The mysteries of two-toned City Hall, acorn abundance, New Yorker invasion, and the disappearing pigeons of Philly. These are some of the questions that were bugging readers, and we tracked down the answers.

The queries came through Curious Philly, where readers ask our reporters to hunt down answers to their burning questions. You can ask your own at inquirer.com/curiousphilly.

Here were some of our favorites over the last 12 months.

1. Philly’s streets are ordered from hardwood to softwood

Is this real? Yes, this is real. Joseph A. Gambardello found out that the woody urban planning was originally even more extensive. In the original 1683 plan, Gambardello wrote, “North to south, the streets were Vine, Sassafras (now Race), Mulberry (now Arch), High (now Market), Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, Spruce, Pine, and Cedar (now South) ... Sassafras, cherry, mulberry, chestnut, walnut, and locust are hardwoods, while spruce, pine and cedar are softwoods." It may not be a perfect order: most of these trees have multiple species, so the specific wood-density may not fall exactly in line. And there’s no record on whether it was intentional. But we like to believe that it was.

2. Yes, New Yorkers are invading Philly

According to the Census Bureau, more New Yorkers have been moving to our fair city than the other way round. Between 2012 and 2016, 3,500 New Yorkers moved to Philly (and 3,100 Philadelphians moved to New York). Between 2006 and 2010, we netted about 600 former NYers. And we wind up with a lot more former Brooklynites than any other kind of New Yorker, wrote Alfred Lubrano. He also discovered it’s a reality we’ve been truly freaked out about for years. As far back as 1839, one poster was alarmed that a new railroad could make Philadelphia a “suburb of New York!!” The outrage.

3. Those yellow grids on utility poles have a purpose

They’re reflective, so cars notice that there’s, um, a pole there. Patricia Madej found the secret of the 12-by-8-inch yellow lattices that adorn about half of the 400,000 Peco poles in the Philly region. So why do they look like that? They’re recycled: “While the grid may be easier for drivers to see from varying angles, it wasn’t exactly manufactured for that purpose. They are what is left over from the manufacture of reflective ID tag digits that also go on poles and equipment,” Madej wrote.

A Peco utility pole with a yellow reflecting grid on 8th Street.
Tyger Williams / File Photograph
A Peco utility pole with a yellow reflecting grid on 8th Street.

4. Jurors in Philly make $9 a day because it was once minimum wage

If you get called for jury duty, you know that the pay is lousy: You end up pocketing $9 a day for the first three days (after that, it goes up to a whopping $25 a day). How did they come up with $9? Lucia Geng found out that the $9 rate was set in 1959, way back when the state minimum wage was a mere $1 an hour. (Now, it’s $7.25.) Oh, and by the way: Those payments are taxable income. “Other jurisdictions aren’t as stingy. New York pays jurors $40 a day, Maryland $15. And jury pay in federal court is $50 a day,” Geng wrote.

5. Yes, your wedding officiant can get ordained on the internet. But in Pennsylvania, you don’t actually need one.

Hiring an officiant is pretty popular for those who don’t want to have a religious wedding ceremony. And internet-ordination is legally valid, too, despite a York County Court ruling from 2007, which suggested you could end up in a legal gray area. But in Pennsylvania, couples can also legally marry themselves. You can get a “self-uniting” license for an extra $10, which lets you marry yourselves (or have an unordained friend perform the ceremony), as long as you have witnesses. The license, which is a Quaker tradition, is unique to Pennsylvania, Justine McDaniel discovered.

6. The faithful get to park in bike lanes

As Jason Laughlin explained, church (and synagogue) parking is a time-honored courtesy in Philly: “On streets near 74 houses of worship in Center City, the faithful are granted relaxed parking enforcement that allows them to put their cars in places that are convenient for services.” Cars are supposed to display an official city permit that details when and where they’re allowed to park. The problem: Those permits sometimes allow drivers to park in bike lanes, so all hell breaks loose for cyclists, who get squeezed when the bike lanes become parking for the pious.

A relaxed parking permit allows drivers to park on the opposite side of the street — in the bike lane — during religious services.
Yong Kim / File Photograph
A relaxed parking permit allows drivers to park on the opposite side of the street — in the bike lane — during religious services.

7. There’s a building in Philly with its own zip code

The Wells Fargo Building on South Broad Street between Sansom and Walnut takes up an entire block. And an entire zip code: 19109. What makes it so special? It’s not that it starred in the 1983 comedy Trading Places (though it did). Oren Oppenheim cracked the code, which comes down to this: “Most likely that the Wells Fargo Building has its own zip code because it once contained a post office that handled deliveries.” The exclusive zip code would have allowed the Postal Service to sort and deliver mail more efficiently. Also: It turns out a Philadelphian was responsible for the introduction of zip codes.

