At first, it’s hard to tell where the 7 p.m. smattering of cheers on 13th Street is coming from.
There are faint hoots, like noise from a distant game or concert, but no one is visible in any nearby windows. A banging noise tolls from above, someone rapping on a pan held out a window in the Keppoch House Apartments. On a step closer to Pine Street, two children spin noisemakers that look to be repurposed from a bygone birthday party.
The modest noise goes on for a full five minutes, then subsides. The children go back inside. On either side of that brief eruption, the eerie hush that has become Philadelphia’s norm is maintained.
The nightly celebration on 13th Street is a demonstration of support for Philadelphia’s health-care workers, but a small one relative to what’s happening elsewhere. Other cities, particularly New York City, have a routine of nightly cacophonies that echo off skyscraper canyons, expressing gratitude to the workers who put themselves at risk as they treat COVID-19 patients. In Philly, the practice is confined to a few neighborhoods, such as along 13th Street or near Washington Square, where residents of high-rise apartments have been banging pots and pans from their balconies.
Some Philadelphians are trying to make the celebratory moments more expansive.
“We need to recognize our front-line workers,” said Mark Austerberry, executive director of the Philadelphia County Medical Society. “Anything to boost morale would be super-important.”
Some of the most visible demonstrations in the city for health-care workers have come from the workers themselves, nurses who have protested for better on-the-job protective gear. The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals union has organized public events to draw attention to the lack of protective masks and other equipment; a spokesperson for the union said the focus of public activism should be on that failure.
Austerberry thinks that psychological support has value. He has held discussion sessions with the city’s doctors, and heard about sadness and depression stemming from their work.
“The lack of PPE, the stress of having to contact people that their loved ones had passed away,” he said. “I think it’s PTSD. It’s very similar.”
Of Pennsylvania’s nearly 52,000 COVID-19 positive cases, according to state data, 3,316 are confirmed to be health-care workers.
Austerberry lobbied the city’s health department to put its muscle behind a show of support, but officials say its daily news conferences are not the appropriate venue for that appeal.
“The mayor has been asked about this in the past and said that the city is not really the best organizer for it,” though the city would support a citywide demonstration, said James Garrow, a department spokesperson.
The most recent effort at a giant thank-you for all essential workers began Tuesday night, with about 15 people on Opal Street in North Philadelphia, where a number of those workers live. Organizers suggested that perhaps Philadelphia’s strong neighborhood identity was behind the lack of a unified demonstration, and their solution was the Doorway Dance Party. People on Opal danced in the street, wearing protective masks, to the Rocky theme, “Gonna Fly Now," “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” and other anthemic hits simulcast on three UrbanOne-owned Philadelphia radio stations at 6:30 p.m.
“We’re going to beat this,” said Sylvia P. Simms, who helped lead the dance party. “Put the positive energy out there.”
The songs evoke Philadelphia and capture the possibility of overcoming obstacles, said Sheila Simmons, an organizer of the demonstration, chief of staff for State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and former deputy managing editor at the Philadelphia Tribune.
“We don’t care if it’s good dancing or bad dancing, it’s all to show the gratitude we have for our essential workers,” she said.
She’s hoping the routine of evening doorway dance parties will catch on citywide as the shutdown continues, though by Wednesday there weren’t plans for a repeat on Opal. That night, a block of Allegheny Avenue near 35th Street erupted instead, with neighbors shaking it in their doorways despite the rain.
“It takes a lot for something to really catch on and get, like, widespread,” said Gretchen Elise Walker, a jazz musician.
The participating FM radio stations, 100.3, 103.9, and 107.9, are also streaming the broadcast online, she said. She is enlisting the participation of local DJs and musicians. The pandemic has hit them hard, she said. They are struggling without the performances they rely on for creative energy and income, and the nightly dance parties are a way for them to remix popular themes and reach a new audience.
“We have this whole culture right now of DJs and producers that are broadcasting live on Instagram, broadcasting live on Facebook, creating new material and streaming it multiple times a day,” Walker said. “This is a different angle to this doorway dance party to get a whole bunch of music creators into the mix.”