A wander around philly

IWW picket of Hyundai dealership in PhilidelphiaAfter staying in New York for a few days it was off to Philadelphia.  The Philadelphia meeting was a little sketchy looking and indeed we ran into some problems but as there were two NEFAC members in the city onc of whom I'd be staying with so I was fairly confident it would come off.  Winter was defeated for now (although I'd travel back into it a week later in upstate New York). It was a warm morning when I caught the subway from Jersey City to Port Authority and it remained sunny for the short trip down to Philadelphia.  Philadelphia was one of the very few cities where no one was available to meet me at the Greyhound station but the station is quite central and the city is a grid so it was straightforward enough to orientage myself on arrival to ensure I was walking across the grid in the right direction.

Philadelphia is a curious city for the Irish visitor as despite the fact its the 6th biggest city in the US most people here are not really aware of it.  I'm not sure why, a lot of Irish emigrated there including at least one of my great uncles whom my mother recently discovered was a preacher in the city (in Yeadon) some 90 years before I passed through. Some 14% of the current population of the city say they have Irish ancestory.

I was staying with Brian who was working on the other side of the city centre, it was probably a thirty minute journey by foot.  I actually met him in his office which was only slightly arkward as I had to think when I was asked by the receptionist why I had come to town.  He'd recently moved to a small one room apartment so we headed back there near what I'm guessing is the museum district (well lots of green space and museums) before heading to a local pub for the Philadelphia private meeting.

This didn't quite work as planned as it turned out the quiet local pub had some sort of event on that night which meant it was packed and noisy.  Half a dozen of us did manage to get and crowd around a table but it wasn't really a suitable space to hold any sort of formal conversation so we ended up with a more general chat after I'd attempted to give my standard text. A couple of those present also made the public talk the following day but it would have been a lot better if we'd have been able to have the private meeting after the public talk as what I had to say sort of needed the context of the events I described in the public talk.  I think this was one of the few occasions when I actually drank a lot during the tour, generally people seemed to have one to two beers and then call it a night.  On that occasion though I think we had quite a few.

The next morning Sean, the other NEFACer at the time in Philly, picked me up to show me around the city. I was a little hung over but one of the first things I remember was seeing 'the steps' that Rocky trained on in Rocky one.  They led up to the Art Museum and there was a major row about the placing of a Rocky statue at the top of the steps (it has now been removed and placed nearby).  We just drove past, I didn't get to attempt to jog to the top.

We headed into West Philidelphia where most of the radicals in the city live.  West Philly had a major property crash and local anarchists both squatted abandoned buildings and bought them at bank sales for next to nothing.  One bit where we visited there was some sort of cafe/social centre had half a dozen such buildings within a 100m stretch of roadway.  I joked that I could return to Ireland and say if what I witnessed was typical 40% of the city was anarchist controlled. Now the slightly odd things about the spaces I saw was that although there were located in neighboorhoods where most people on the street were black almost all of the people in the spaces were white.  I suspect this was simply a reflection of how radical spaces, in particular ones with a strong counter cultural element, tend to attract people from across the city they are in rather than people where they are located. In the US this is further added to by the tendency of radical youth to physically move to one of the half dozen cities that has a radical reputation. This was particularly visible in this case due to the differences in skin colour. From what I remember of my meeting that evening all except one of the small audience were white despite the fact that everyone on the street outside that evening was black. 

The local anarchists I talked to were somewhat critical of the anarchist scene saying that although at least 1000 people self identified as anarchists in the city very few were regularly active in a meaningful way. Towards the end of the tour I realised that the movement in the north east was the most racially polarised of any that I had seen which would not have been what I expected before setting off.  I suspect this is because relatively speaking the cities here are old and often shrinking so a de facto segregation exists in a stronger way then in the newer growing cities of the South East and West.

We ate in what I guess is the Philly equivalent of a British 'greasy spoon'. I'd a big breakfast to try and chase off my hangover but the eggs were pretty underdone (I never could work out how to order eggs right), it helped all the same.  We knew the Industrial Workers of the World were having a picket that day. A couple of Mexican Maquiladora workers were on a speaking tour (their meeting that evening unfortunatly clashed with mine) about an auto dispute they were involved in so there was to be a solidarity picket of a Hyundi car dealership. We decided on the spur of the moment we'd head to this.

It was just as well we decided to go as the dealership was a good distance from the meet up point and our car was one of the only two that turned up.  As it was a couple of people had to be left behind while the rest of us crammed in and headed out to the dealership towards the outskirts of town.  It was located on a suburban lot on a wide road with heavy traffic so we basically just stood around on the pavement outside for an hour or so before heading back into town.

Now before I headed to Philly one of the few things I knew about it was it was the HQ of the IWW so I was a little underwhelmed by the level of disorganisation of that picket in particular when they had visitors in town for it.  It was however during a working day which is always difficult.  Afterwards we took advantage of the sun to hang out in a small park near the IWW office? for a while before heading back into town to meet up with Brian and prepare for the evening public meeting.  Strangely enough one of my clear memories of the evening was going to a fried chicken place to eat (it must have been good, I remember the coleslaw!).

The meeting itself was in LAVA ( Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Zone) a sort of social center on Lancaster Avenue. It's been going a good few years and is quite a largish shopfront and offices above space.  A Philly anarchist paper called the Defenestrator is published out of it. Sean was and as far as I can make out from their website still is involved in the publication of this.  He has an article (at the time of rewriting this blog) on an attempt to introduce a trash tax there which references the struggle in Dublin against the bin tax, one of the struggles I covered in my presentation.

The turnout for the public meeting was poor (15 people) given the number of anarchists in the city, part of this was probably due to the IWW meeting being on at the same time although we met up with them afterwards and I don't think the attendance at the meeting had been huge either. So perhaps it was more a reflection of the inward looking aspect of the local scene coupled with some understandbly weak promotion.  I did get to meet LLR/ASR editor Jon Bekken, he'd published an article I'd written on the Zapatista's almost a decade before and is well know on the north American scene, as usual its interesting to put a face to a name.

The next morning I walked back through the centre of Philly on the way to the Greyhound station and my next stop in Baltimore.  I took a somewhat different route and what struck me was the extraordinary number of police on the streets, I must have passed a couple of dozen at least as I strolled through the city centre.  My last Philly experience was having breakfast in the market that is near the bus station, specifically some sort of fried up vegetable and potatoe cake called scraffle or something similar.  A cheese steak I hear you ask?  I'm not sure, perhaps I've forgotten but it seems I did indeed manage to visit Philidelphia without sampling its more famous dish.  I think we talked about where to get a good one, I just don't think it ever happened, I guess I'll have to go back.

You'll find blog enteries for all 44 stops of my North American speaking tour on the site, I'm slowly returning to them and fleshing these out, you'll find the ones I have done this with at the  Extending the accounts of my North American speaking tour page.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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