My wife Sandy and I lived in Philadelphia for many years, both before we met and subsequently. The year 2005 was a momentous one for us, because that’s when we made the leap from the city to the nearby northern burbs. In some ways I prefer living where I now do, in other ways I wonder if leaving the city was a brilliant idea. Our house is nicer than the one we used to occupy, the current neighborhood is cuter than its predecessor. On the other hand, automobile traffic around here is as blood pressure-elevating as in Philadelphia. And there aren’t enough fun things for us to do, which is why we head south a few times each month to check out the offerings in various sections of the City Of Brotherly Love.
My overall opinion of Philadelphia is a good one. Yes, the city has plenty of problems, like too much crime and a pitiful public school system. And yet it has so much going for it. Loads of history that we all know or should know about. Great parks big and small. Fabulous buildings from the late 1600s onward. More restaurants, music venues, theaters and such than anyone could wish for. I’m sounding like someone from Philadelphia’s official tourism bureau, but my feelings are legitimate. For physical beauty, culture and food, Philadelphia is world-class.
Which brings us to Friday, July 3. Sandy and I were itching to get out of the house. Not much that we knew about was going on in the burbs. Philadelphia it would be. Where in the city though? Sandy had noticed in the paper that July 3 was First Friday in Philadelphia’s Old City section. We hadn’t been to a First Friday in a year or two, and we decided to go.
Old City is a part of town that was full of homes, businesses and people in Colonial days. It still is, and many of those 1700s structures are with us today. The area is quaint and often lively, and plenty of streets retain their ancient paving bricks and stones. There are quite a few art galleries in Old City. In 1991, attempting to lure customers and imbue Old City with needed panache, some gallery owners began keeping their doors open in the evening on the first Friday of each month. They spread the word and a monthly mini-festival, a kind of happening, was born. All over the world, events similar to First Friday are taking place. They can be good.
You never know what you’ll come across on Old City First Fridays. Painters and crafts people and assorted vendors set up tables for their wares on the sidewalks and in alleyways, which are also where musicians set up their instruments and wail. And many art galleries, the original driving force, are open. Sandy and I strolled around Old City without a plan. Not having done advance research, we ended up missing a few blocks with galleries we’d have liked. Next time. Most of the action that we caught was on a two block stretch of 2nd Street between Market and Arch Streets, and on Arch between 2nd and 3rd. A small chunk of territory, actually, but enough.
Our eyes were open for human creations and human activities. Who wouldn’t have loved the brash New Orleans-style brass band occupying a niche where Cuthbert and 2nd Streets meet. Or the long-haired White dude who, catching some zzzs, was draped like a caterpillar over one of those large and ubiquitous green utility company sidewalk boxes. He was Mr. Flexibility personified.
Or the head-scarved lady in blue on 2nd Street whose tables and racks held as eye-popping a collection of pillows, fabric trivets, shoulder bags and cloth drapings as one would ever see in a 30 square foot parcel of sidewalk. Middle-Eastern and Asian patterns and color combinations burst from her goods, clashing outrageously, looking great together nonetheless. Henri Matisse, who threw wild design combos into so many paintings and never met a color he didn’t like, would have loved this lady’s display.
There were beautiful paintings, sculptures and crafts to be seen in the galleries. I’ll mention a few places. We liked just about everything we saw at 3rd Street Gallery. Two artists were showing there. Keith Sharp’s dark and dramatic photographic manipulations were intriguing, some a bit ominous. They were very different from Bettina Clowney’s spare paintings. Clowney uses a lot of whites in her depictions of fruits, of people, and in non-representational designs. Gazing at each other from opposite walls, the Sharp and Clowney artworks made a good marriage.
MUSE Gallery was filled with Leora Brecher’s small fired clay sculptures, all in white. Many were abstract suggestions of human movement, open and flowing. Very lovely.
F.A.N. Gallery on Arch Street is one Sandy and I visit occasionally. I wasn’t knocked out by its smorgasbord of works by gallery artists on this First Friday visit. We both liked the oils by one artist though, Charles Newman. He paints Philadelphia street scenes, focusing on old buildings, very well. The perspectives from which he views his brick and stone subjects are off-angle, giving the pictures a quiet tension, and his earthy subdued color choices are just right.
Dinner time. Off to Prime Stache, a few blocks from First Friday, on Chestnut Street. Atmospherically, it’s for lovers of exposed brick and stone walls, which Sandy and I are. A pubby place short on wines but decently long on beers, its food is good. Prime Stache has some fancy offerings, but we weren’t in a fancy mood. We both enjoyed our simple burgers, Sandy’s of the salmon ilk, mine of the turkey.
The best part of the evening lay ahead. We strolled northward from Prime Stache to Race Street Pier, one of my favorite spots in Philadelphia. I’ve been there in daylight and late at night, and late night is better. The pier lies near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, and in darkened hours the illuminated bridge overhead is breathtaking.
Jutting into the Delaware River, Race Street Pier once was a commercial municipal pier. It has been converted into a serene and intimate two level public park with long walking paths, a lawn and oak trees. Much of the Philadelphia region’s population has yet to discover this park. It opened four years ago, the first and still the only of its kind in Philadelphia. At the tail end of our First Friday evening, Race Street Pier bewitched Sandy and me. We walked romantically. We were inspired by views of the Delaware. We shook our heads marveling at the beauty of the massive Franklin bridge. And then it was time to head home.
(All of the photographs in this article were taken by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)