by Emily Wexler
Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Notes from invited artists and community members consider place via the street, sound, food, trees, and other portals.
Choreographer and dancer Emily Wexler on the fantasy of South Street.
If hope has a cavity between the vision of its tissue and the matter of its disappointment, it would eat at Downey’s Restaurant on South Street and live in a West Philly house at 49th and Pine.
When I was in middle school, my Mom would drive my sisters and I to South Street to absorb its alternative culture and shop. We bought neon flower patches for our book-bags and records that were not available at Sam Goody in the Deptford Mall. We bought stars for our ceilings and radical fiction at the used bookstore. My older sister always returned with some beautiful and minorly shocking piercings. I would walk down the street proudly wearing my Tori Amos T-shirt, purchased at her concert at the Tower Theater during the Boys For Pele tour, portraying her breastfeeding a pig while sitting on an old rocker on a porch. South Street was filled with stores and businesses catering to the exploits and weird desires materializing from uncomfortable angst while proclaiming, through its consumptive disguise, that the commodification of sleek post-punk mall culture could line itself up all in a row. And so it did. I felt hopeful as I walked down the street with my sisters and friends that on the other side of the river from South Jersey was the potential to become something and someone beyond the skin of the intentional norms asphyxiating themselves in and around our constructed identities.
The street offered, though through commerce, an opening of availability for belonging within a world where the soulful interior swelling within, could be honored, by its geography of otherly possibility stretching across an economically burgeoning street that overlooked the Delaware River. It felt deeply cool, and the politics of the cool demand a twist of queer invention that, through unfixed consequence, structures hope.
At the end of the street, near the parking lot where my Mom paid for parking, is Downey’s Restaurant. Looking in the windows as we would pass it on our way onto the street and off of it, I would see teenage couples and young adults drinking beer and laughing sweetly. They seemed to be drinking one another in with the same desire that was overwhelming my entire self. Much of my heart’s unrequited suffering necessitated elaborate dreams mattered with narratives specifically described inside my brain with very detailed and exact people, places, and things. Usually it included only one excruciatingly sought after person with rotating places, while wearing rotating things.
I have never walked into Downey’s Restaurant and probably never will. But I dreamed of it for years and years and years as the place I would go when I finally found someone who would fall in love with every terribly flawed and vulnerable thing about me. This possibly sounds dumb, quite privileged in its own blinding way, but it was very real and miserably felt. It still is. I longed for it so much that this contrived first date at this random Irish Pub where I faithfully looked inside the windows at other people; people on real dates, people who were allowed to be loved, who ate food together, who adoringly stared dumbstruck at one another with every inch of their beings, served as a locater for ultimate worth. Or at least that is how I saw them. My dream date would be my dream life and it would happen as soon as I found my one true love. The closer I got to South Street the more likely it seemed to transform the fantasy into actuality. Downey’s Restaurant could happen if only I micro-imagined its architecture enough. If I could learn of its doorway and seating arrangements and bathrooms. If I could imagine how our waitress would look and what would be on the menu, then I could furnish my heart with all of the sights and smells of an actual reciprocated devotion. My first date. So stupid but so sincere.
When I was 20 I decided I wanted to move to Queen Village after I graduated college with my then boyfriend. I did a similar thing as I had done with Downey’s where I picked random apartments and constructed sadly hopeful narratives as a tactic to justify the poverty of fair relations complexly poisoning that very destructive relationship. When I was 24 we moved to Powelton Village and despite our eagerness to rightly adore one another, humiliated instead, our neighbors would disrupt our domestic disputes. Conveniently we were located close to the VA Hospital which enabled the occasional hospital visit to be easier. We hurt one another as much as we loved. Mostly we hurt. It was so far removed from my walks on South Street and I believed if I could landscape my brain with its resolve, than Downey’s Restaurant could be procured.
When I was 26 we moved to our final apartment together at 49th and Pine on the other side of West Philly. It was a beautiful apartment with stained glass windows and Victorian doors that we decorated for each holiday and season, buying fresh vegetables from the market at Clark Park on Saturdays. But place means nothing whatsoever if the genealogy of the people that have, and do inhabit it, experience it by way of a common assemblage of outdated norms such as patriarchy, which is so littered with the abusive politics of the personal, the politics of pain, that a perfect beauty once sought as a means of honorable care and the truest of true loves, falls away without its stupid feathers. The same methods denoting value in my daydreams when I was a earnest 13-year-old girl, became damaging consequence in its manifestation. Philadelphia didn’t do this but it is a place where it happens and happens often.
When I think of memory and place in regards to Philly, I effortfully try to make the sparks that crackle from my own chronology evaporate from my consciousness. Yet, nostalgically and out of regional loyalty, I must admit that Philly is Philly. If it is anything, it is resilient and wishful and righteously true. It is tough and it is cool. Its fierceness is endlessly apart of my heart’s mathematics. It is literally mapped in a grid and even if that grid can be meanly crooked, it is the integrity of hope that, like my own, aspires to irrepressibility.
Emily Wexler is a Brooklyn based choreographer, dancer, writer, and teacher of experimental dance composition. Her work is devoted to finding ways to help people feel wild and free. She teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. www.emilywexlerdance.com