I’m haunted by giant black ants.
I was a little girl, gleaming out the window of the car, and my parents were driving down South Street in Philly. I was desensitized to the crowds, the zappy signs and the smell of fried food. My eyes were locked on three-dimensional, larger-than-life black ants crawling over the face of an old punk store “Zipperhead.”
Those ants brought me some sort of scope to the city, some form of art and culture my adolescence hadn’t quite experienced yet. Those black ants still freak me out to this day (I even get nervous walking by the black ants alley on Maynard Street in Ann Arbor ), but those ants give me a reason to love the city near where I grew up. Along with countless other art murals and ineffable architectural structures, these building faces are my navigation to the underrated, mesmerizing city of Philadelphia.
I was born and raised in the Northeast suburbs outside Philly, and until I was 18, I had never been further West than Pennsylvania itself. The lack of travel outside of my own state, and the East coast in general, made me rely more on the adventures that Philadelphia offered and the overwhelming lure of escapism. The never ending death-trap of Interstate 95 freed me from the confines of my suburban hometown, Bucks County, and dumped me right into Center City.
Growing up outside the city, I went there for most special occasions: attending Phillies games, visiting friends at Temple University, celebrating birthday dinners or ice skating at City Hall. Whenever I took my exit off 95 or hopped off the train, it was up to me to navigate the city –– luckily, I had the buildings.
On a hot summer afternoon, I lay down on a bench outside of City Hall, unsure what brought me to the city in the first place. I was 19, and the children splashed in the fountain beside me as I journaled for an hour about the details of a building: Corinthian columns, William Penn’s statue, the acroterion and the high reliefs. I get lost every time, drooling in infatuation and wonder. City Hall is the first place I show anybody who comes to visit me in Philly. It is pure history and the heart of the city –– too ominously beautiful to understand the fine details. My distraction with the building became amusement which soon became an obsession with the city’s structures.
Similar to its history, the murals in Philly taught me what true brotherhood looks like. Murals supporting social justice, civil rights and our nation’s freedom inspired me to see the message Philly was sending to its people: engaging with the city’s diversity. Located on Ranstead Street is the mural depicting a geometric scaffolding filled with small American figures surrounding Abe Lincoln. Murals like this represent the history of emancipation and the continuous stride for equality. My eyes can’t fathom how something painted on a flat surface can still hold so much depth, both literally and figuratively.
Philadelphia is the place where I got in my first car accident, where I changed my first flat tire, where I went to my favorite concerts and where the walls stare back at me, begging me and others to question them. This place forced me to grow up and immerse myself in this culture, which soon became my culture.
My childhood friend, Pax, has been my guide since we were teenagers, where he showed me the city through his lens, his patterns and his habits. Riding the subway and going to concerts, we’d let the city take us down its alleyways and around its corners. Pax and I have explored the back of the pristine and ancient ocular building, the Merchants’ Exchange Building, which was built in 1832. Second to City Hall, the Exchange building is another favorite.
Philly is unique due to its juxtaposition of historic buildings and bright new murals that design the city. It’s a place that breeds creation, blending historic roots with future visions to make art through functionality. You pass by the remarkable Merchants Exchange Building, which is across the street from the Ritz Theatre, a quaint, five-screened movie theatre from the early 80s. In center city, you can run up the Art Museum stairs, which dates back to 1877, beside the famous Rocky statue, which made its cultural reference from the iconic 1976 film. Not to mention the annual music festival, Made in America, happens in front of the Art Museum each year, rounding in thousands of teenagers and young adults for a music extravaganza. Tradition meets modernism to design a city that feels brand new every time I go, even during the one summer I was there every weekend.
When my sister had a spinal cord injury in 2013, she stayed at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital for the summer, which is located downtown. My family and I would drive in to see her day in and day out, and I learned the nooks and crannies of this upbeat city but what was maybe for more upsetting reasons. We’d spend time on the rooftop of the hospital, enclosed by the stalwart skyscrapers. We couldn’t explore many streets or go terribly far away from the hospital. Still, it was a form of freedom from the musty room my sister was placed in.
That summer was like no other for my sister and family. Being forced into a new life of paralysis, there was only so much hope left in our grief. Yet, through the darkness and the stories and the challenges, the city that raised us had our backs. Philadelphia –– it’s passionate art, cobblestone roads and its kind-hearted people –– became my pseudo-home from Bucks County. Despite those tedious summer days, the city was my angel, my inspiration. I think of my sister when I pass the Hahnemann University Hospital mural on Broad Street. A gigantic painting celebrating and recognizing members of the disabled community, the mural speaks to me a little louder than others.
This city scares me. Not for its overbearing sports fans (I’m one of them) or aggressive drivers (I’m also one of them) or giant black ants, but it scares me because of its overwhelming potential, pride and passion. I see it for the first time over and over again, and my perspective changes when I gaze upon a mural or a building I haven’t seen before.
As a lover of the city, being 500 miles away for our first ever Superbowl win was certainly not easy. One of the first things that came up on my newsfeed after the game was the mural of an eagle carrying a helpless Tom Brady in its claws. It’s one of the many murals I have yet to see in person but surely will. A painting to be proud of, this one shows how Philadelphia is no longer the underdog … and not just in sports.
To Philly: Keep making your murals and celebrating your history. Inspire youth with your architecture and art. Scare them with your jungle of opportunity just like you scared me. Teach them to hold the hand of their neighbor and to love them like a brother. Paint the bricks from brown to green to orange to red, and don’t let anyone but Philadelphians burn you to the ground. Be loud and root for the Birds. Be proud of freakish black ants and greasy sandwiches and funky accents. Show the world your hidden nooks of beauty, of potential, of history and of the future.
Keep creating and keep building, Philadelphia. And thank you for building me.