reg penna dept agr

January 10-13, 2008
phila., penna.

I’ve always loved the old, non-standard state abbreviations. Since they were somewhat arbitrary, I remember –though I couldn’t pinpoint it to a year– when the Postal Service mandated the current and horribly bland two letter abbreviations. What with zip codes being the parts that really matter, I don’t understand why they cared anyway.

In any case, the abbreviation Penna for Pennsylvania was always my favorite, precisely because it made no sense. Abbreviating Illinois as Ill, for example, made intuitive sense. But Penna was just silly.

I first became aware of Penna’s power during the consumerist act of shopping, Mandrake. Every Friday night as a young child, my dad and I went grocery shopping for the week. I would often read labels to amuse myself. Many labels, especially those for canned goods, featured the text Reg. Penna. Dept. Agr. which was short for Registered with Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Just like the Free Masons and the Post Office, Pennsylvania seemed to exert a disproportionate pull on the world. It must be due to the influence of Ben Franklin –a noted Pennsylvanian, Postmaster, and Free Mason.

I’ve never been to Philadelphia so I jumped at the chance to go. Lodging was mostly taken care of, so all I had to pay was airfare and food. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance check out outlying residential Philadelphia nor did I ride the subway. And there were places that I wanted to get to but didn’t get the chance. That’s OK; I feel like I will definitely be back here. I like this town thus far.

Most unfortunately, though, I have had exactly two songs stuck in my head the whole time here. The first is the theme to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the second is Boys To Men’s Motownphilly. A little more fortunately on the pop culture front, I keep thinking about Trading Places, the finest Eddie Murphy movie this side of Coming to America and a most excellent Eddie Murphy, Dan Akroyd, and Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle. I had to fight back urges to corner the frozen concentrated orange juice market.

K. was the first to notice that there weren’t any walk signals. We later found a few at the really wide intersections. However, most of the streets around Center City are very narrow and few of them have walk signals. People wait on a red when there are cars and walk on a green. They also cross against a red when it is safe to do so. No cop hassles any pedestrian, as they like to do in various Seattle neighborhoods. Seattle could use more of a Phila. Penna. sensibility.

It seems that any city that really wants to promote walking –as the signs around Philadelphia seems to indicate– would give pedestrians the benefit of the doubt. Pedestrians can fend for themselves; they don’t need to be herded by cops who only walk infrequently, and only as part of their jobs at that. I imagine that drivers on the East Coast may just fear pedestrians, actually. A driver would hit a pedestrian only to have him/her stand up, pick up their detached limb, chase the driver down, and start beating on him/her with the dismembered appendage. The driver would then offer to take the injured pedestrian to the hospital just to stop the beating.

Aside from the oppressive weight of national history, much of the city center is like an architectural museum. The row houses, tall skinny buildings squeezed together, are positively charming. Along several blocks, they are commercial buildings with top chain retailers squeezed into relatively narrow storefronts. It’s a very refreshing sight, actually. At times, the upper floors are part of the store; at other times they are small offices or even residences. This is mixed use as it should be. It seems to be a great partnership of historic preservation and contemporary use.

My only complaint here is that the city seems to shit on its waterfronts. (Note that these are only my quick “windshield survey” observations.) At-grade highways hug both the Schuykill and Delaware rivers. Penn’s Landing attempts to make cursory overtones at engaging the waterfront but it seems to be a highly contrived and regulated space. It seems more of a semi-private commercial space than a true public space.

There are certainly plenty of docks and I’d hate to see much of the “working waterfront” go away. There is always a tension when it comes to recreational versus working waterfronts and far too many times non-working waterfront goes the way of private, luxury waterfront development. It’s sad that many cities can’t seem to find a balance of public recreational, private residential, and working commercial uses. On the other hand, a wholesale “publification” as Chicago did in the early 20th century isn’t so bad.

Of course, one thing that would have to happen is that industry would have to stop shitting in the water. The waterfront areas just outside the city are highly industrialized and the landscape, near the airport say, is pretty bleak. I have no doubt that much of the coloration and appearance of the water here is mere siltation and maybe tidal activity (as well as the time of year, perhaps) but I also have no doubt that it is polluted as well.

Regardless, I never felt connected to any water here in any local sense. I mean, I felt that, yes, I was on the East Coast and the Atlantic Seaboard –I love that phrase. However, the only connection to water that I felt was regional.

Next time that I am out here, though, I will have to test these biases and very preliminary observations. I’ll definitely ride the subway and I will check out areas beyond the city. After all, the Chesapeake and the ocean are nearby. I will also have to check out the universities and the neighborhoods. From the air, it looked as if the city had densely-packed residential areas. They were packed even closer than Chicago’s narrow lots, which is something I figure is about right for the East Coast.

I’ll definitely be back, though. I don’t know what it is but something about this place struck me quite unexpectedly. I really like this town. Maybe it is because, after having been in Chicago a week earlier, I felt I was once again in a big city. For an appreciable amount of time, I really didn’t want to go back to Seattle with its lack of meaningful transit choices, laughably paltry regional commuter rail, and stultifying insistence on consensus.

Of course, I don’t care much for Philadelphia’s very East Coast use of horns and surliness of some customer service staff. On the other hand, at brunch on Sunday we saw a fabulously Hot Chick wearing a thin and flimsy fuschia dress, wild hair that had Angela Davis aspirations, and facial hair that results from an irregular and less than meticulous shaving schedule (I know it; I have it). It was empowering to see. That’s a kind of East Coast in-your-facedness that I can get behind.

[ jump to photographs ]

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One Response to reg penna dept agr

  1. joshuadf says:

    A nice first visit. I hope you avoided the Liberty Bell. I think “Penna” must be like “Hants” for Hampshire: clearly from the Doomsday Book.

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