How I Almost Died (Twice!) Taking Pictures for Philadelphia's Best Dive Bars

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 19 | Posted Apr. 6, 2011

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Micheal Alan Goldberg

As I stood across the street from Peck Miller’s Bar on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough, snapping photos, a thirtysomething guy up the sidewalk watched me warily for a minute or two, then sauntered over.

“You shuttin’ the place down or somethin’?”

“Nah, I’m just taking photos for this book that’s coming out about Philly dive bars,” I replied, lowering my Canon SLR.

“Oh yeah?” he replied. “Cool.” He grinned and pointed toward Green Lane. “You wanna see a real dive bar, you gotta go down to DeLeo’s.”

“That’s next on my list,” I said.

“You’re gonna love that place,” he laughed as he walked off.

Indeed, I’d already heard about DeLeo’s stank and shit-covered bathroom walls from Brian McManus—my friend and PW colleague who asked me to shoot the photos for his new book, Philadelphia’s Best Dive BarsDrinking and Diving in the City of Brotherly Love. Still, as I hopped back in my car and drove over there, I thought to myself, how bad can it really be? After all, as far as Philly neighborhoods go, Roxborough is hardly the sketchiest. Today was my first day taking photos for the book, and I was probably gonna find myself in worse spots. I’ll start off easy, I figured.

I parked across from DeLeo’s on Pechin Street and took a quick look around. It was early afternoon and the street was deserted. DeLeo’s was a dump—crumbling exterior, piles of garbage everywhere, front door looked like a back door. I got out, switched on my camera, and walked over to the corner of Pechin and Dupont to get a good angle. A woman sat on a stoop just up the block, and I saw a guy walk just past her and duck behind the building. I paid it no mind as I clicked away.

A few moments later, I saw the guy come back out from behind DeLeo’s and hurry back up the street. And then another guy popped out. He looked like Avon Barksdale from The Wire. I saw the woman on the stoop say something to him, and they both turned and looked at me. Avon started to walk over to me. I decided to play it cool and keep taking photos of DeLeo’s as if nothing was wrong. Inside, I was shittin’ a brick.

“Yo, what you takin’ pictures of?”

“DeLeo’s — we’re doing a guide to Philly bars.” I left out the word “dive” — I didn’t want to offend him or anything.

“Bars? What you want with this place?”

“Oh, I’m taking photos of bars all over the city.”

“For what?” Avon asked. I noticed the woman getting on her cell phone.

“I’m from Philadelphia Weekly, we’re doing a book on dive bars.”

“You got a card or something?”

I didn’t. Fuck.

“I don’t have any more on me, but I got this whole list of bars all over the city I’m supposed to take photos of,” I said, pulling my phone out of my pocket and fumbling to find the e-mail with said list.

“Whatever,” said Avon, edging closer toward me. “You didn’t take a picture of me, did you?”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 19 of 19
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1. Angela Maloney said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:10AM

“Great story! Absolutely loved reading it. Well done and glad you were still around to write it :)”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:18AM

“Wow, typical Philly jew who can't hang in the hood!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:56AM

“@2: Typical anonymous bigoted commenter who's only a tough guy on his computer.”

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4. JT said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 10:58AM

“Your job supporting the Dive story turned out to BE the story. That Avon/potbelly imagery was downright palpable. Very nicely written.”

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5. Ray said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 11:18AM

“Sounds like Michael got more than what he bargained for. Next time, do the the right thing and take L&I & the cops wit' ya. Am sure these "dives" aren't up to code and belong to some drug-dealin', gang-bangin' mafioso-wannabes and should be closed, quarantined and cauterized 4ever.”

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6. HitThatDive said... on Apr 6, 2011 at 06:15PM

“I do "dive" (shhhhhhhh) bar reviews and go IN and take pictures too. I have been in Mr. Goldberg's situation more than once...so I do indeed feel his pain! www.hitthatdive.com”

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7. ChickenTetrazzini said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 01:04AM

“Seriously, I mean the denizens of philly can be retarded but there is no need to be afraid. I'd bet your fear might be holding you back a bit. I used to do door to door through the northeast, even went down through kensington and such. the only times I almost died were when I was out in the suburbs with terrorized and isolated white people. although i did meet some serious crackheads and killers embalming fluid smokers and drunk irish bulls”

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8. @basslabbers said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 07:42AM

“C'mon... are you serious? "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen"

Unfortunately this is a typical story for lots of photographers on the street. I guess it kinda shows true professionalism, or lack of If you end up in situations like this.

