Episode 4: "Rocky's Stoop"
In a city that has seen dramatic change since Rocky’s time, why do so many still identify with this movie character? We tour the neighborhoods where Rocky lived to understand their modern-day challenges, like development, violence and addiction. Along the way, we meet courageous advocates and public artists who fight every day to bring hope and opportunity to their communities.
- Rocky, original screenplay
- Michelle Angela Ortiz, Our Market Project
- Operation Save Our City, Roz Pichardo FB Page
- Learn more about “Mama Sunshine”
- Kensington Corridor Trust website
PAUL FARBER, HOST: It’s arguably the most iconic scene in the entire Rocky series. The training montage in the first movie.
An amateur boxer just found out he has a one-in-a-million shot at the title. So he downs a glass of raw eggs, puts on a gray sweatsuit and Converse sneakers, and runs through the city — along the waterfront, over some train tracks… and then…
Up 9th Street, a commercial corridor known as the Italian Market. Rocky passes outdoor produce stands, with little fires blazing from trash cans to keep the vendors warm. A guy on the street throws an orange at him, and he catches it.
It feels triumphant, like a homecoming. But some longtime residents say that’s not actually how it played out.
MICHELLE ANGELA ORTIZ: When Rocky was coming down the market, people were upset. They were like throwing fruit at him as he was just running down, because there was no conversation of, “Hey, we’re doing this movie and we want to do this.” Like he just literally, they just popped up with a camera and started running through the market. They had to have a conversation and just say, “Hey, we’re just trying to get this shot and just kind of running through.” And so, you know, then we were like, “OK.” So some folks ran behind Rocky. But that was all completely improvised.
PF: This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber.
Today on The Statue, we’ll explore the city that’s home to the monument to Rocky Balboa. We’re going to take you to the neighborhoods where movie Rocky lived and trained. You’ll meet residents who are now actively fighting to keep their communities alive — and whose relationships with Rocky are complicated and profound.
MAO: My name is Michelle Angela Ortiz. And titles are usually visual artist, muralist, filmmaker, and an educator too. But I also see myself as a visual storyteller. I’m a child of immigrants. So we’ll start with that, ‘cause that’s a huge, huge influence.
PF: Michelle’s neighborhood has a big reputation.
MAO: People always like to just blurt out about the market, “And this is where Rocky ran. Rocky ran through these streets.” Right? And so it’s like this connection to Rocky, connection to the movie.
PF: Rocky is often known for being from South Philly. In pop culture, the neighborhood is also known for him.
MAO: And I always say, you know, we’re just so much more than that.
PF: Michelle knows the neighborhood as well as anyone. She’s a lifelong resident.
MAO: I live on the same block, right? So right across the street from where I was born and raised, I bought the house across the street.
And I’m literally, just, I would say, what, 25 foot steps away from the market. And that’s how close I am. Like, I can literally look out my door and check to see if a stand, a produce stand is open before I walk over to purchase any produce.
PF: Something about the market has always felt familiar for Michelle and her family. Even when it was thousands of miles from home.
MAO: The outdoor market was a place that really reminded my parents of home away from home. You know, my mother had early memories of her and my grandmother selling food at the outdoor markets in the plaza in Puerto Rico, even, you know, my grandfather, my father’s father, worked on the land. And so there’s all these things that really connect us to this place, to this place that felt really for them, really familiar in a city that they’re not necessarily from, but made their home.
PF: Michelle’s story isn’t unique. This neighborhood has changed a lot since Rocky’s time.
In the last few decades, countless immigrant families have found a new home in Philly’s famous 9th Street Market. It’s no longer the domain of just Italian families — but a place of commerce for Black, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Central and South American communities.
Michelle thinks that to love the neighborhood means more than just treating it as a place to shoot a highlight reel.
