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Spirit of story, narrative of place

Beth Kephart is the author, most recently, of "LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair," a collection of photographs and stories about this city and its fringes.

The Schuylkill at dusk, with the FMC Tower rising in the background, adding 49 stories to the cityscape.
The Schuylkill at dusk, with the FMC Tower rising in the background, adding 49 stories to the cityscape.Read moreBETH KEPHART

Beth Kephart

is the author, most recently, of "LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair," a collection of photographs and stories about this city and its fringes.

We walk the streets of Philadelphia with our plans.

An evening among tango dancers. Reservations on Passyunk. Tickets to the Barnes. Prospects of a breakfast crepe. Coffee with a friend.

We suppose that we know what we are looking for.

We cannot coerce the surprises.

As when: The sun slides out of the sky just so and the hook of the new moon holds above the rising FMC Tower. Or the snow on Chestnut Street appears, upon just waking, blue. Or the Penn Center complex facades become, at a certain hour, something between crème orange and bazooka pink. Or William Penn sets off for a sudden stroll beneath the palisades of thunder clouds. Or the Delaware River glasses up and then (noiselessly) shatters.

The surfaces. The attitude. The mood. The unplanned. The received. That's what art is, and our city is a canvas - a place upon which we project our dreams, a place within which we leave our mark, a place that makes room for the conjurer's tricks.

"Art is the only way to run away without leaving home," Twyla Tharp once said.

And so it is.

Philadelphia streets are hallways. Philadelphia gardens are rooms. Philadelphia interiors are secrets - contained secrets, broken secrets, christened secrets. Philadelphia memories are theater. Over the past many weeks I've been spending time with Philadelphians - in the city and on its fringes. I have been talking with people who have seen something, felt something, been something here. With people who remember and, in the act of remembering, cast new light upon and through our city.

I met a woman who remembers the day the former PSFS Building (now the Loews Philadelphia Hotel) opened its doors (the year was 1932) and Philadelphians stood in line to be taken up and then back down by those mysterious moving stairs. I met a man who remembers riding the wooden trolley cars - a gusto experience, as he recalled it. I met women who, in 1973, took a stand against erosion and set to work on the restoration of the lemon-hued Laurel Hill Mansion. I met a sister who remembers the brother who took off with the neighborhood fruit vendor's cart.

Maybe Philadelphia was constructed and still is being constructed by forces far beyond our influence. But isn't it also true that Philadelphia would not be the same without any single one of us? We are the actors on its stage. We are the historians. We are the artists. We are leaving our trace, reinvigorating our memories, passing our stories on. We are the uncoerced surprises.

We're taking shelter beneath a thin roof at Independence Mall during a storm, and that is the art of the moment.

We're riding our bikes across slatted boardwalks, and that is the art of the song.

We're leaning into shadows, and that is the art of the impression.

We're sitting together on a rooftop deck at Sixth and Bainbridge or in a neighborhood library or in a beautifully restored movie theater, and that is the art of community.

Earlier this month, at the Ambler Theater, in an evening created by the Upper Dublin and Wissahickon Valley public libraries as well as the Kiwanis Club of Ambler, I asked for memories - for glittering shards of remembered Philadelphia time. I shared photos from my travels and essays from my heart. I stood on that stage and watched as, one by one, the hands went up.

There was the man who described Christmas Eve in Philadelphia ER hospitals as the caregivers' happiest time. So joyous it was, he said, to be of help on that particular night of the year.

There was the woman who was raised in rural Pennsylvania and remembers best those long-ago holiday excursions to the lights at Wanamakers.

There was the man who remembers jamming into a car with his friends and driving the distance from the suburbs to dance reggae at a packed South Street club and the woman who remembers dancing the cha-cha to Motown on the Boulevard.

There was the high school senior from Abington who spoke of laying flags on the graves of those lost to war at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

There was the man who remembers walking all the way to Connie Mack Stadium - and everywhere else. The woman who recalls the pleasures of Head House Market (and protests against lettuce!). The girl who waits all year for the Philadelphia Folk Festival. The man who was Temple University Graduate School's very first enrollee from India - and who now is one of our city's great ambassadors.

To Amy Gillin, "the intersection of Broad and Erie is the pulse of the city, a place of dreams with a whiff of sadness, smelling of Max's steaks, incense, and alcohol."

To Nancy Matthews, Forbidden Drive along the Wissahickon Creek and Valley Green is still, in her memory, ice skating in winter and hot chocolate at the inn.

To Prajvala Mysore, the Franklin Institute will always be lessons in "how light makes a rainbow."

For Caroline Hewitt, a dance hall on the Boulevard reverbs, as she thinks back, with the stomp and the cha-cha.

Traveling the city and its fringes, I stop, most often, to listen. To see this region through the eyes of those who have lived it in ways that I have not. Because maybe we can't coerce surprise. But we can (we must) make room for it.

Beth Kephart blogs daily at

The photographs and words of "LOVE: A Philadelphia Affair" will be featured in an exhibit at the Philadelphia International Airport from Dec. 21 through July. The exhibition is in Terminal D and accessible to ticketed passengers.