On Election Day, I waited in line to vote in West Philadelphia, where my husband took a teaching position this year. I’d scrambled to file my new registration in between trips, excited to vote in a swing state. But the local mood was anything but purple.
As we stood in the dappled sunshine of an Indian summer, a woman jumped out of an SUV and tacked a “Pat Toomey, Republican For Senate” sign precisely 10 feet from the polling place. Without missing a beat, a man toward the front of the line strolled over, tore down the sign and got back into line to spontaneous applause.
That’s West Philadelphia in a nutshell. With its vintage Victorians, ubiquitous strollers and left-of-center politics, the neighborhood adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania reminds me a bit of ’90s Park Slope. Blue hair and big dogs are commonplace; there’s a crunchy food co-op, but nary a bank branch in sight.
Like most visitors to the City of Brotherly Love, I had never made it west of the Schuylkill River on my previous trips. But as I discovered, the West Philadelphia historic district boasts a lively, quirky charm and a distinctive Jewish community that justify the detour.
Our first stop upon arrival was Clark Park, a shady expanse of lawns, picnic tables and playgrounds with the feel of a collective back yard. The weekend farmer’s market was in full swing, and kohlrabi-clutching neighbors greeted each other as their children took turns clambering up a statue of Charles Dickens. Under a leafy sukkah, still more kids, dogs and chatting parents gathered for an outdoor party; the local Reconstructionist congregation, Kol Tzedek, was celebrating Sukkot in typically communal fashion.
The easy integration of sukkah and park was also an apt metaphor for a progressive synagogue that has become a social hub. Chatting with locals, I heard about a Black Lives Matter study group, an anti-fracking rally and a voter drive organized by the area’s lone congregation, which rebuilt West Philadelphia Jewish life after a once-thriving community migrated to the suburbs. The neighborhoods around Clark Park are organically diverse in a way that’s rare nowadays; Kol Tzedek, as a proud beacon for interfaith, interracial and other non-traditional families, reflects that diversity.
Social action is to West Philly what soccer is to Barcelona, I observed as yet another Democratic volunteer approached me with a clipboard. With full stomachs but a thirst for literature, Zelda and I headed up the main thoroughfare, Baltimore Avenue, to Bindlestiff Books, where children’s titles like “A is for Anarchist” are bestsellers. “If you’re looking for more books in Spanish,” said the friendly volunteer clerk as we browsed, “just email the owners; they’re always interested in hearing what people want.”
Gentrification may be well underway, but this kind of Mom-and-Pop spirit is still very much evident on streets dotted with hole-in-the-wall, cash-only Ethiopian and Middle Eastern cafés, Vietnamese delis and second-hand stores with vintage trikes and racks full of vinyl. Everyone seems to know everybody; at an outdoor jazz concert down the street in Cedar Park, the musicians joked and chatted with neighbors in between songs.
We strolled our way down streets canopied in autumn-tinged greenery, past gracious porches and neoclassical columns, toward an imposing stone gate. A green oasis lies within at the Woodlands, a National Historic Landmark where anyone can wander off the trolley and stroll through fields dotted with 18th-century stone mansions, and, since there is a cemetery on the estate, Victorian funerary urns and moss-covered tombstones. Zelda chased butterflies and sparrows; I was fascinated by the local heritage revealed by the British surnames and soberingly short lifespans etched onto those 19th-century slabs.
Far older, though, are the treasures on view at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, an undersung gem in a city with an embarrassment of museum riches. If you hear archaeology and sigh at the thought of Greek pottery — as I admit I do — you owe it yourself to explore Penn’s monumental sphinxes, glittering Egyptian sarcophagi and cryptic figurines from ancient Israel. As you might imagine, scowling Mesoamerican monsters and Tut-era mummies are very kid-friendly.
Much like the neighborhood itself, I reflected as we settled onto the patio of a popular brewery to watch the sun set. While Philadelphia’s central districts boast sprawling museums and bar-hopping nightlife, West Philly specializes in the kinds of small-scale pleasures — good books, friendly cafés, beautiful parks — that make nearly everyone feel at home. Except, perhaps, Republicans.