MAO: And what I say is that, if we’re a great place for movies, or if we’re a great place for tourism shots that you see when Phillies are fighting in the World Series, right? Then we should also be seen as a place where the city should be investing in small businesses and those produce vendors and finding ways to support, you know, comprehensive policies that help the market, which is struggling. So, you know, when I think about Rocky and the story behind that, it’s also just representative of, I feel like, the frustration of our people, our community, that we’re just not there for those like 15 minutes of filming, right? It’s like, there’s so much more value that we have, and we should be a place where we’re receiving those resources and investment from the city.
PF: Investing in the neighborhood has become a passion for Michelle. She founded an art project called Our Market. She hosts multi-lingual dinners with residents, and tries to identify concrete needs that the community can solve through public art.
Whether that’s custom lightboxes to keep the community safe at night. Or new hand-crafted produce stands to replace old ones. Michelle sees it as a way to keep the market vibrant, for generations to come.
MAO: It’s like having these like really physical, tangible representations of memory, because my concern is that if we don’t take the time to do that right now and to reflect on these stories, they can very easily be lost.
SYLVESTER STALLONE: I don’t know how many times I’m gonna get a chance to visit this place. So maybe this is the last time I sit here on the Rocky steps.
PF: That’s Sylvester Stallone on his Instagram page. This is five years ago, back during the filming of Creed 2. He goes back to the neighborhood where Rocky lived.
SS: Great memories. 1818. Pretty fantastic. Wow.
PF: He goes up and touches the address out front. 1818 East Tusculum Street. A brick, corner rowhome with a modest stoop. This house, where Rocky dreamt of becoming a champ, is not in South Philly.
It’s actually five miles north, in a neighborhood called Kensington.
SS: There’s just no end to Rocky. You keep punching.
PF: This is a big misconception from the series. Everyone seems to think Rocky is from South Philadelphia. Even the original screenplay says he lives in, quote, “the most deprived section of South Philly.”
But in reality, Rocky’s house, his local bar and pet shop, even his boxing gym… they’re all in Kensington. In many scenes, you can even read the street signs and recognize local landmarks.
The fact that this Oscar-winning film is actually set here, but that the neighborhood gets none of the credit — makes it feel like this place is an underdog, too. So we went to the heart of Kensington, to hear directly from people with a stake in the community.
ROSALIND PICHARDO: So we are at Susquehanna and Front Street at the old Rocky Gym.
PF: First, we visited the building that was once Mighty Mick’s Gym. It’s closed down. Across the street, Adrian’s old pet shop is a heap of rubble. Demolished, likely for redevelopment.
Our tour guide was a multi-generational Kensington resident. This is where she calls home.
RP: My name is Rosalind Pichardo, and founder of Operation Save Our City. I’m a harm reductionist, a community activist, and advocate here in Kensington.
PF: We spoke in fits and starts due to a local phenomenon.
MICHAEL OLCOTT, PRODUCER: What’s that sound?
RP: The El. That’s the train! Any time we’re outside and we’re having our meetings outside, we literally call that the Kensington pause.
PF: The Kensington pause, a time to stop and reset as the noisy El train goes rattling overhead. Every eight minutes or so, the train turns everyone to statues, until it passes by.
RP: Like it’s no need to try to talk over the train. You just pause and reflect on what’s happening at the moment. And then we just wait for the next train.
MICHAELA WINBERG, PRODUCER: I guess that’s what we’ll do.
RP: It’s a lot of pauses.
PF: In Rocky’s time, the neighborhood was an industrial hub. A working-class community with jobs and opportunities, which earned the city the reputation of “Workshop of the World.”
But decades of disinvestment have changed things. Families have lived here for generations, but now many are being priced out by a development boom. Those who remain are grappling with the concurrent emergencies of a billion-dollar opioid epidemic and higher rates of gun violence.
Roz was born and raised here.
RP: So here in this park, the Norris Square Park, my mom would let us come out for a couple of hours or whatever. And me and my twin sister, my brother, and older sister would come here and we would play hide and go seek.
PF: As warm as her childhood was in Kensington, she also experienced pain.
