Every year, PW rounds up a ton of stuff we love most around the city. This year, we asked our writers to take us on a tourist walk through their own neighborhoods. (And we’re also inviting you, reader, to name your own favorites and win tickets to next month’s epic Taste of Philly—click here to learn how!)
THE WILD WEST
One of my favorite Philadelphia monuments is the statue of Charles Dickens in Clark Park. It’s a surprisingly affecting work, with a very human Dickens looking down at a representation of Little Nell, a beloved character from his book The Old Curiosity Shop. As odd as it that a British author is monumental in a city he only visited twice, the real story of the piece is even odder. Francis Edwin Elwell was commissioned by Washington Post founder Stilson Hutchins, who planned to place it in London. Stilson’s funding fell through, but Elwell finished it anyway. Elwell submitted the finished sculpture to several sculpture competitions, won all sorts of medals and acclaim—and could find no one to buy the statue.
Dickens, you see, said in his will that he wanted no statues or monuments to his life. So while many a Dickens fanatic loved the statue, they didn’t have the heart to go against the dead man’s wishes. Elwell stuck it in a warehouse here in Philly, where it remained for years. Nearly a decade after it was finished, the Fairmount Park Art Association—now the Association for Public Art—bought the statue and put it up in Clark Park, where it remains to this day, despite requests to put it in a more prominent place.
The history of the piece is important, because this statue is surprisingly hard to find. Most people don’t know it’s there. I lived a few blocks from Clark Park for months before I saw the statue, even having walked past it countless times. When it I “discovered” it, I was amazed that I’d missed it all this time. It’s not a small statue, and the arrangement of Clark Park favors it. One might say that there would have to be some sort of supernatural influence to keep people from seeing it.
Am I saying the angry ghost of Charles Dickens is keeping people from seeing the statue, just as the memory of his will kept folks from buying it? Of course not. But I’m not not saying it ...
If a cranky Charles Dickens truly doesn’t want people to hang around University City, he may be the only one. The neighborhood abounds with welcoming attitudes. Take, for example, Studio 34, the yoga studio/community space tucked in next to a pizza parlor. I first went up their steep steps years ago, as two friends chose it as the spot for their wedding reception. The funky vibe of the place, all hardwood floors and mismatched couches, was a wonderful setting for two people celebrating their life together.
I started taking yoga a couple of months ago, and was pleased to see that the warm feeling is still there, even without a wedding reception. My affection for the place has grown since being in the classes of Sonia Williams, who teaches beginners yoga and “Honey Sweet Flow.” Williams teaches the first class of beginners yoga I’ve taken that feels like a yoga class for beginners, as opposed to a class with easy yoga poses. Williams takes care and time with each student, making sure we’re getting the most out of each pose and movement. A former dancer, Williams has the charisma of a trained stage performer, but uses it to create a connection with her students. It can almost be characterized as an anti-performance: Though she’s at the front of the class, the focus is always on each of us.
While Philadelphia will always be the land of the cheesesteak, I’m always amused to see the Fu-Wah deli’s amazing tofu banh-mi hoagies found by a newbie. They’re often held up as a surprise—the now-defunct Gourmet magazine referred to Fu-Wah as a destination in and of itself, an oasis of deliciousness in the desert that is Food Sold Outside Of New York. But us locals have been downing them for years. Even I, a carnivore to the core, have found myself craving that wondrous warm, marinated tofu.
Part of the joy of the sandwich, which Gourmet failed to mention, is chewing the fat with
Dave Lai after you order. Lai’s brother Benny and their family own the Fu-Wah, as well as Vietnam and Vietnam Café restaurants, and Dave's almost always behind the counter, taking orders and running the cash register; he has a friendly easiness you would sooner expect from a character on television rather than in real life. (Editor's note: PW's apologies to Dave and Benny; we accidentally ID'd Dave as Benny in the print edition.)
The worlds of fiction and reality seem to overlap all over the neighborhood. I am not a beer drinker, and when I reveal this to friends who are, they pummel me with suggestions of vile, sour brews they’re sure I will love. One friend, a local who’s lived here longer than I have, just gave me a beatific smile.
“You should go to the Bottle Shop,” he said, and then told me where it was.
“There’s nothing there,” I said. “That’s a wall.”
“It’s there if you look for it,” was all he said.
And sure enough, there it was. I entered the Bottle Shop as wary as anyone else walking though a door where there’s usually a wall, only to be met with a with a very clean room lined with coolers. Behind each glass pane, there was a wonder of bottles, beers of various styles, nationalities and special ingredients. I was so in awe of the bounty that I didn’t notice the proprietor until he asked if he could help with anything.
Let me be blunt: This man was a wizard, beard and all. He looked like Gandalf must have when he backpacked around Middle-Earth before starting graduate school: long beard, long hair, stomach that implied frequent enjoyment of the products he sold, the works. This wizard listened attentively to my drink fancies and desires, and then selected a brewsky that he said I would call my favorite. And he was correct.
I’ve been back to the Bottle Shop several times, but the wizard has not been there. I doubt I will see him again.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Curio Theatre. It seems like every neighborhood in the city has their own community theater troupe, but Curio stands above the rest for their willingness to experiment. They’ve received national attention for their current production of Romeo & Juliet, done with women cast in the title roles, but before that, they were staging an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on a constantly mutating stage. Before that, they did a powerful spoken-word take on The Iliad. Before that, they decided that the perfect thing for their holiday season was Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. And so on, and so on, since 2005. With each show, Curio’s artistic director Paul Kuhn transforms the interior of the 114-year-old chapel that houses the company into whatever fantasia the scripts require.
The unpredictability of Curio Theatre means it fits right into a neighborhood where wizards will sell you beer, and the only one who doesn’t want you around is a dead author’s ghost. / JARED AXELROD