Don't get me wrong, I know, I've been there, but sometimes it takes a little more to make a good shot. It is making a photo, not taking like in this case, as one of the great street photographers once explained.

Taking is like stealing and can piss people off. If you treat people with respect they will give you room to make a story, that is how people are. Isn't the main purpose of photography to tell the story of people, isn't the camera a tool to get the best out of people. I guess it only works in the hands of someone knowing what he is doing.

If you had those awesome characters who made this story in your frame you would have made a great photo, now you ended up with a story in text.

Remember the old adage about 1000 words”

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9. Diogenes said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 11:38AM

“Almost died?? Is he kidding??

It's that kind of sensationalistic bullshit and fear mongering that makes this city seem much worse than it really is. What, does he 'almost starve to death' every time he misses a meal??

As Gordon Ramsey would say, "First, find your bollocks, then use them!"”

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10. DiveBarQueen said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 11:41AM

“This story was so funny, I'm at work dying....Leave us Hood Dwellers alone!! LOL!!!! For the next book try Edgar's...Cleveland and Cumberland in North Philly....”

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11. jj said... on Apr 7, 2011 at 08:31PM

“how bout an article on the worst minor league newspapers in philly?”

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12. moallen said... on Apr 19, 2011 at 12:41PM

“I thought the article was funny. I am black, grew up in the "hood" in West Philly, have been to some dive bars in my day, and have had some of the same fearful reactions to strange people in strange places. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the article and the humor. Some of these folks should stop taking everything so seriously.”

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13. roxy said... on May 1, 2011 at 12:01PM

“this is hilarious. I lived on dupont by deleos, never saw anyone get shot, but they have their share of Wire-style drama- not surprised this photo-dude got a shakedown, just be glad you didnt go in and try to order a beer (dont sell much of that)!”

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14. Princess said... on May 18, 2011 at 07:36PM

“thanks for the laugh... i needed that. smh...”

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15. Bags said... on Jun 4, 2011 at 11:21AM

“You are very foolish. Just take the photos from inside your car. Unless you are in an area with historical landmarks, you shouldn't be taking photos walking around. Too many people who are loosing their homes & businesses who are waiting for someone to push the wrong button. And too many shady characters who will try to get whatever they can from you....a cigarette, your wallet, your money, your car, etc. You don't need to answer anyones questions either. If you need to, just say taking pictures for local paper, and walk away. No need for details.”

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16. Stephen said... on Jun 20, 2011 at 08:27AM

“I'm an amateur photographer, remind me NOT to go on any "urban adventure" photography trips in sketchy parts of the city. There's a reason there are stereotypes for people in sketchy areas...because very often they're true!”

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17. Anonymous said... on Oct 16, 2011 at 08:21PM

“How are these bars in Roxborough still open? They are NASTY inside. I am sure no health inspection would EVER pass legitimately. Better to pee in the alleys than to step foot in the skanktabulous bathrooms. Out of curiosity, I have checked them out and they are filled with meth heads and drug dealers. Pretty much every low-life with a criminal record collected into a members-only type club...Matching T-shirts, maybe would be cool. Very obvious what goes on even for the average person, but the local police do nothing. Sad and disturbing.”

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18. lars said... on Jan 23, 2012 at 04:37PM

“All in the name of art.”

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19. Anonymous said... on Feb 11, 2012 at 10:33AM

“I commend you on taking pictures of dive bars and everything, but you need to learn how to handle yourself on the streets. Always play to the characters, tell them some BS story why you taking the pictures, like effect of economy on local population or how they are being held down by the man. I have taken amateur pictures in a lot of sketchy places, like Dominican slums and cemeteries, small towns of Ukraine, Slovakia, and Moldova, and while my DSLR puts people on edge, my FAKE stories let me get away with it.
PS, You were not about to die, you were about to be roughed up and have your equipment smashed.”

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