RP: I think, I mean, for me, experiencing the immense trauma, you know, losing my brother to murder, my boyfriend to murder. I’m a survivor of an attempted homicide. And then 2001, lost my twin sister to suicide. And then, you know, so all these layers of trauma, you know, it needs somewhere to go, right? You can wallow in it or you can do something about it.
PF: Kensington has a national reputation for being ground zero for the opioid epidemic.
NEWSCASTER: It’s broad daylight in Philadelphia, so it’s plain to see this heroin deal in the making.
PF: The neighborhood has been dominated by an open-air drug market, one that contributed to nearly 1,300 fatal overdoses in Philadelphia in 2021.
In response, Roz founded an organization called Operation Save Our City. It’s an outlet for her own trauma, and a desperate attempt to make her community safer. When she serves, she calls everyone her sunshine.
RP: I just started serving people out of my minivan, like snacks and, you know, giving them socks and clothes and like, the necessities they need for that day.
PF: Here she is giving out meals on a Kensington street corner.
RP: Hey guys, this is Roz. And I am here at the meal site. We have delicious lunches today if you guys want to come out and get some lunches.
PF: This is every day for Roz. Some days she’s up before dawn.
RP: Good morning everyone. It’s a bit early I know. It’s super, super early, I know. The sun’s not up or nothin’.
PF: All in the name of feeding her community.
RP: So I’m on my way to go to work to make bread pudding. We got a donation of all this bread. So now I’m up at the crack of dawn, for my sunshines to make bread pudding. I’m good with that.
PF: She doesn’t let a celebration pass her by, either. Last summer, she hosted an impromptu birthday party for a friend on the street. There was chocolate cake — enough to share.
[PEOPLE SINGING HAPPY BIRTHDAY]
PF: Roz also learned to administer Narcan, a fast-acting, life-saving nasal spray that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. She carries it on her at all times.
RP: And I’m probably 1,049 overdose reversals in, since 2018.
PF: That’s more than 1,000 overdoses that Roz has reversed, single-handedly. One thousand, forty-nine people, who were on death’s door, who she brought back to life with a spray from a tiny bottle.
How does she remember that number so precisely?
RP: I carry this small little Bible. And every time I reverse an overdose, I put in like a time, a location. No names, just time, location. How many Narcans it took to bring them back, whether they’re white or Black or Hispanic.
PF: Roz’s Bible serves the vital role of preserving memory. Like a personal, handheld monument to the people whose lives she has saved.
RP: So a lot of times people who’ve experienced a lot of trauma, I mean, and people don’t talk about this, and even outreach workers, frontline workers, there’s always a memory lapse. Those memory issues that a lot of us have because of the trauma that we’re seeing every day. You know, I face a lot of my issues head on and I’m not afraid to talk about it. So memory is one of them for me. Like I want to be able to remember who that person was, what they look like, what I experienced, and writing things down definitely helps.
PF: Fighting addiction is just one front of the battle in Kensington. There’s also a development boom that’s pricing longtime residents out of their community.
In Kensington, developers are swooping in, purchasing bundles of properties and flipping them, or raising the rent, forcing many residents out and making Roz’s community work more difficult.
RP: They don’t want the people who are unhoused and the people who are suffering from substance use disorder that visible in a corridor like that, you know, because it’s changing. I mean, everything is changing.
PF: Helping these struggling families is the daily focus of Adriana Abizadeh, executive director of the Kensington Corridor Trust.
ADRIANA ABIZADEH: I think it’s like, almost like the American story, right? Like, pull yourself up, figure it out. I will denote that, like, not everyone has the boots and the bootstraps.
PF: She explained to us how developers make the situation in Kensington worse.
AA: Purchasing these properties in Kensington and building up a portfolio. The kind of interesting thing I guess you could say about a lot of private developers and speculators is that they have time. So time is not as critical or essential for them as it would be, let’s say, for like a mom and pop who owns one building. They’re fine to wait 10 years for the property values to rise and then cash out, right? And so they’ve now held onto a property that could have been otherwise utilized and productive and potentially affordable. And it’s just kind of been sitting offline, because they were just waiting for it to increase in value.
