Despite the massive student population found in University City, the real lure of West Philly is not immediately connected to education.
West Philly is that part of the city where fringe is the norm – most residents of the area west of the Schuylkill River and south of Spring Garden Street are hard to shock. Upon crossing the Schuylkill, there is a swelling presence of college students, mostly from University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. This is not the storied West Philly where weirdoes and wing nuts flock, seeking out subculture that is difficult to find anywhere else in area.
This wacky legion of marginal, alternative lifestyles is what makes West Philly unique. An afternoon spent in Clark Park at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue is all you need to witness this diversity. The sprawling park is home to folks sleeping on benches and college students catching up on readings. Musicians of all kinds come out to the park – and unlike other city parks, such as Rittenhouse Square, the community embraces these musicians.
The diversity is very real. The socio-economic profiles vary greatly – there are plenty of wealthy people and plenty of poor people,” Satellite Café employee Scott Straight said.
Weekend afternoons bring out groups of children who stage elaborate battles with foam swords and plastic shields. It is not uncommon to see a group of festive characters dancing and singing, swilling cheap beer out of brown bags – practices that would be disapproved of elsewhere. The park is also home to the only life-sized statue of Charles Dickens.
All spring, summer and fall, there is a weekly farmers market featuring locally grown produce and meats. This is only a microcosm of the general aesthetic of this neighborhood, a neighborhood that takes life a little more slowly and a little less seriously than surrounding areas. Here, many people spend more time in their gardens than they do at their desks. Massive front porches are typical of West Philly homes, which are frequently exotic Victorian-style buildings.
“It’s in the city, but it has the feeling of a small town. Everyone knows everyone, and if they don’t, they’re usually really happy to meet you. People out here are friendlier than anywhere else in the city,” senior philosophy major Chrissy Katz said. A great place to meet such welcoming people is at the Green Line Café at 43rd Street and Baltimore Avenue. This café and the Satellite at 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue are two of the coziest, most charming coffee shops in the city.
Businesses all over West Philly place an emphasis on personality and character, rather than a strict business approach. Don’t expect to be called “ma’am” or “sir” when buying a cup of coffee at the Satellite; they’d rather just know your name. The decor there is particularly unique – tattered canvas bags, once filled with aromatic coffee beans, hang from the ceiling like flags and the walls are adorned with the work of local artists.
There are well-worn couches in a cozy back room, complete with a seemingly endless supply of books and magazines you’d never find at Borders. The outdoor patio, set back a comfortable distance from the street, is complete with umbrella tables and benches, surrounded by lush gardens.
“What makes it unique is that it isn’t just a coffee shop, it’s a community meeting place. All kinds of people, lots of anarchists and travelers, come here to meet like-minded people,” Satellite employee Chelsea Clofer said. “If you want to see your friends, you just come here. People just feel more comfortable here.”
West Philly is also a hub of ethnic foods. Where else in the city can you find two Ethiopian restaurants within six to eight blocks of each other? Both Abyssinia at 45th and Locust streets and Dahlak at 47th Street and Baltimore Avenue serve up delicious Ethiopian cuisine. At these cozy restaurants, a meal for two costs less than $20. Also at 47th Street and Baltimore Avenue is the legendary Fu-Wah Deli, which specializes in the best tofu hoagies anywhere. Saad Halal at 45th and Chestnut streets makes a great lamb shawarma.
Kabobeesh, located at 42nd and Chestnut streets in an old diner, serves absolutely delicious kabobs of many kinds, including lamb chop and quail. Rx at 45th and Spruce streets is a good bet for old-fashioned comfort foods.
The adorable Vientiane Café, a 25-seat BYOB, does Thai food inexpensively but well: at dinner, entrée specials like spicy duck with pungent Thai basil are a mere $13.95. The Dock Street Brewery and Restaurant just opened at 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue, featuring great beer brewed on location, as well as some of the most exotic pizza in the city. Dining aside, West Philly is easily the musicians’ core of Philadelphia.
The Rotunda at 40th and Walnut streets hosts all kinds of events, musical and otherwise. Everything from crust punk to hip hop to free jazz musicians play at the venue, although their strict policies on drinking often scare some of the regular boozehounds away. West Philly has a thriving subculture, which is often centered around music but develops into more of a lifestyle. Don’t ask to buy tickets to shows in West Philly, just show up with a bag of beer and maybe a few bucks to give to a traveling act.
Mike Arthur, an acoustic punk performer who recently moved to the neighborhood from Boston, said he has “never felt a stronger indie/punk music scene anywhere. “To him, it’s “as if Boston doesn’t even exist anymore.”
Julian Root can be reached at email@example.com.