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Spring Garden Street is a Garden of Urban Life

Among its features, Philadelphia has cultivated awareness of nature by naming major streets “Chestnut,” “Walnut,” “Spruce,” and “Pine.” One of those thoroughfares that Elaine and I drive frequently is Spring Garden Street, which someone new to the city might expect to feature a series of bucolic attractions punctuating a bustling city. Bucolic it isn’t, except for sporadic plantings, but the street does feature a great deal deserving active attention. To simply allow awareness to become dormant because, after all, Spring Garden is just “another ho-hum, crowded street” would be a mistake.

Our semi-regular three-mile drive west from the Delaware River defies the boredom that results from traveling on some city streets. Spring Garden is unique for ethnic restaurants, small food markets, warehouses, discount stores, and dignified, but somewhat droopy-looking old churches. Interspersed among these enterprises are groups of brick houses incapable of concealing their ages even if their owners were foolish enough to want to resort to cosmetics. Wisely, they recognize the antique charm of their homes, which are subtle reminders of history in the midst of controlled commercialism.

Particularly attention-grabbing about the area is the abundance of murals that bring to life what would otherwise be drab, featureless walls. Other cities have followed Philadelphia’s lead in encouraging these eye-catching creations. While, to my constant dismay, the city rarely trailblazes in professional sports, I’m proud we’ve been in the forefront of promoting artistic talent and showcasing it for appreciation.

Understand, we’re talking about quality art, not graffiti or well-intentioned but amateurish endeavors. These are highly imaginative works executed by admirably skilled artists. In style, they run a gamut from realism to abstraction. Regardless of how often I see them, they grab my attention as well as my respect for their superb execution.

The buildings and their embellishments provide backdrops for a continuous parade of people: mothers push strollers and carriages, joggers thread their ways past slower walkers, bikers deviate from assigned street lanes to irk the drivers they are oblivious to, contemplative browsers amble slowly from shop to shop. Taken as a whole, this disparate mix provides an overview of humanity in motion, propelled by the mandatory and elective needs of life. Thinking about it, I realize one of the things I like most about Spring Garden Street is its aura of unfrantic purposefulness. Occasional irritations notwithstanding (double-parked cars, horn-infatuated drivers, kamikaze bikers), there’s a strong, healthy heartbeat to the neighborhood.

In the two years since we’ve returned to our native city, we always look forward to driving the street. Curiously, growing up in Philadelphia, we were, somehow, impervious to many of its charms. I suppose having lived in other cities different in mood and flavor from our hometown, we unconsciously developed a sense of comparative standards. As a result, we began to appreciate what we were oblivious to in the past. This reaction has repeated itself in our re-introduction to other parts of the city, too.

Spring Garden Street will always be special to us. It doesn’t rely on well-scrubbed, immaculately maintained modern homes or on resplendent up-scale businesses. There’s a kind of earned grit about it accumulated over many years of constructive activity. Tastes more sympathetic to modernity or to compulsive upgrades of what remains of the past might be turned off to what moves Elaine and me. For us, it really is a garden, a symbolic one, nurturing awe for the admirable activity and creativity of life.

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