NEWSCASTER: And when it comes to the housing market in our area, one thing is clear: it is pricing people out.
SECOND NEWSCASTER: So much so that researchers say the average income here may not be enough to support the average home price if it keeps climbing.
PF: When profits are the priority, affordability and quality of life fall by the wayside. Not that there’s anything new going on here.
AA: Yeah, it’s just, it’s super predatory. But besides that, you know, it’s also like the American way, if you would, right? Like it’s the system that we have had in place for a very, very long time.
PF: That’s why she works at the Kensington Corridor Trust. It’s a nonprofit that fights gentrification by buying land and using a collective financial structure, maintaining it at a manageable price for generations. That way, residents can use these properties as housing or retail space, and re-invest back into the neighborhood.
AA: Most folks in Kensington would tell you like they love their neighbors, and they love their house of worship, and they love being so close to the El, and like they’ve totally tuned out the seven-second pause, right? We call it the Kensington pause. The train goes by, everyone stops talking for a second. We take a pause, and we keep going.
The lived experience of folks here is a difficult one. And folks are navigating a lot of challenges, you know, by continuing to live inside of this neighborhood. But I think there’s also a lot of beauty here. And there’s a ton of community here.
PF: Through all of this, Adriana sees an overlap of Rocky’s story with Kensington’s.
AA: I think Rocky is just like the tough fight story, right? Like the person that folks didn’t expect to win, the underdog, if you would. Just like striving, and having grit, and constantly working at something, and setting goals, and pushing yourself. It feels like there’s a ton of alignment with that for Kensington, because I think you can’t give up.
PF: Just as it was for the struggling fighter, the only way out for Kensington is through.
AA: Like Kensington does not have the option to give up, because we will be failing an entire neighborhood. We’d be giving up on 32,000 people. That’s insane to think that anyone would do that.
PF: Roz sees a little bit of Rocky in herself, too, walking the same streets a half century later.
RP: And I know a lot of people. Like Rocky knew everybody, right? People would be yelling out the window, “Rocky!” And that’s kind of sometimes how I feel. When you show people compassion, empathy, love, and no judgment, and that’s how Rocky was.
PF: Rocky made the most of the chance to win a seemingly insurmountable fight. With the odds stacked against her, Roz is trying to do the same.
RP: Rocky was like, listen, I got one task and that’s to win this fight. And it’s kind of like that for me. I want to win the fight of reducing stigma, of practicing harm reduction, sharing harm reduction, teaching harm reduction. And when you’re in the community for that long, doing the work, and people know you, it’s like Rocky. Like I’m like Rocky’s little sister or something.
PF: Ever since she was a kid, Roz has internalized Rocky’s climb up the Art Museum steps, a few neighborhoods removed from Kensington.
RP: What I do remember is, when I watched Rocky, dreaming of going to the Rocky, to the Art Museum, to the, we call it, the Rocky steps. Going to the Art Museum, and running it. I just remember wanting to do that. And, like my family didn’t really, like, travel outside of North Philly very much.
PF: When she finally got the chance to run the steps herself, Roz says it was challenging — but meaningful.
RP: I just remember the first day I ran the steps and I was like, you know, like Rocky at the top and heavy breathing, probably about to pass out. But I remember just running and being so excited, like, “Man, I ran the Rocky steps.” And like, this is a real person. Like, this is a real guy from Philly, you know?
It’s one of those things where you like, good energy, good love, persevering, and just this sense of not giving up. I remember when I started working with families of homicide victims, I was like, man, these steps is like, so important. Like, everyone views these steps as awareness of overcoming, of, like, all of these good things of, like, doing something really good.
[SOUNDS OF OUTDOOR MEMORIAL SERVICE]
PF: Roz has organized memorials all over Philadelphia, like this one.
The feeling she had at the top of the Rocky steps, that connection to the underdog character, pushed her to help organize a vigil there, too.
