Like all those college kids at end of term, I moved last week — in my case, to a new apartment in Philadelphia. And even though I moved to this city from New York nearly a year ago, this move has a real sense of arrival. One of those first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life moments.

One of those moments that makes you realize: my life is sort of a tale of three cities. Maybe four.

New Yorkers (and I’ll likely call myself one till I die) like to feel that, as Colson Whitehead writes, “I was born here, and thus ruined for anywhere else.” But I’ve always had a soft spot for small cities — starting with Baltimore, where I once moved to heal from divorce, before falling in love again and moving to San Francisco.

I arrived in San Francisco in 1990, in a recession as deep as the current one,  and the rents were cheap, the weather too warm and the sound of steel drums filled the parks. The year my divorce was final, I cried every day. Later, I danced through my thirties, those years when savvy writers are networking up a storm; the city brings that out in you. I thought for many years that what I called “an expatriate’s town you don’t have to cross an ocean for” would always be my home.

Until my first mid-life crisis, just about 10 years ago, when I slapped my forehead like the V-8 commercial. “I forgot to live in New York!” I’d left the city directly after graduating from Hunter College High School, a public school that taught its students we were going to run the world, though — as writer Sara Schulman pointed out to me once — “no one told the world.” The pull of Italian family crossed with feeling that I was being chased from my lovely boutique city by skinny millionaires, and Rachel and I flew to New York just in time for my 40th birthday.


Photo: New York University


I therefore fell into two of E.B. White’s classes of New Yorkers: the native,” who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable,” and the settler, who “embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.” We lived in the East Village, in an apartment the size of  a bathtub, and I was white-hot with this torrid love affair. I would stand at the corner of 10th Street and Fifth Avenue, look at the Washington Square arch and pump my fist: “I live here!”

Despite all that, I’ve had a longstanding not-so-secret crush on the City of Brotherly Love (and sisterly affection) for almost fifteen years now. When I first got to know Philly I was living in San Francisco, and came here because I worked for a nonprofit with offices in its big Friends Center (sometimes nicknamed the Quaker Kremlin).   Philly struck me as a cross between my memories of Baltimore and New York, that other colonial town where the Lenape Indians first met Europeans. One of the first things I ever said to my partner, when we met in 1997, was “Oh, you’re from Philly? I love Philadelphia!” Twelve years later, after she let me drag her to Met-land, she’s making me prove it.

What’s odd about the feeling of arrival: we actually moved here from Manhattan nearly a year ago . The circumstances even made the papers. But it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that we felt able to look for an apartment — and less than a month ago, had the incredible luck to find a place that already feels like it might be home. Almost as much as did Washington Heights/Inwood, where we lived for six years, or my long-cherished Mission District. (Those two years in Greenwich Village were dreamy, but always felt borrowed.)

Mount Airy, where we live now, is none of those places: it’s completely itself. Its history is slightly younger than NYC’s, though settled first by Germans in the 1680s (and first called by the English “Beggarstown,” which feels kind of appropriate for us if not the actual neighborhood.)

The major street nearest to me also bears the name of Pelham, an estate owned by the Revolution’s hardest-working engraver (or someone else in his family). We don’t live in one of the nabe’s stained-glass beauties, but a Victorian that has its own deep charm. Not the first Philly neighborhood I fell in love with (that honor goes to Old City, whose narrow streets resemble Rome’s Trastevere District) but one that hearkens back to the California side of me in some ways. (Between the food co-op and the enviro bookstore, I sometimes suspect I’m actually in Berkeley.) Our street is full of families, kids, kittens, and riotous plants that flank the houses’ generous porches. The pace works, too: busy but a touch less overload, easier for the multiple sclerosis/midlife brain of mine to focus and produce.

I’ve been telling people that “New York will always be the love of my life, but Philadelphia’s a damn good second act.” Or third act, in our tale of three-four cities. Each perhaps a learning curve to a city that has never been about wealth, as New York always was and San Francisco became.  I have a lot to learn now about it: but the first, most important thing has already been learned.  I do feel welcomed home.

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  • alice cathrall June 16, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Chris
    I enjoyed your writing about growth and living in Philadelphia.
    I agree it is a wonderful city in which to live.We share a similar pattern.I lived here just after college and then off to New York City for 23 wonderful years.I was accepted at the Pennyslvania Academy of Fine Art,the US’s oldest art school and museum, to study in their 4 year certicate program.I am now a third year painting major.My studies have been exhilarating and so has my re- acquaintance with this wonderful town.I like to think of it as a microcosm of New York ,only you can easily walk the diverse the neighborhoods and I think connect more easily with the people and the place,but that may just be me bouyed by my time in New York.
    If you have not been to the Academy’s museum please do so.There are treasures there to be discovered.

    Reply
  • Billie Brown June 16, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Chris, this is a truly wonderful piece! Thank you for it.
    PS: My hard drive crashed and I lost my address book. Can you please send me your email address? Billie

    Reply
  • Sharon Donnelly June 15, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Brava!! What a wonderful piece about place.

    Reply