This past weekend I was in Philadelphia, having had the good fortune to be invited to present one of my performance pieces in a new gallery space in a large, artist-occupied warehouse on the outskirts of Chinatown. Practice, the name of the space, is in a second-floor hallway shared with some light industrial outfits, but also occupied by at least five other contemporary spaces, all of which band together for First Friday gallery crawls that draw hundreds of people. I hadn’t been to Philadelphia in almost a decade, and was excited to inhabit the role of louche visiting artist on a holiday for a weekend. As with St. Louis a few months ago, this will be the second Stroll written from the road.
And as with St. Louis – even more so – Philadelphia is a radically different city from Minneapolis. The differences are so self-evident they’re barely worth mentioning, but the most obvious is that Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are old. Of course they’re old in terms of their physical infrastructure, but also in terms of the more metaphysical way they seem to hang together.
Three- and four-story rowhouses are stitched together in tight, condensed blocks on impossibly narrow streets that make the tightest squeezes in Lowertown St. Paul seem like the Crosstown. People walking around the streets have the sense of living in the neighborhood for generations. It is the sort of street life your own eastern ancestors may have been eager to escape to the Midwest from 50 or a hundred years ago. But spending some time away from the endless surface parking lots of the urban Midwest is very exciting.
All of this adds up to a very different type of daily interaction with the physical world; the artists I met had very different relationships with space from their colleagues in this part of the country. Physical space in an old eastern city like Philadelphia is something that seems almost infinite – the city is so big and so endless and so old, and there are so many sturdy, ancient buildings to be used.
But, ironically, this infinite space doesn’t usually take the form of huge, sprawling warehouses or factories or abandoned breweries, as it often is in the Midwest. This infinite space is parceled into tiny rooms, corridors, storefronts, hallways and garrets, stacked high and tight on top of one another. You can do anything you want in a city like this, provided you can do it in an allotted amount of space. There is a sense, walking down the street, that you could open any random door and find an incredible, self-contained universe behind any of them.
This proved to be true at least once. One of the people I met was a fellow named Morris Levin, a Philadelphia native who holds a degree from the Wharton School of Business, and is also a baseball fanatic who serves as editor for this year’s Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Journal. An ideal guide to Philadelphia, he is endlessly interested in historic ephemera and old spaces.
Currently, Morris is working with Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron-Heysiner-Ezras Israel, a small storefront synagogue in a three-story tenement rowhouse in a South Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood that has variously been home to Irish, Italian, black and Jewish communities; the last of these has dwindled dramatically in the past half-century, to the point where the congregation currently has only seven active members. Morris’s plan is to rehabilitate the building and help the congregation create an active synagogue that includes services, but also art installations, co-working spaces, and readings on the upper floors, and a canning operation in the basement.
He invited me to stop by and have a look. I don’t know what expectations I had for the experience before walking into the front door of an inauspicious sliver of a building, tucked tightly in the middle of a city block. Whatever they may have been, they were wildly surpassed.
The space is stunning.
Contained within a single room that is only 24 feet across is a marvelously elegant synagogue dating to at least 1915 and looking every bit as historical, with benches, a menorah, lamps, and the Ark of the Covenant in back, draped in fading but wonderfully embroidered velvet. Hand-lettered signage in Hebrew, Yiddish and English decorate the walls: names, dates, notes, signage, more. It’s all so beautiful, but so practical – perfectly contained within a space that Morris tells me once housed a grocery. While we’re inside, Morris keeps the front door open, “to let people know something is going on in here,” he says.
The second and third floors of the building – where Morris hopes artists, writers, community members and others will gather – are a treasure trove of paper ephemera, books, portraits, documents and other bits of history accumulated over the past hundred years. It’s easy to imagine it filled with people.
The experience made me wonder about the sacred spaces in the formerly Jewish neighborhoods of Minneapolis. All these congregations – I believe without exception – relocated to the western suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s, and many of these buildings now house churches. Morris pointed out that the experience of the postwar Jewish population’s city-to-suburb immigration (so well documented in the Coen Brothers’ film “A Serious Man”) came about 15 years later here than it did on the East Coast. Before that, the city’s Jewish population settled on the near northside, in pockets around Plymouth Avenue and Lyndale Avenue North, sharing the part of the city with the communities of Scandinavian immigrants a bit further north.
One of my favorite anecdotes from the annals of Minneapolis political history is 1930s-era Farmer-Labor Governor (and thoroughly Norwegian) Floyd B. Olson’s youthful stint as a “Shabbos goy” in North Minneapolis – that is, lighting stoves in neighborhood shops and homes in the wintertime on the Sabbath. He is certainly the only governor in the state’s history to have been fluent in Yiddish.
Morris noted that the synagogue has always been a community center, a place where people gather. The surest way to save a building, he said, is to use it.
While in town, I also paid a visit to Humphrys Flag Company, located in Old City. Humphrys is one of the oldest flag manufacturers in the United States, having been located in Philadelphia since 1864. Vexillology is an ongoing interest of this column, so it seemed appropriate to stop in.
The third-generation owner, Timothy O’Connor, was working the counter, and cheerfully told me a little bit about the history of the company, and the work they do now. All of Humphrys’ flags are manufactured at a factory in Pottstown, Pa., located about 40 miles northwest of the city.
The shop is packed with flags of all sizes and descriptions – states, countries, sports teams, special promotions, labor unions, museums, holidays, anything you can think of. Hanging near the counter was a banner with a deep blue field with a white shark rampant on the front. It’s not for any specific institution, explained O’Connor. They just found the pattern for the shark in the basement, and thought it’d be cool. It was.
Humphrys make all kinds of flags, both custom-made for individual clients and in bulk for large organizations. This includes quite a few flags made for cities, it turns out. Nearly all the city flags flying in Chicago are made by Humphrys.
I asked about the flags of our own cities. “Well, um,” he hesitated. “We don’t really sell Minneapolis flags in bulk.” Of course not, I said. It’s a really ugly flag! You barely see it flying anywhere back home, plus it’s got a microscope on it! He chuckled, produced an almanac of city flags from behind the counter, and flipped through it.
“You know, Saint Paul’s flag is pretty good,” he said, arriving on an image of the Saintly City’s yellow, blue and red log cabin-adorned banner. I agreed.
“As far as the flag having a microscope on it,” he smiled, “Well, you have to keep up with the times.”