We’ve lived in the Germantown section of Philadelphia for over two years, and there is still so much we do not know about this place. We do not know the extent of its outer edges, its urban nooks, its quiet side streets, its vacant lots and abandoned buildings. We do know our block, and those blocks surrounding ours. We know the various paths we routinely walk during the course of our regular and rhythmic movements within the neighborhood. These include: to and from the train station, to and from the library, to and from the drugstore, to and from the park, to and from the community garden. We walk often in the evenings with our kids, in a final push to drain their endless energy. We walk “our loop”, as it is known to us, and we anticipate the things that we’ll meet along the way — the houses of people we know, the long wall the kids walk on, the empty parking lot they run screaming circles in, the front porch with the old, tired cats, the cactus in the sidewalk where more than once they’ve caught stickers in their tiny fingers. Some evenings, our loop is detoured by a stroll along the secret alley, so called because it is an overgrown, infrequently travelled street that runs along the backside of large urban residential lots filled with formative old houses topped by rusty weathervanes and patchworks of slate and asphalt roofs.
Less frequently, we venture further outside of this radius — a range established by the maximum capacity of little legs with limited patience — to explore unfamiliar territory, much of it dotted by the string of colonial-era historic sites and houses that give Germantown its distinct character: the Wyck, Grumblethorpe, Germantown Friends, Johnson House and others. But this is a living city, and so along the way we find the spaces that give a place texture: commercial corridors, neat brick rowhouses, grand stone twins, churches of all denominations and sizes, ancient graveyards, well-used and disused parks, faded storefronts, crumbling warehouses, vacant lots. This is a living neighborhood, a working neighborhood, a struggling neighborhood filled with people doing all of the things that people do. Waiting for buses, waving hellos to friends and neighbors, buying lottery tickets and newspapers at the kiosks, smoking, idling on corners, visiting libraries, worshipping in churches, sleeping on park benches, hustling passersby, waiting in lines, drinking coffee, yelling and laughing, getting by and not getting by.
On election day, we voted at Mt. Zion and then commenced with our own idling along Germantown Ave, one of the main arteries of Germantown (of Philadelphia, actually) and zone of convergence of so many forces and histories that give Germantown its flavor. Childless on this day, we walked and talked, responding to the vicissitudes of the space and following, like so many ramblers before us, the psychogeographic contours of the streets. We stopped and started, peeked into windows and down baker’s alleys, remarked on curiosities, snapped photos of idiosyncratic moments. We saw patterns and made connections. We made plans. We marveled. At one point, we entered a vacant corner lot, carpeted in low grass and no doubt owned by the city due to its telltale boundary fence of pressure-treated lumber. A line of young paulownia trees screened the southern edge of the lot and met at the western edge a large expanse of brick wall on the adjacent building. We felt a gravitational pull into this lot, as a space that simply felt good to be in at that moment, but also as a space of possibility in how that feeling might be used to activate the site in some new way. Flea market? Garden? Camp? Meeting place? We’d like to make plans, or plan to make plans. It takes time. It takes being in a place and living next to the people you share that place with.