RP: So it was a memorial. I want to say it was National Remembrance Day. And it was a lot of homicides that year, and it was a lot of unsolved cases. And I was doing a call out for families to bring their images.
PF: Roz set up a memorial for homicide victims, filling the steps with their memories. She created a place for their families and friends to gather, to mourn.
When it comes to the gun violence crisis, there’s no time for bronze or marble. This memorial was more personal.
RP: And I remember collecting, you know, all of these shoes and images of people who had passed on. And it took a couple of months, but I finally, I had got the steps completely filled with images and shoes of loved ones that passed on. I’m like, I really did something on these steps that means so much. That means like, you’ve accomplished something. That’s kind of like what Rocky did. You know, he overcame a lot of people who said he couldn’t, a lot of people have said he wouldn’t make it, a lot of people said he couldn’t finish, a lot of people said he couldn’t win.
PF: For Roz, the Rocky story turned a set of steps into a place fit for a vigil.
RP: It was a great feeling to get the steps filled, you know, with images. I didn’t want to leave anybody, like, behind. Because there’s times where people will have these events and they would like, not bring my brother, you know, I’m like, “Well, my brother was murdered too. Like, why isn’t he acknowledged?” So it’s like this sense of including everyone in this moment, because it’s a remembrance thing, you know? Don’t matter if the case is solved or unsolved, we always want our loved ones to be acknowledged, you know?
PF: And when Roz placed her brother’s photo on the steps, alongside so many others gone too soon, she felt like they had finally made it.
It’s not just Roz. In the shadow of the Rocky statue, this is the spot where, as a city, we mourn, parade, go on strike, protest, rise up. The steps are the ultimate people’s pedestal.
RP: It’s big. You can see every image on there. Like, you can’t, you can’t miss the image. You can’t. Everybody goes to the steps.
PF: To support Roz and the other advocates we interviewed in this episode, you can check out the links in our show notes.
Next time on The Statue, we’re headed to Rocky’s home away from home: Hollywood, the world capital of blurring art and life.
PF IN WAX MUSEUM: Are you allowed to touch the wax statues?
WAX MUSEUM EMPLOYEE: Not their faces.
PF IN WAX MUSEUM: Not their faces, but anything else?
PF: We track down the sculptor who created the Rocky statue, who says he didn’t just make a movie prop. He made an icon.
A. THOMAS SCHOMBERG: I was trying to create as much as anything Rocky Balboa, not just Sly Stallone.
PF: Then, we go behind the scenes to see the Rocky statue come to life on stage.
ROBERT SALVIA: Where am I tonight? I am at the Walnut Street Theatre, totally stoked up, ready for my man Rocky. We are ready to go.
PF: This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber. Our producers are Michael Olcott and Michaela Winberg. Our executive producers are Tom Grahsler and Paul Farber. Our engineer is Charlie Kaier.
Sound design and mixing by Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions. Rowhome’s executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers.
Marketing support is provided by The Podglomerate.
Our tile art was made by William Hodgson. Our theme song is a remix of Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now, created by Moqita, that’s Justin Geller and Billy Dufala. Special thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Grant Hill, Avi Wolfman-Arent, and the Monument Lab team especially Laurie Allen, Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, and Florie Hutchinson.
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects, and with in-kind support from Monument Lab. Find us wherever you get your podcasts.collapse
Executive Producers: Tom Grahsler, Paul Farber
Producers: Michael Olcott, Michaela Winberg
Engineer: Charlie Kaier
Sound Design and Mixing: Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions
Executive Producers, Rowhome Productions: Alex Lewis, John Myers
Tile Art: William Hodgson
Theme Song: Justin Geller and Billy Dufala of Moqita
Special Thanks to Kayla Watkins, Grant Hill, Avi Wolfman-Arent & Gabriel Coffey
Special Thanks to the Monument Lab team including Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, Laurie Allen and Florie Hutchinson.
Gonna’ Fly Now by Bill Conti, courtesy of Sony Music
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects and with in-kind support from Monument Lab.collapse
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