Local Life and Lore in Philadelphia
Philly’s unique culture distinguishes it from other cities.
Native Philadelphians rarely have a good thing to say about their hometown.
“Philadelphians are terrible ambassadors for the city,” says city deputy mayor Andrew Altman, recalling one discredited late 1970s tourist slogan “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”
Outsiders put themselves at risk, however, if they disparage the city. Remember, too, that unless you are born here, the natives will never consider you a Philadelphian, no matter how long you live here. The honor, however, will be accorded to any of your children born here.
Philadelphia has a love-hate relationship with New York.
Take Amtrak from 30th Street Station and you'll be in Manhattan in one hour and 11 minutes. Philly longs for the global recognition the Big Apple is accorded, yet resents the second-tier status that proximity to New York has handed it.
This means that a guy drinking in a South Philadelphia bar will bad-mouth the New York Giants, Mets, Yankees, Jets, Knicks and Rangers as he walks to the jukebox to play Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York” for the 100th time.
Living in the shadow of New York and Washington, Philadelphia has developed a culture apart from both. This is changing slowly with the younger generation.
Natives refuse to go along with name changes.
Christopher Columbus Boulevard is still Delaware Avenue; Kelly Drive remains East River Drive; Martin Luther King Drive is still West River Drive; the Market-Frankford Line remains “the El,” not the “Blue Line,” nor is the Broad Street Subway the “Orange” line, and the Avenue of the Arts is still Broad Street.
The John Wanamaker Department Store may be a Macy’s now, but one still meets friends by the “Iggle” (Eagle) at Wanamaker’s, or listens to concerts performed on the Wanamaker organ. The other downtown department stores: Gimbel’s is now a parking lot; Strawbridge & Clothier’s has state offices and Lit Bros., a cast-iron complex of 19th century buildings restored in the late 1980s, is an indoor shopping mall.
- North-south streets are numbered, but first is Front Street and there is no 14th Street. That is called Broad Street.
- “Downtown” is South Philadelphia, not the central business district.
- There are three Delawares: the river, the state and the county south of the city, and two Chesters, the city and the county, also south of the city.
- The other river is the Schuylkill (pronounced Skook-l), which means “hidden river,” so “river” after Schuykill is unnecessary. Schuylkill is also the name of the expressway that parallels the river, but is known by locals as the “Surekill,” because of its inadequate design. City tap water, which comes from the river via reservoirs and much purification, is called “Schuylkill punch.”
- Second Street in South Philly is called “Two Street.” After the Mummer’s Parade on New Year’s Day ends at Broad and Market Streets, the string bands, fancies and comic divisions “strut” down Two Street for the neighbors. NYA, means New Year’s Association; clubs participating in the parade are the so-and-so NYA.
Cheesesteak -- The chief delicacy. When you order one, it comes with shaved steak and Cheez Whiz on a roll. In a 2004 campaign stop, Democrat John Kerry asked for Swiss on his sandwich and probably lost votes locally because of it. It can be embellished with fried onions, if, when you order, you add the word “wid” (with); ketchup also is permitted. Everyone has a favorite cheesesteak shop; Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s, across South Ninth Street from one another, are the most talked about, but you can get one just about anywhere.
If you really don’t like whiz and love fried onions, you can order a cheesesteak with provolone cheese and onions by saying “Provie wid.”
Philadelphia soft pretzel -- Shaped like an “8,” typically comes from the Federal Pretzel Baking Co. at Sixth and Federal Streets in South Philly. They cost 35 cents (including 7 percent city sales tax) and are always served with mustard.
Hoagies -- Subs and grinders. They have all of the same ingredients as a sub, including real cheese. They are so named, legend has it, because they were first consumed by workmen on Hog Island in the middle of the Delaware River.
On the other hand, Philadelphians traditionally vacation “downashore” -- the section of New Jersey coastline from Long Beach Island to Cape May, and when they are there, they call these same sandwiches “subs.”
Purists expect hoagies and cheesesteaks to be served on rolls made at Sarcone’s, the 89-year-old South Philly bakery at 758 S. 9th St.
Scrapple -- Hog scraps combined with cornmeal and buckwheat flour, shaped into a loaf and seasoned and fried as one would sausage for breakfast -- and pepperpot soup, which is made of a hodgepodge of leftover and heavily seasoned with pepper. Few people eat either these days.
Italian ice -- Known as “water ice” here, it comes in every flavor and color, including rainbow.
Soda -- While not invented here, flavored carbonated beverages were, in 1807 by Dr. Philip Syng Physick, the father of American surgery, at his home at Fourth and Delancey Streets. In Philly, soda is called “soda,” and not pop. A popular soda is Black Cherry Wishniak, made for years by Frank’s but now produced by Canada Dry.
Sweets -- Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews and TastyKakes, both popular local treats, especially Tasty’s Butterscotch Krimpets, a packaged cake with butterscotch frosting.
PRONUNCIATION AND LINGO
- A native will turn the “o” at the end of “Mexico” into “ow,” and “now” is pronounced “naaow.”
- “Yo,” probably a form of the Italian word for “I”, is how to get one another’s attention.
- Gas, whether for heating or fuel for a car, is called “gaz.” Furnaces are known as “heaters.”
- “Yiz” is the collective “you,” as in the sentence, “I’m goin’ wid yiz to da Phillies.”
- While everyone calls it Philly, in formal conversation, the people are “Fluffians,” and the city Fluffia.
- The language of the city has no grammatical rules. People often add syllables to some words and subtract them from others. For example, the grocery store chain, Acme, is pronounced "Ac-a-me." The neighborhood Olney is called “Ol-e-nee.” Yet, Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia is “Or-gon.” Passyunk Avenue in South Philly is “Passhunk.” It’s “atty-tude” and "Bal-ty-more.”
- Most people live in brick “rowhouses,” but believe that “rowhouse neighborhood,” when used by the media, is condescending, implying that the residents are destitute. The rest live in “twins” (duplexes), or “singles,” though the latter styles are more evident in newer neighborhoods.
- People sit on their “steps,” not stoops, simple marble slabs that are regularly scrubbed. Each rowhouse has three steps, usually made of marble. The house on each corner of a row is known as “the end row.”
- Sewers are known as “sewey holes.”
- Street games include “pimple” ball (it’s the hollow, pink variety); half-ball (try hitting a half pimple ball) and something called “buck buck.” In buck-buck, one player bends in front of a house, bending over as he holds on to the banister. Other players, in their turn, run across the street and start climbing, each in turn, on top of the first fellow, to see how high the pile can be made.
FUN FACTS TO KNOW
- Parking in Center City is a struggle but made easier by “Smart Cards,” purchased from the Parking Authority. In South Philly, the police look the other way when you park the car on the wide median strip along Broad Street. There is a pedestrian concourse beneath much of Center City, and maps posted at many points to help even natives navigate it in rain and cold weather.
- Philadelphia hasn’t had a civic center in years, but blue signs all over the city point to it.
- The city’s most famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin, was never president of the United States, and it is a statue of founder William Penn, not Franklin, on top of the City Hall.
- Snow never sticks before Christmas. There have only been 11 Christmases since 1958 with measurable snow, eight with a trace to an inch.
- Older Philadelphians are nostalgic for the Dick Clark American Bandstand days of the 1950s, when the show was broadcast across the country from a studio at 47th and Market Streets. Philadelphia had its own set of kids’ show hosts: Captain Noah, Sally Starr, Chief Halftown and others.