By Brian C. Newberry, C’93
Throughout high school Cornell and its architecture program had beckoned. My Penn acceptance letter arrived one day before its Cornell twin and during the intervening uncertain 24 hours I recall sitting on the stairs at home mulling over my future, eventually deciding to choose Penn for one reason only – Philadelphia and the chance to live in the heart of the city. Might my decision been different had the letters come in reverse order? Perhaps, but rarely have I made a decision so correct in retrospect.
While a certain percentage of the American population and of our classmates grew up in the heart of a city, be it Philadelphia, New York etc. most Americans come of age elsewhere. Even if they live in an urban area they may be on the periphery and as children are often shielded from all that a major city has to offer, good and bad, secluded in their own neighborhoods with a trip to Center City not being much different than for a kid from the suburbs. My education at Penn, with 25 years reflection, had far less to do with the classes I took or the professors I had, excellent though most of them were, but with all that having the time to explore Philadelphia taught about life.
Living on or near campus is one thing but, helped immensely by my time as a photographer for the DP which gave me the excuse – plus minor reimbursable expenses – to explore every nook and cranny, I spent my four years doing just that. Yes I recall great lecturers – Bruce Kuklick, Herman Beavers, Jack Reece and many more but my most vivid memories are far less academic.
On a frivolous yet fun note, the sports opportunities alone were fascinating. Among many, a few stand-out with time. I got to interview the Phillie Phanatic and cover a game from the field. That same summer I also had photographic duty during a “friendly” between Sheffield Wednesday of the EPL and the US Men’s National Soccer team at the Vet. Earlier that spring I was courtside with camera to watch my hometown UConn Women’s basketball team cut down the nets at the Palestra on their way to their first Final Four, little knowing what a run for the ages they would soon embark upon.
There were the opportunities to get up close and personal with big-time politics. Forget Bill Clinton’s visit in 1992 to deliver his economic address. That was a big deal but was more because of Wharton than the city itself. During the 1991 special Senate election following the death of Senator John Heinz in a plane crash, however, I was able to both meet eventual winner Harris Wofford in the DP offices while also covering a fundraiser for his opponent Dick Thornburgh hosted by President Bush at the Bellevue. Likewise, that same summer Wilson Goode was term limited and the Mayor’s race took center stage with all its opportunities to see urban retail politics up close. I will never forget photographing a candidate/comedy charity benefit at the Bank Street Comedy Club at which all three Mayoral candidates took the stage – including Penn’s own Ed Rendell – and then mingled with the small crowd afterward. Frank Rizzo died a week later and we won a press award for our coverage based in part on the photo I got that night, which the Daily News photo editor had the kindness to call me personally and tell me was the best cover in the city.
I drove an ESCORT van for two years, right up until I began law school at Temple in the fall of 1993, and learned every street and alley between 18th and 49th, Lancaster, Powelton, Baltimore, JFK Blvd. and South Streets. There are few things more peaceful then driving the usually crowded and noisy city streets, windows down, on a spring or summer night at 2AMwhen no one but the cabbies, the garbage and delivery trucks are out; a whole side of the city most never see. The liquid nitrogen delivery was always made to the medical school circa 1:30 AM every night. I kept waiting for the Terminator to appear each time I saw it. On the flip side there were all those 5PM first shift drives to the various repair shops to pick up the vans – there were always vans under repair – before service started. One shop was out in West Philly but the other was in North Philly near Girard. Like auto repair shops everywhere they were in less than safe areas and the barbed wire and guard dogs were real.
Just walking the city was educational. There was so much to soak in and I took every opportunity to do so. Neighborhood after neighborhood from the historic district and Independence Park, to the purely residential areas a few blocks from the skyscrapers, to the museum district to South Philly to Northern Liberties to the riverfronts, both Delaware and Schuylkill. On our first real date my wife and I began the day at the Rodin Museum, spent more time at the Art Museum, headed downtown to Independence Hall, took the tour, had lunch at City Tavern, made our way through the Italian Market and to Geno’s Steaks* before heading back to Center City to go to a movie at the Ritz – all on foot. One summer I took my camera and rode every inch of the city’s subway system from Fern Rock to Pattison, Bridge-Pratt to 69th Street just to see it all. If there was a festival at Penn’s Landing or anywhere that sounded fun I would grab the camera and go.
