Expecting the unexpected in South Philly

    Monks clad in orange robes are intently brushing a fresh coat of bright red paint onto the front gate of the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple at South 6th and Ritner Sreet.

    Nearby, Mifflin Square Park is alive with neighbors playing volleyball, firecrackers and bottle rockets exploding and the smoky aroma of barbecue.

    A few blocks north on 8th and Alter Street is CrossFit South Philly, a gym housed in a large garage refitted with pull-up bars, gymnastic rings, kettle bells and the fluid motion of toned physiques.  Grunts of physical exertion to the rhythm of steel weights clanking can be heard from down the block during the evening classes, drawing curious looks from residents walking past the gym’s open garage door.

    These scenes are just a few of the surprises one can encounter in South Philadelphia.  I have explored the neighborhood since I moved to Philadelphia in 2006 for my freshman year at Temple University.  I rode the 64 bus every weekend to my job on Columbus Boulevard, gazing out the window for the whole ride.  I was intrigued by the intersection of Italian, Vietnamese, Chinese and Mexican communites, and tantalized by the sights and scents of fresh produce, seafood, tacos and rice noodles as the bus rolled east on Washington Avenue.

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    Photographing South Philadel[phia, where so many cultures are juxtaposed within a dense grid, is like being timed with a stopwatch to solve a jigsaw puzzle.  There may only be a few seconds to frame all the elements together and capture a moment before it is lost.  But urban photographing is also a mindless art of wandering the streets and waiting to be surprised.  I think my photographs encapsulate the unexpected people and places I have discovered in my journeys through the neighborhood. 

    South Philadelphia’s ability to continually surprise me is why I call it my home.


    Jimmy Viola is a South Philly resident and graduate of Temple University. Comment on his essay below or send an e-mail to nwfeedback@whyy.org.

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