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Being a Pizza Guy in a Pretzel Town

How I learned to stop whining and love Philly

I’m a New Yorker. A transplant. It even says so in my bio on this website: I was born and raised in the Empire State, and I intend to die there (my remains, however, I want rocketed into space with the expressed hope that they are intercepted by an advanced spacefaring race which will reanimate me, whereupon I will return to New York to exact revenge on my assassins and maybe catch a Mets game). But, like tens of thousands of other New Yorkers, I have made my way down from Manhattan to Philadelphia, which is infinitely more accessible and survivable.

I haven’t for a minute regretted coming to Philly, but I do get homesick. And I’m sure there are a lot of transplants in this city who feel the exact same way. A recent study showed that from 2009 to 2013 more than 24,000 New Yorkers emigrated to Philly, the highest rate of metropolitan movement of any two cities. So how do you get along in a town that’s 100 miles away on the turnpike, but a million miles away culturally?

Let me break it down for you:

ENJOY THE PAINLESS SIMPLICITY OF THE PHILADELPHIA SUBWAY SYSTEM

Full disclosure: I’m a New York hayseed, but I spent a lot of time in the city and Long Island growing up. One of the first times I ever went to see a concert at Webster Hall I simply had to take the train downtown from Grand Central to the East Village, a straight shot. Because of the NYC subway system’s fabulously confusing express trains, I ended up under the Manhattan entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge, getting yelled at by Black Hebrew Israelite street preachers. And then it happened to me a dozen more times until I was 24.

And then I came to Philly. I know the train here catches flak for having, like, three lines while New York has 1,001. But in truth, I greatly enjoy no longer having to deal with the high-stakes insanity of the NYC subway system, and the fact that if I don’t catch the right train in Manhattan I’ll be sealed in a tube traveling 10 miles north with no stops until the end of the Mosholu Parkway. I love the fact that transferring doesn’t involve voodoo and guesswork, and that the line connections are simple and clear. Also, Philadelphia subway cars seem to be wider by two feet, which means everything in the world when you’re 6’3” and gangly.

SLOWLY ADJUST YOUR TASTE FOR BAKED GOODS

The following is a conversation I recently had with my girlfriend, nearly verbatim.

Quinn: Bakeries in Philly are great, but why aren’t there any rugelach here?
Girlfriend: Arugula?
Quinn: Rugelach.
Girlfriend: What, like salad? We have salad.
Quinn: Oh my god.

For those not in the know: Rugelach is a traditional Jewish pastry that is as dense as a collapsing star, filled with delicious compote and dappled with rock sugar. It makes an appearance at every New York holiday party and is enjoyed and defended by New Yorkers of all stripes and backgrounds, and is proof that Hebrews are truly God’s chosen people. They are seemingly unavailable in Philly; not only that, they seem not to exist in the minds of Philadelphians. Still more concerning when I got here was that in the first few months of being in Philly, I couldn’t find a bagel I liked, even after some direction from Philadelphians who were reportedly in the know. Bagels are more “New York” than the Yankees; even the upstate bumpkins I grew up with know a garbage bagel from the authentic item.

Why would I need a shmeared bagel when I can have a considerably less caloric hot pretzel for breakfast, and it costs me one-sixth as much for one? Why am I whining so constantly about rugelach when I can take my lumps, walk around the corner and literally watch the gals at Termini Brothers load up a fresh cannoli shell with inimitably zesty filling?

Once I realized that there was no real hope for the baked goods of my youth, I simply altered my expectations accordingly, which led to a realization: There’s plenty of stuff that Philly bakes well that New York can’t shake a fist at. Why would I need a shmeared bagel when I can have a considerably less caloric hot pretzel for breakfast, and it costs me one-sixth as much? Why am I whining so constantly about rugelach when I can take my lumps, walk around the corner and literally watch the gals at Termini Brothers load up a fresh cannoli shell with inimitably zesty filling?

Because the default setting for New Yorkers in Philly is this sneering, older-brother sense of subconscious superiority. Instead of saying, “Look at how great this Philly thing is,” we think, “Look at how lame this Philly thing is in comparison to this New York thing.” That’s the wrong lens to use when experiencing a new and vibrant culture. Which brings me to my next point.

EMBRACE THE UNDERDOG ETHOS, DON’T FIGHT IT

They all know you’re from New York, dude, you bring it up all the time. They all know that you think that makes you an arbiter of culture and power, come to this little town from the land of Oz. They all know that you think their embrace of underdog culture is some psychological shortcoming that you need to point out literally whenever you get the chance. Yes, the city that you’re from is really five major cities, smushed into one; it’s the geomantic center of the universe, source of all world commerce and a lot of its culture.

But your view of your home city will change if you let the Philly ethos sink in, and so will your view of this place. There is no dream too big for New York, land of billionaires and zillionaires alike, none of whom are like you and who will never spend two minutes in the same social strata as you. Philadelphia knows that it has the limitations of not being a world city, and is insanely proud when it surpasses those limitations. New York doesn’t riot when the Yankees win the World Series; it nods and says ‘Once more, with feeling’ and moves onto watching the Giants win a Super Bowl. Philly throws down, because it understands that when the Phillies grab a ring it’s further proof that a scrappy town can beat the damn world. It’s the affirmation of a way of life, one that rivals the alternating bloated opulence and panicky insecurity of my hometown; it’s one that says a win means so much more when no one expects or wants you to have it.

It’s why the students at Penn make this city inordinately proud, it’s why Philadelphians from Pennsport to Kensington are now wearing Wildcats hoodies, it’s why the people of this city will never shut up about how great the Barnes Museum is. It’s because this city knows what it means to have nice things, and doesn’t take them for granted. It’s special, and the sooner you embrace it, Mr. New York Straw Man, the sooner you’ll understand this place.

REMEMBER THAT PHILLY IS THE MELTING POT THAT NEW YORK PRETENDS TO BE

Right before I worked at The Citizen I was employed by a megalithic New York conservative news superpower that everyone hates and is right to hate, which shall remain nameless but rhymes with BOX Blues. As such, I worked right in midtown, between Radio City Music Hall and Times Square, and all the eyes could see for dozens of blocks on either side was white people, expensive chain eateries and high-end storefronts. Head down to the 20’s and the high end storefronts begin to dissipate but the white people and expensive chain eateries remain. Head down to the financial district and, well, it’s like you’re back in midtown.

I’m not suggesting that Philly doesn’t have it’s own integration problems, but walk from 30th Street Station to City Hall, and notice folks from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds moving around, then walk from City Hall to South Philly and see the mingling of races and creeds. Take time to appreciate the unbelievable cultural heterogeneity of this city.

Manhattan may be an economic super-duper power, but the main stretch isn’t as diverse as its politicians would make it out to be; the city remains painfully segregated. I’m not suggesting that Philly doesn’t have it’s own integration problems—it sure does—but walk from 30th Street Station to City Hall, and notice folks from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds moving around, then walk from City Hall to South Philly and see the mingling of races and creeds. Take time to appreciate the unbelievable cultural heterogeneity of this city. Within a half-mile radius of my apartment, I have the best Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to in my life, two or three excellent pho joints and two sandwich shops unlike any I’ve ever encountered.

This place has everything because it has everyone. And that’s something you just don’t get in Manhattan.

Header Photo: Image by chrisinphilly5448 on Flickr / graphic by Josh Middleton

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