Philadelphia, PA

One of the oldest cities in the United States and home to the country’s first International Style skyscraper, Philadelphia is, unfortunately, now associated more with cheesesteaks and colonial kitsch than with successful American urbanism.

No doubt, Philadelphia has seen better days. Even in 2009, whole neighborhoods resemble sets from a zombie horror film, and the City of Brotherly Love’s reputation hasn’t fully recovered from the controversial police fire-bombing of a West Philly block of row houses in 1985. But Philadelphia deserves to stand, if not equal to, at least favorably compared with its East Coast neighbors. New York is just a train ride away—–but why make the trip at all when there’s so much here to discover?

Novelist Ken Kalfus (husband of celebrated architecture critic Inga Saffron) is a Philadelphia native and resident of the centrally located Fitler Square neighborhood. He takes us on a tour through the streets of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has a reputation for walkability. Where do you like to go? 


It’s almost impossible to leave the house without running into someone you know here. A friend of mine calls Philly a small village with crime. I love just walking the neighborhoods—going out for groceries or to Di Bruno Brothers for lunch. It’s hard to imagine a week where I don’t walk to Rittenhouse Square at least two or three times.


A new addition to the city is a public path along the Schuylkill. 


It’s actually a bike path and a hiking path. It’s only been established for a few years, but it’s a huge success. In fact, if you want an example of a small amenity that has changed a whole neighborhood, then this path is one of them. The main problem now is that the path is too narrow! It can hardly accommodate all the people using it. They show movies on the path in the summer—like Airplane and Annie Hall—projected onto the side of a trailer, and you can bike all the way to Valley Forge. There’s a community garden near the south entrance; it feeds us all summer.


Philadelphia is the site of the nation’s first subscription library, the Library Company, as well as the public Free Library of Philadelphia, which is now expanding its main branch with a new wing designed by Moshe Safdie.


They invited me in to discuss how local writers might use the new space. As a writer, even with access to the Internet, a good library is so important to me, and they were way ahead of anything I was thinking of. They’re talking about installing a studio where people can come and make records. If everything happens as planned, the library could be a big new focal point for the city.


What do you think of the PSFS Building, the International Style skyscraper designed by George Howe and William Lescaze back in 1930?


My wife, Inga, loves it—but, you know, I’ve had drinks there. It’s all right. It’s not something I’d seek out.


So it’s a landmark to architectural historians and not to residents?


It’s just not a neighborhood I visit much. It is a nice building, and it’s got a nice bar—in a place called SoleFood—but there’s no compelling reason to go there. It’s surrounded by discount electronic stores. On the other hand, I’m always struck by how many people do  hang out in that neighborhood, especially in the Gallery, a shopping mall.When I take visitors for a walk we usually end up at the Italian Market, down on Ninth Street. It’s nothing special, design-wise, but the cheeses are really great.That reminds me: When people do visit, they often arrive by train, at 30th Street Station. That’s an easy walk from our house—right up the bike path—and it’s a magnificent welcome to the city. The interior is like Grand Central Station in New York, and it’s exciting to walk into any large train station. I took my daughter there once and we went into one of the smaller corridors and she was flying this little balsa wood airplane around. It was pretty cool!


Speaking of your daughter, the city has been experimenting with private and charter high schools, including one sponsored by Microsoft. Has that affected her?


What they did here, during Paul Vallas’s term as education CEO, was to start these smaller high schools, and each one has a theme to it. My daughter’s is the Science Leadership Academy. It’s a very progressive, learning-centered, inquiry-based.


What do you think of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Rafael Viñoly, which opened in 2001?


Inga and I have been there a few times to hear music, but I think they hoped to make the inner lobby into more of a public commons—–a 24-hour urban center where people would come in and out all day. That hasn’t quite gelled; it’s kind of a dead space. But the Kimmel Center is on Broad Street—–the Avenue of the Arts—–which is a very successful urban rejuvenation project. The art institutions and theaters there have really encouraged people into the city. That extends over to the 13th Street area, which has great restaurants now, including Capogiro, the gelato place, and even a bowling alley. In fact, last fall, on Broad Street, they had an outdoor exhibition on prefab architecture in an empty lot. There’s one more building I want to mention, though: the PECO Building, a big tower at 23rd and Market. It’s like the monolith in 2001. It has a gigantic message ticker at the top, and the message is always stupid—–like “Call PECO to save on heating bills!” I’ve always wanted to propose a new idea: The city does this thing every year called One Book, One Philadelphia, where everyone is supposed to read a particular book, usually a novel. But what if they were to run the text of that book as a ticker message on top of the PECO Building? There’s a museum here, the Rosenbach, that has the original manuscript of Ulysses by James Joyce. What if they ran the entire text of Ulysses once a year, on Bloomsday? You could be walking down the street—and suddenly see a really interesting sentence! 

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