly spy everyone, too; not just people in their own communities, but gathered together in a conglomeration of ethnicities and cultures, children playing together, sauntering in their own way toward friendship.

            In summation, what stuck with me through my amble through West Philly was just how many different communities with their own boundaries could be found and represented.  Although Thoreau found that he could walk without hitting neighbors, walk with no destination and no ‘home’ pulling him back, in our modern world there is always a center (for me and many other West Philly locals), a home (whether in West Philly or in another country, as in the case of the West African refugee population of W.Philly) and the boundries of your self-made communities that cradle you and keep you safe, insulate you but provide environment and nature similar to yours—essential for humans to live. But not Thoreau apparently.



Anne Dalke's picture

"Home in walking, homeless in thought"

you know, there actually is a model for "sauntering" in the city (though it's certainly not Thoreau, whom you follow in declaring that "an aimless amble could put you in danger"). It's rather the flâneur --a mode Walter Benjamin explored @ length, as emblematic of modern urban experience, an amateur detective--and a sign of capitalist alienation. Check it out!

There are several moments in your prose which give me deep pleasure--
* "All borders open."
* "why, admist the upward growth of buildings, would I fault someone who would rather take a downward saunter into the soil with their fingers?"
* "home in walking...they were homeless in their thought"--

...and several (sometimes the same!) moments when I want to talk w/ you more about what you are saying. For example, your celebration of community gardening makes me want to flag the great disruption of agriculture --Louise Westling calls "the present frenzy of agriculture" "a global ecocide"--as a topic for discussion.

I lived in West Philly for 10 years, first as a graduate student, and then as a commuter to BMC during the beginning of my time working here. At that time, in the early '80s, the boundary to University City was 10 blocks east of where you find it now, but I recognize your description of the "real" West Philly, where borders are created through shared knowledge of those who live there--"through the creation of a community, in short."

What I don't recognize though, is the need to end such a ramble "in summation" (shouldn't you end by "opening" this up again?") and the final summary dismissal of Thoreau. Why end that-a-way?

et502's picture

While reading your post,

While reading your post, these lines stuck with me, and will probably stick with me for a while: "it does not seem that many places around me offer the possibility of walking without guided action... one must always have a destination while walking." I know that this is based on the context of your location, but I wonder whether this will be a theme in our walks for this class - a struggle to be purpose-less, to truly meander. Sarah wrote abut this in her post - and I definitely can relate to it as well.