In defense of South Philly’s parking quirks

Vehicles are parked in the median of South Broad Street in Philadelphia

Vehicles are parked in the median of South Broad Street in Philadelphia

I couldn’t believe my ears. There’s a movement to ban parking on the median strip in South Philly! What next? Banning soft pretzels or cheesesteaks?

When friends visit from out of town, I take them to see the Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell and the cars parked in the middle of South Broad Street. Why? Because it’s as much a tradition as the Mummers, Pat’s Steaks or the statue of Rocky. It’s who we are. You want a town where every resident obeys parking regulations? Fine. Go to Cleveland. You want a city with swagger, cojones, and chutzpah? Yo, welcome to South Philly, pal!

My allegiance is genetic. My mother grew up in South Philly (pronounced Sow’Philly) and every Saturday of my childhood, we’d drive in from the western burbs, down Broad Street, and turn into the warren of narrow streets and row houses where my grandmother, aunts, and uncles lived.

I never had the sense that people in South Philly were worse off than those who lived in Wynnewood. Technically, they had lower incomes. They weren’t doctors and lawyers. They were secretaries and government workers, not bosses. Even so, they were well-read, articulate and exhibited sharp wit and emitted raucous laughter. When it came to politics, they threw verbal punches with the best. What I remember about parking is that every house had its “space” which all the residents respected. You park in a space that isn’t yours? You’d need a new set of tires.

There’s always been a machismo about South Philly, perpetuated perhaps by its mobsters, which locals never minded. Hey, it’s their family, not yours. Whatchyoo lookin’ at? But more than that, there is a strong sense of identity. Whether you were white, Black, Hispanic or Asian, if you came from South Philly, you were proud of it, even years after you moved out of the city. Generations later, strangers still play South Philly geography. You can hear this exchange all over the world. “Your mother went to South Philly High? So did mine. What street did she live on?” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Which brings me to those cars parked in the middle of Broad Street. Supposedly, someone circulated a petition banning this blatantly illegal, but highly revered, tradition. He got a 1,000 signatures. Then he handed the petition to Mayor Kenny whom, I can only assume, turned it into a paper airplane and flung it off of Billy Penn’s hat.

The simple fact is that the densely populated neighborhood has more cars than legal parking spaces. Is the City going to erect a giant parking garages every six blocks along South Broad, turning historic Edwardian brownstones into eyesores? I don’t think so.

And what mayor or parking commissioner would be self-destructive enough to institute such a ban? Here’s a better question. Where the hell can those cars park if not in the middle of Broad Street?

I have a few suggestions: Park them in the circle around City Hall. Park them on I-95. Or why not start a new tradition and park them in the middle of North Broad Street? All laughable as compared to the logic of parking on the median of South Broad in the neighborhood where the car owners reside.

Neighborhoods change and evolve at their own pace. The mom-and-pop shops of Main Street in Manayunk gave way to trendy eateries and boutiques. The former No Man’s Land of West South Street is now “the hippest street in town.” And who ever imagined Fishtown would be cool?

Eventually, in its own sweet time, South Philly will shake off the aura of its busybody grandmothers peeking through the curtains, wise-guys, and Christmas lights. It’s already happening in East Passyunk where tapas restaurants outnumber pizza joints and there are more Kevins and Andrews than guys named Sal.

Even so, I am hoping that the neighborhood never loses the iconic images that make it unique: The Singing Fountain, the Italian Market, John’s Water Ice, the Blue Dolphin, Melrose Diner, Isgro’s Bakery, Termini’s, Pat’s and Geno’s, the Mummer’s Museum and, yes, the cars parked — inexplicably — along the median of South Broad Street.

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