Tell a story about the Reading Terminal Market: a favorite day, a favorite person, a favorite vendor, a favorite exchange with another patron.
Tell a story about your connection to Philadelphia.
These are two story ideas, or suggested prompts, offered to patrons of Reading Terminal for the pop-up story project called Talking at the Table (TAT), which I helped to organize. It’s happening this Wednesday September 21 from 10am to 1pm at the Market. (Register here.)
I’ll go first: One of my own favorite memories of the Market is the day I met Rick Nichols for lunch, back in 2007. It was our first time meeting.
What was the story?
Two men were looking directly at each other, but they didn’t say a word. Some tension?
Walking through the Market with Rick back then you’d think he was the mayor — and not simply because people were greeting him warmly. The opposite, in fact. Like with the real mayor (Candidates for mayor take note!), people were yelling complaints, gripes, and worse.
Fighting words? Not exactly. In the next breath Rick says, “Tom meet Jack; Jack knows more about cheese than anyone in town.”
Not to be outdone by a compliment. Jack responds, “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m just a Deli man. I slice some lunch meats; I cut a lot of cheese.”
Two tough birds. Some salty banter. Where to go from there? It turns out, everywhere. Onto what Rick called, “shopping and schmoozing.”
The beating heart of old Philly
I had been coming to the Market since high school. Back then the roof leaked. Almost every other aisle had a few 30-gallon gray trash cans with hoses running up to the ceiling to funnel the water. I still can feel the damp chill of the concrete floor as it seeped through my sneakers.
In 2022, the Market is in better shape coming back after Covid. It is, as die-hard Market champion Nichols once put it, “the defiantly beating heart of old, original Philadelphia.”
But it had some hard knocks. In 2020, civic activist Ann Mintz and the RTM launched a GoFundMe campaign for the Market to tide businesses over the pandemic hump. They didn’t all make it. Most did — still, there was loss.
And there are still concerns about shopping in public spaces, but the Market is holding its own. It is trending 14,000 people in and out every day. It’s a strong number, as the pre-pandemic average was 17,000 a day.
Now we’re thirsty to reconnect. Thinking about my own bonds with the Market and my wish to reconnect I drew up plans for the story project.
The RTM is an accessible and vibrant public space. It is a central gathering place for many Philadelphians and visitors alike. On any given day, city residents, families, workers, students, and out-of-town tourists gather under the old Reading Terminal railroad shed.
In a seminal study of the Market, Elijah Anderson described it as a “cosmopolitan canopy.” A rare and real thing in the heart of the city. A big tent gathering place in our often-fractured city.
Come to connect and share
For Talking at the Table, Market patrons are invited to share a conversation with someone they may not have an opportunity to connect with in a typical day.
It’s fitting that the Market managers are rearranging some tables in the Rick Nichols Room for people to talk.
I was happy to join forces with Market general manager Annie Allman and business director Layla El Tannir to make it happen. Allman says that TAT, “Helps to shine a light on the organic moments, conversations and experiences that occur in one of the most diverse public spaces in the country.”
Social distancing and working-from-home have transformed our sense of personal space and personal boundaries. Our sense of basic connection has suffered.
We also hear a lot about the need to strengthen the social fabric and to build stronger human connections in a polarized country. But how do we do it? I don’t know, but I do know that the we is a part of it.
Talking at the Table plays to the strengths of the Market as a welcoming and accessible space. When you come to sit at the table, you have a space set aside for you to share a story and to be seen and heard by people from all walks of life. In a nutshell, it’s a chance to talk to your neighbor.
Technologists keep trumping new apps that provide “new ways to connect” and “new frames for thinking.” TAT uses an old frame which is the table itself to think and connect in some tried and true ways.
But the table is more than prop.
In a moment when I was unsure if I was going to forge ahead with the project, I came across a remarkable passage by Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s words encouraged me to stick with it. She writes:
When you have a group of people sitting around a table talking, the table is what makes them a group. And if you take the table away, they’re just individuals, they’re not connected.
We need spaces for people to have a sense of connection and community and projects like this are a reminder that the Market has been, and continues to be, such a space.
At the Reading Terminal it’s all about the food, the place, the history, and the people. Here and elsewhere, most of us know how even small meaningful exchanges can stay with us for a long time, sometimes years, sometimes even longer.
Talking at the Table shines a light on the Market’s vibrant cultural canopy: in-person, face to face, at the table.
Wednesday, September 21, 10 am-1 pm, free but register here, Reading Terminal Market, 11th and Arch streets.
Thomas Devaney teaches creative writing at Haverford College and is the Engagement Coordinator for Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. He co-directed the film Bicentennial City and is the author of Getting to Philadelphia.
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