8. The pigeons are disappearing

First off, Philly has a bird census. And it has bad news for pigeons: The number of the birds in Philly is way down over the last 25 years. The city has tried a lot of things to get rid of the birds, including shooting at them, drugging them, trying to get them to stick to City Hall, playing recordings of distressed birds, and making it illegal to feed them. None worked. So why is the species declining now? As Lucia Geng found out, bird scientists have counted a lot more peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks, and red-tailed hawks, which all, um, eat pigeon.

It's hard to be a pigeon in Philadelphia.
Frank Wiese / File Photograph
It's hard to be a pigeon in Philadelphia.

9. South Philadelphians could be the reason we call it ‘Center City’

How come we have a Center City while most other cities have a downtown? One theory is that South Philadelphians traditionally called their area “downtown,” and the city adapted, opting for Center City, which is a bit closer to popular usage in Europe, which uses “city center” or “town center” to describe a city’s commercial hub. Regardless, the name stuck, and became popular in headlines, ads, and the names of buildings, writes Joseph A. Gambardello.

10. Nope, Philadelphia Cream Cheese isn’t from here

It never has been. It’s from New York. As Allison Steele reported, the name was a marketing ploy, because Philadelphia was known for good food and really good dairy.

Philadelphia Cream Cheese may be original, but it's not from here.
Kraft Heinz Company
Philadelphia Cream Cheese may be original, but it's not from here.

11. The oak trees in Philly may be trying to mess with the squirrels this year

No, you’re not imagining it: There are a lot of acorns in the Philly area this year. (Like in the trillions.) The number of the small little oak-seeds can vary dramatically from year to year. And one expert theory as to why, reported Anthony R. Wood, is that the trees coordinate to try to mess with would-be seed-nibblers. “Perhaps oaks work in concert to stagger their efforts, to keep the deer, rodents, and birds guessing. If the predators come back after a year of bounty and find that the restaurants are closed for the season, they’ll look elsewhere, and that would give the oaks’ progeny a better shot of surviving the next time around,” he wrote.

12. The top of City Hall is two colors because the paint didn’t match

Valerie Russ got to the bottom of City Hall’s tacky two-toned look. City Hall’s tower is actually two different parts: a 200-foot metal structure that sits on top of a 347-foot stone edifice. In the 1980s, the deteriorating iron top was replaced with copper-and-zinc-coated plates, covered in a state-of-the-art paint designed to last. Problem is, the paint didn’t match. And here we are. As Russ uncovered, when The Inquirer originally wrote about the problem, back in 1990, our then-architecture critic wasn’t impressed: “For some the two-toned tower says that Philadelphia will never quite get anything right and shouldn’t bother to try.”

City Hall's two-toned top.
Tom Gralish / File Photograph
City Hall's two-toned top.

13. There is one moon tree clone in Philly that’s still alive and well

Washington Square Park killed its moon tree, grown from a sycamore seed taken to the moon by astronauts aboard the Apollo 14 mission. And then it killed the clone planted to replace it in 2015. But if the park’s commemorative historical plaque and dead stick in the ground makes you feel sad, we have good news: Stephanie Farr tracked down another healthy and thriving clone, just outside the Montgomery County Courthouse, which we love to the moon and back.

The moon tree clone planted outside of the Montgomery County Courthouse is flourishing, unlike its sister tree in Philadelphia.
Barry Jeffries
The moon tree clone planted outside of the Montgomery County Courthouse is flourishing, unlike its sister tree in Philadelphia.

14. A lot of Philly buildings are, despite efforts, still lit up at night

Why is so much of the skyline lit up at night? Philly has adopted building codes for new or renovated office buildings to save energy (like having motion sensors to turn the lights off in empty offices). Some of the lights mean that workers are still toiling away after hours. But part of the problem, as Andrew Maykuth found out, is that “the best building designs, and the strongest energy-efficiency codes ... are only as good as the people managing the buildings.” As one electrical engineer says: “The guy who runs the building — it’s usually a guy — determines that building’s performance. He can run it automatic mode and all these sophisticated systems do their job, or he can say, ‘I do things manually — I always ran it this way.’”

15. Recycling bins with lids are supposed to help make sure stuff actually gets recycled

You used to be able to use blue plastic bags for curbside recycling. But part of the reason you can’t anymore is because a lot of that stuff ended up going to landfill. That’s what happens if recycling exceeds a specific contamination rate — 3% used to be acceptable. But now, new rules from recycling processors limits it to 0.5%. The bags contribute to the contamination. And, as Carmina Hachenburg found out, it was bad: Between October 2018 and May 2019, only half of Philadelphia’s recycling was actually recycled. So why the lids? It’s to prevent litter, because stuff gets blown around if it’s just sitting in open bins. Pro tip: Attach the lid to the bin with a zip tie. You can nab a bin, and a lid, at any of Philly’s six Sanitation Convenience Centers.

New bins with lids
Kyle Lewis
New bins with lids