Smell ya later, Philadelphia!

Philadelphia, 10th and Spruce Streets, April 15, 2017

I just spent 22 hours in Philadelphia this weekend, and I have to say that I was charmed by its persistent Philly-ness. It still is, and may always be, the Philadelphia that I loved and left nearly 25 years ago.  At the time, I was thrilled to get out, but on my brief visit I was even charmed by some of the nastier details of life in the city.

I’m sure it’s because I no longer have to live there, and because I was on a high from my visit to give a book talk and meet students at Bryn Mawr College, my alma mater, but I was charmed by the somatic and sensory aspects of city life that I recognized instantly.
First, there’s the cigarette smoke on the street–surprisingly, that hasn’t changed in 25 years.  (My hotel room also had a faint trace of cigarette smoke–that was less charming, but I’m kind of a bloodhound when it comes to my powers of smell detection and analysis.)  Even the pee and vomit scents I detected in the daylight hours at many turns inspired nostalgia, probably because those aren’t smells I run into all that often in my life in Colorado.

Advertisement for Peale’s Museum, early 19th C, as seen in Curious Revolutionaries: The Peales of Philadelphia at the American Philosophical Society Museum.

The streets and sidewalks were still lacquered with that sticky black film of spilled sodas, grease, chewed gum, garbage leaks, and yes, pee and vomit that I don’t detect in other cities.  This, plus cigarette smoke and B.O. is the smell of Philadelphia for me.

Philadelphia men haven’t changed a bit, either.  I smell more men’s cologne on the streets of that city in a day than I do in a year in Colorado, or anywhere else I’ve lived since.  If it had been warmer, I’m sure I would have seen the same shirtless men sunning themselves in Rittenhouse Square park that I saw in 1988-1993–some younger guys who weren’t even born then too, but I’m pretty sure I would have seen some of the exact same men, too, just as I saw their fathers and grandfathers topless on hot days in the middle of the city.  That’s Philly for you:  almost, but just this side of a Baltimore-level of weird.

Another thing that hasn’t changed about Philadelphia men:  they are always and obviously on the prowl for the ladies.  Although have changed significantly since the early 1990s, much to my surprise I still got at least a few looks and “heys” and eyebrow waggles from men who looked young enough to be (theoretically) my children.  Whereas in my early 20s–when I’m sure I got a lot more than I got this weekend at age 48–this seemed menacing, now it just seems hilarious and a little pathetic.  Much like the pee and vomit smells, I also found it strangely charming and nostalgic.

Philadelphia’s Tardis, as seen April 15, 2017 near the corner of 17th and Locust.

The old neighborhood has changed:  the practical businesses like laundromats, barbers, and (sadly) bookstores have been pushed out by yoga studios and fancy restaurants, but some of the old businesses are still there.  There are a lot more bakeries and cafes than there used to be, which must be nice.  Wonderland is still in business in my old apartment building, and the strange wooden plank steps (which can’t possibly be up to the fire code, can they?) leading up to it are the same, too.  The tailor and dry cleaner on 22nd St. still has the yellowing sign board with the exact same message as 27 years ago when I first moved in:  DROP YOUR PANTS OFF TO US, which seemed a little sad then, and is super-sad now.

It’s a very architecturally rich city–everywhere you look there are different building materials, different shapes, different textures, different details to look at, from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first.  Compared to the big skies and wide open spaces of the American west, the city seemed like a dollhouse–everything cute and intimate and closed-in.  I think I logged over 11 miles on foot in my 22 hours, walking from Rittenhouse Square to Independence National Historic Park, back to Fitler Square, twice.

Thanks, Philadelphia.  Don’t you ever change!

7 thoughts on “Smell ya later, Philadelphia!

  1. I’m sure that the Mayor’s office will not get around to thanking you for this pungently-favorable review, Historiann, but I will. It wuz great to see youse, and I recognize each and every one of those photos and links. You left out the discarded cheese-steaks, but I’m sure that Philly is one of the many capitals of the Carrie Underwood “three-dollar bathroom Polo” cologne stunt. You missed he 85-degree Easter-bunny meltdown by barely a day, and I know that the shirtless guys were out in Rittenhouse all day long and deep into the night. I’m heading into the inner deep-west myself in an hour, with maybe even a trifle more poignant regret than usual, but I’ll be back in a week or two. A case of Tastykake butterscotch krimpets will be on the Tuesday afternoon stage!


  2. c.f. Inga Saffron’s mellow-yellow takedown in last Sunday’s _Inky_ of the new American Revolution Museum building as a weary and predictably throwback red brick box, tributary to the neighborhood building fabric and style, both old and older, with a sidebar punch at the McNeil Center. Philadelphia, it seems, doesn’t have the raq (requisite anxiety quotient) to feel that it needs to have a little bit more Bilbao in its genome, or to bring in statement starchitect designers to sow buildings that look like an atom bomb just went off on their roofs. Sad.

    Do you remember that episode of the Simpsons, Historiann, where the people of Springfield invited Frank Gehry to design a “screw-you to Shelbyville” concert hall for their town, which they described as the “first city in America to abandon the metric system.”? They used cranes with wrecking balls to bend the initially squarish superstructure into the “curvilinear” shapes demanded by the design? Probably the only episode of that iconic that I ever watched wire-to-wire. And now it’s on YouTube.


  3. Too bad you didn’t get to this year’s OAH in New Orleans’ French Quarter! You could have done a comparative analysis of smellS. Perhaps with some helpful visualizations.


      • Yeah, I kind of felt like I wasn’t the area’s target demographic. Food around the hotel was expensive and touristy and kind of a challenge for someone who needs to eat like they have diabetes. Though I did have beignets (while wearing academic black! yay!) and a mimosa both of days I had breakfast-for-lunch… AFTER my presentation.

        (Life lesson: if I’m going to day-drink at a conference, I definitely need to have a stronger elevator speech about my research FIRMLY planted in my mind. #lowtolerance)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This is just belatedly to report that the “strange wooden plank steps” at Le Chateau Wonderland have been recently switched-out for a set of handsome basic black iron steps leading to the first floor doorway. Nothing as exciting, much less inspiring, as the Samuel Yellin “Poetry and Rhythm of Iron” creations that dot some old Philadelphia buildings, and places like The Cloisters in New York. But likely to get the head shop back in good graces with the Fire Marshall, even if the address gets unfriended by the personal injury bar. Just noticed it from the 42 bus this morning. You wood’a had to have walked the planks as recently as a couple of weeks ago.


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