Here, there, home

What Walk Around Philadelphia taught me about our city’s borders—and my own

5 minute read
A smiling outdoor selfie of the three walkers. They are white and have short gray hair. Bare winter trees are behind them
Fourteen months and 102 miles: the author (right) and her walking companions, L Feldman (left) and Elissa Goldberg, mark the end of their trek at the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of Anndee Hochman.)

Here: the Baskin-Robbins where I ate my first ice cream cone, vanilla sluicing over my hand because I had not learned to lick efficiently around the sweet, chilled bulb.

There: the bowling alley where two sixth-grade boys took my best friend and me on a double date. That place, tucked in the corner of the shopping strip, used to be a movie theater. Three doors down was Hobby Land, where you could mail a package or buy glow-in-the-dark super balls. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street alone.

I keep remembering, pointing, and narrating as the three of us—my partner, our housemate, and I—trudge up City Line Avenue on a lint-colored winter day. We are 3.5 miles into a journey that began today at 61st and Baltimore, one piece of a larger project to traverse the city’s 102-mile perimeter on foot.

Walk Around Philadelphia

We’re following the lead (and the maps) of artist JJ Tiziou, whose Walk Around Philadelphia developed from a four-person artist residency to a biannual pilgrimage (or a do-it-yourself-anytime escapade) that has drawn more than 300 people.

We three started in October 2020, when one of us was wracked with grief and all of us were limping through pandemic time. Remember that autumn? Daylight contracting again, Trump still in office, no vaccine yet in anybody’s arm.

Our walks around Philadelphia were a refuge (oh God, just get me out of my zip code) and a challenge, a metronome in a time of dissonance. It felt ancient, simple, purposeful: just walk. For hours. Arrive someplace other than where you began. Along the way, contemplate the lover who left, the work that dried up, the parents at risk of Covid-19 and soul-crushing loneliness, the daughter struggling to wrest joy and meaning from a virtual college life. Talk, or don’t talk. Grab a bagel from the backpack. Pass the gorp.

We trudged through winter and into the spring, aiming to finish by the time the curtain closed on 2021: Heinz Wildlife Refuge to Eastwick through Cobbs Creek Park to City Avenue to Falls Bridge, the Manayunk canal path up through Chestnut Hill, Fox Chase, Philmont, until we finally turned at the city’s northeastern tip and meandered south again, hugging the Delaware. Factories, abandoned or alive. Strip clubs. Strip malls. Row homes. So many trucks. So much trash.

Our walks were one way to compel ourselves through those unsteady months. They were a way to remember, during a time when the contours of our lives had shrunk—no gatherings, no travel, rarely even a commute downtown—how large our city is, how variegated, how beautiful, how strange.

The compromise

I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital and lived at 23rd and Green before my parents slipped across the city line. My Brooklyn-born father wanted tomato plants and a back-yard swing. But my mother, who grew up amid the pushcarts and Old World inflections of Strawberry Mansion, felt wary of suburban life. Would neighbors in frilled aprons come knocking with invitations to a coffee klatch?

So they compromised. A Lower Merion address with its ticket to “good” schools, but a mere block-and-a-half from the edge of Philly proper, walking distance from a bus stop, supermarket, bowling alley, deli, and two kosher bakeries. I grew up five minutes, on foot, from the city line. I called myself a Philadelphian.

Corners of memory

By the time my walking companions and I sauntered up City Line Avenue on that chill December day, we had traversed about three-fourths of Philly’s border. At times, the mapmakers’ lines made intuitive sense: the city butting the banks of the Delaware or the frilled edge of Cobbs Creek. Other times, our path seemed arbitrary, a line laid down by humans simply to divide here from there.

JJ Tiziou, a white man, sits outside in summertime, holding a small white card with Philly’s outline. He wears a red shirt.
'Walk Around Philadelphia' creator JJ Tiziou poses outside of FringeArts. (Photo by JJ Tiziou.)

Some walks were stunning: the high tangle of trees in Pennypack Park. Others jangled our nerves, like the long march across Platt Bridge, cars streaking by and pavement tremoring beneath our feet.

For much of our walk, I wondered about borders, about expansion and trespass, containment and rupture. Whose comfort zone is this? Who would feel like an intruder here? How do neighborhoods acquire their politics, their vibe, like the section of Somerton in which nearly every house sports a concrete lawn fountain?

Then we turned the corner from 76th to City Line, and memory knocked me backward: I am 16, driving this road alone for the first time, heart smacking as I approach the on-ramp to the Schuylkill. I am 12, my bowling ball wobbling down the lane. I am three, my first ice cream cone still sticky on my lips.

This edge of the city thrums for me: the home I left and the home I made, the first of a lifetime of crossings.

Shared borders

Borders comfort and confine; they embrace and exclude. They remind us who we are and—quite literally—where we stand. They determine where we vote, to whom we owe our taxes, where our children attend school, and how many graduates those schools send to the Ivy League, to the assembly line, to prison. Borders may start out arbitrary, but they become a kind of self-fulfillment, forecasting incomes, life expectancies, and how quickly the police will come if they are called.

In divisive times, it feels urgent to investigate borders (municipal, sexual, racial), remembering that these demarcations are at once real and … ridiculous. Our 14-month-long passage around Philadelphia decentralized my map of the city; when I consider my hometown now, it’s far bigger than Billy Penn’s hat and Rittenhouse Square. I think instead about the edges, where city meets suburb, where plastic-strewn earth joins smoldering sky, where past and possibility converge in a fertile, neglected, fraught, and gorgeous line.

What, When, Where

Artist JJ Tiziou’s 7th annual Walk Around Philadelphia is happening February 12-20, 2022. Participants may join for any or all segments of the journey. More information, including maps and directions for do-it-yourself walkers, at the artist's website.

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