Summer was a particularly fruitful time for exploration. Fourth of July 1992 was especially memorable – a group of us spent the afternoon having a cook-out on my porch at 4034 Spruce, enjoying (a few too many) adult beverages (I have never touched Southern Comfort since that day), then headed downtown on the pot-soaked (is that a word or merely a mixed metaphor?) El from 40th and Market to go watch the fireworks near the Ben Franklin Bridge. The crowd estimate was a million strong just packed into the riverfront area. When it was all over the subways were so jammed that we didn’t want to wait so we walked 44 blocks back to Murph’s to close the day, one of the women going barefoot due to blisters. One July day the year prior I woke up to WMMR on the radio saying that Alice Cooper was doing an impromptu free concert down near Independence Hall. Not a huge Alice Cooper fan but so what, right? Headed on down and it was a blast. Speaking of music I also got to occasionally cover concerts at the Spectrum from the press box and do reviews. Being on the DP staff did have its perks.
There was the dark side of the City. We all remember the homelessness, the drug dealing and the crime. One night while driving ESCORT I remember shots fired and it turned out a guy was hit in a drive-by on Walnut near 40th. He turned down 40th, must have seen the cops at Uni-Mart, where they often hung out, backed his car up onto Walnut, drove half a block and then died, with his car crashing into a tree. But it went beyond campus. I explored an abandoned crack den in North Philadelphia while photographing a Habitat for Humanity project next door. Often, during my wanderings I would find myself entering areas where I probably shouldn’t have been for my own safety, though no one ever bothered me. Philadelphia is not unique in this respect but the capacity for the city to shift from block to block never ceased to amaze. To this day I have an unconscious street sense no matter where I am, always alert to my surroundings, “thanks” to the city. My wife was a student at Textile and one time I borrowed my roommate’s car to go see her. Coming back it was rush hour and so I, naively, took the most direct route down Ridge Avenue. It’s amazing the hub caps survived the trip. From that day forward I always took the train from 30th Street. There were some interesting characters on that commuter rail platform on 30th Street late at night and, hey, who appropriated these old train signs and left them in my basement?
And of course there were the con artists and assorted less than savory characters that appeared from time to time. There was the guy who showed up in my backyard at 39th and Walnut one spring Saturday morning and told us that he was trying to take the train from DC to NY but had gotten off in Philly because he had run out of money and wanted our help so he could get back on. I refrained from asking what he was doing 11 blocks from 30th Street Station if he was so hell bent on a train and just politely sent him on his way not wanting to find out if he had a gun. There was also the notorious con artist – name escapes me but he was reported by numerous students over the years – who I swear I ran into one night around midnight at the 24 hour post office on Market Street. This guy was good. He noticed every little thing about what I was wearing and tried to build a connection around it down to a Hartford Whaler reference as he tried to work me out of some cash. Smooth. Ithaca may have its riff-raff but doubtful it is on this scale.
So is Penn a fantastic university and all around educational institution with cutting edge teaching and research? Absolutely. But so are many other universities. Few of them, however, can match the experience of seeing life in all its fullness, lightness and darkness, as living four years, and in my case eventually seven, in the heart of one of the great walking cities of the world. That is my most enduring memory of college. I love Philadelphia, always have and always will. After seven years my wife and I left to return to our native New England where our families were and I have never regretted that decision but if I ever win Powerball I intend to buy a Phillies luxury box and one of those Ritz-Carlton condos across from City Hall so I can visit whenever I like – just so long as Eagles fans learn that it is stupid to stand on the awnings to celebrate a Super Bowl win and take their mayhem elsewhere.
*With time I have concluded that Pat’s is better than Geno’s, but both pale in comparison to Dalessandro’s in Roxborough at the corner of Henry Avenue and Walnut Lane. I still have an old helmet shaped refrigerator magnet from our 10th reunion from Dalessandro’s showing the Eagles 2003 schedule. It is on the small fridge in our garage that we store extra items in and that I bought from a friend back in 1991. It has outlasted three other larger ones.
Penn Class of 1993 25th Reunion Countdown
The weekend of December 29 – 30, marked 19 weeks until the 25th Reunion of the Penn Class of 1993 (May 11 – 14, 2018)! Meet us at the Button!
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