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West Philadelphia from 51st Street

There's something about my kitchen that makes me feel like I'm in Paris. It's hard to pinpoint exactly -- there's that "je ne sais quoi" at work -- but somewhere between the view of ivy climbing the brick wall in my back courtyard, the sounds of construction on the house around the corner, and the lively shouts of neighbors heckling each other from their stoops, I can't shake the feeling that I've found myself living in one of the grittier but fully animated back streets of Paris. It's also entirely possible that it's just the familiar smell of fresh coffee grinds steeping in the press, at once rooting me in the presence of this daily morning ritual and recalling nostalgic memories of thousands of mornings past.

It's always astounding how a scent or smell can recall such a rich repository of memories, emotions, and atmospheric experience. However, my first cup of coffee wasn't the only thing waking up my olfactory sense this morning -- I had just come in from the daily morning walk through the neighborhood with my dog. Today, unlike other days, I decided to head west across the 52nd Street commercial corridor to check out the neighborhood on the other side. I tend to avoid crossing 52nd because of the traffic, the trash, and the hecklers, but today I was feeling adventurous. True to expectation, 52nd Street was indeed littered with leftover debris piling up at the curb, around buildings, and blowing haphazardly across the sidewalk, with smells of days old food and rotting things wafting up at us as we walked. To my dog, it must have been a glorious new world of information and stories and history of the past weeks, conveying layers of data about who had come before us and when, and what they had for lunch that day. To me, I admit -- it was unsightly, uncomfortable, and one of the main reasons I usually avoid this street.

The 52nd street corridor is a fascinating place though, full of neighborhood businesses in place for decades with shop owners living upstairs and fully up to speed on all the comings and goings of the community. Packed shoulder to shoulder are barber shops, weave bars, clothing stores, shoe stores, and Chinese take outs behind bullet-proof glass. People live their lives outside here -- lounging on park benches, sharing the latest gossip on their stoops, congregating on street corners and in front of store fronts. Just off the strip, narrow streets fill up with children on summer evenings and weekends, playing ball, riding bikes, and already forming that tight-knit community that their adult counterparts have been living for decades. A hand-lettered cardboard sign often hangs from twine strung across the street between a signpost and a fire hydrant: "Play street, closed to cars. Police order." Tactical urbanism is alive and well here.

Just off the main drag, ambling along the shade-dappled broken up sidewalks, we smell other signs of life: warm, garlicky bread scents are wafting out the open window of a restaurant kitchen; someone is cooking breakfast, and the distinct smell of bacon hits me as I pass. The perfume of flowers growing in someone's carefully tended container garden mixes casually with the piles of garbage overflowing from their containers -- today is trash day after all. I love living in the city.

The sounds too indicate a certain aliveness -- dogs bark their acknowledgements at mine as we draw near, neighbors greet each other in good humor and call out their good morning to me as we pass. I realize I am nearing an elementary school as I turn a corner and hear a woman's voice blasting exercise instructions over a loud speaker to what turns out to be hundreds of children warming up for the day in a school yard. Parents and neighbors are lingering on the sidewalk, watching their children through the fence. Everywhere we walk -- there are people, there is life, there is some informal unscripted vibrancy of this still ungentrified neighborhood.

Back in my kitchen, pouring my coffee with a cool, late August breeze wafting in through my open window, I hear the sounds of new construction outside and I realize something else. With new construction, new investment in the community, new neighbors moving in -- the life and vibrancy of this neighborhood is at risk. The very things that make it feel so alive -- so real -- are the things often lost through the process of gentrification. When the trash is removed, the sidewalks repaired, the fancy new shops catering to new clientele opened on the strip -- a certain safe sterility can take hold, systematically eradicating the liveliness that once flourished amidst the trash and relative disrepair. This would be a tragedy, for it is the messiness and loudness and smelliness and aliveness that comes with the uncensored human activity of this neighborhood that makes me love it so much.



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