While many Swarthmore students spend their summers on campus and participate in research alongside professors or complete other on campus jobs, a good number of students opt for summer opportunities in the Philadelphia area. This summer, I fall into the latter category, but rather than living on Swarthmore’s campus, I’m sharing an apartment in the University City district with two other Swatties. Beyond my internship, this summer has been one of the best yet because living in the city gives me the opportunity to take advantage of all the Philly has to offer. The freedom of summer combined with proximity to many events and attractions in the city is an ideal arrangement for a Swattie looking to get to know the City of Brotherly Love. And in my explorations, there have been a few “hidden gem” kinds of experiences that capture the quirks and charms of the city.
A few weeks ago, my friend Katie won an essay contest about James Joyce’s Ulysses and came up to Philadelphia to receive her prize at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, which houses a handwritten manuscript of the famous novel. I went to the museum to meet her after work, and found myself invited into the world of Bloomsday. For the uninitiated (and I certainly was), Bloomsday falls on June 16th and celebrates Ulysses, which takes place over the course of that day, and its protagonist, Leopold Bloom. A famously difficult book, I myself had never read Ulysses, but a quick internet search told me about the marathon public readings and plot reenactments that take place every Bloomsday all over the world. As I walked toward the Rosenbach from City Hall, I found myself in a neighborhood I had never been in before. It felt like walking back in time: the sounds of cars quieted, the buildings were shorter and made from red brick, and as I rounded into a small courtyard in front of the museum, cobblestones appeared under my feet. Katie and I didn’t stay long at the Bloomsday celebration outside but entered the Rosenbach Museum, as they were offering free admission. The charming 19th-century townhouses that make up the museum completed my step into the past as I wandered through rooms decorated from the era and admired the extensive book collection. As I paused by a black bookcase on the second floor stair landing, a docent leaped upon my interest and informed me that the elegant bookcase had been owned by none other than Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. After finishing our tour of the museum, Katie and I forayed back into modernity, but the quiet, understated history of the Rosenbach Museum produced a wonder in me that the skyscrapers and rushing cars downtown could not.
I encountered a second “hidden gem” quite accidentally. I was researching events for the Fourth of July weekend and came across a notice for a celebration at a Mexican restaurant in South Philadelphia. The restaurant was celebrating the merging of two sister restaurants, South Philly Barbacoa and El Compadre, at the latter restaurant’s location. The Facebook event asked guests to wear white and promised free food and Cuban drumming. The evening of the event, I ventured to El Compadre with one of my roommates, Dalia. Although I was at first intimidated by the group of obviously loyal regulars to the restaurant, Dalia and I began talking with the people around us and met a local who was a dedicated follower of both restaurants. We talked for a while but fell quiet as a group of Santeros, officiates in the Caribbean religion of Santería, played music and sang to bless the restaurant’s new opening and bring in good business. I swayed in time with the rhythm of the drumming, feeling completely at home and comfortable, despite the novel situation. Afterward, the guests spilled into the street to enjoy a big meal of chicken, rice, and nachos. Still with our local “guide,” Dalia and I were introduced to El Compadre’s owners, Christina Martinez and Benjamin Miller. We thanked them for the wonderful food and I was in awe of the couple that inspired such a dedicated following and love from their community. As Dalia and I walked back toward the subway station, bellies full, I reflected that it is in these moments that one truly learns to love and know a city.