Beyond Philadelphia’s historic center lies a constellation of neighborhoods that have become hubs of diversity and creativity. Meet the new generation behind the city’s urban renaissance.
It became embarrassing, our dependency on Perla, a Filipino BYOB in the East Passyunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. We took everyone there: friends visiting from out of town, my husband’s colleagues from work. We started to worry that our guests would compare notes, realize we didn’t eat anywhere else, and suspect that we were only saying yes to get-togethers as an excuse to go to Perla again.
We would go to the restaurant Wednesdays or Sundays, when its signature kamayan feasts were held. A server would cover our table with banana leaves, then lay down a base of garlic-fried rice. That was topped with pork belly, a whole fried fish, vegetables, and coconut sauce. We would all start picking away at our respective corners of the pile with our hands. It was so tactile and intimate. I couldn’t have known that, in a matter of months, I would become nostalgic for small tables packed with people sharing a communal meal, not to mention the bear hugs we got from the manager each time we visited.
In August, I went back to East Passyunk after months of being largely confined to my apartment in West Philly. I was nervous about returning. The city’s restaurants have been hit hard by the pandemic, and the neighborhood, a new culinary hub, had become reliant on the hospitality industry.
First, I stopped by Essen, a four-year-old Jewish bakery a few blocks from Perla. I’d lost track of the times I had popped into this tiny storefront in a converted row house for a slice of apple cake before heading to A Novel Idea, my favorite bookstore in the area. This time I found that Essen had turned its front window into a counter. As a huge loaf of chocolate babka was handed to me through a little opening, I remembered an article I had just read about “wine windows” in Tuscany, first invented in the 1600s during a plague and now making a comeback. Maybe there was still room for whimsy in the summer of 2020.
Walking past row houses built in the early 20th century to cater to working-class immigrants from Italy and Ireland, I found it easy to forget that I was in the middle of a booming restaurant district. Named after its main artery, East Passyunk Avenue, the neighborhood used to be known for its red-sauce Italian joints, elaborate Christmas-light displays, and shops that sold school uniforms. It has since become more diverse, welcoming immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia—as well as their cuisines.
“What I love about East Passyunk is that people make an effort to support local businesses,” Tova du Plessis, the South African owner of Essen, told me. “They’ll get their bread from me instead of from a big chain market. It’s the reason we’ve survived.” Indeed, there has long been a sense in this neighborhood that everyone is in it together. This is why Nick Elmi chose the area as the location of his first venture, the modern French restaurant Laurel, and the adjacent cocktail lounge, In the Valley. “We’re all pretty tightly knit,” he told me. “We borrow stuff like chives from each other all the time.”
That sense of interdependence has become a central facet of Philadelphia’s revival. In recent years, young chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs have flocked to the city’s more affordable enclaves—East Passyunk, Bella Vista, and the Kensington-Fishtown area—and thrived through collaboration. I became a part of this city’s creative community in 2018, when, thanks to cheap rents, I was able to leave an academic position in Ohio and return to my hometown to pursue writing full-time. I joined Blue Stoop, a local organization for writers, which has recently helped to lead a fundraising campaign for indie bookstores and small presses affected by the pandemic. Its beneficiaries have included A Novel Idea and, in Fishtown, Harriett’s Bookshop, which specializes in books by Black women.
No place better embodies Philly’s new energy than the Bok Building, a mixed-use space in East Passyunk. Bok was built as a vocational high school by the federal Public Works Administration during the Great Depression. The school was closed by the city in 2013 and lay dormant until Lindsey Scannapieco, a young local developer who had worked on London’s Olympic Village, bought it. Scannapieco had the idea to convert the school into a creative space for artists and small-business owners.
When I first heard about Bok, I had my reservations. The repurposed building got bad press in 2015 with the opening of a rooftop pop-up bar, Le Bok Fin, its name a riff on the city’s legendary French fine dining establishment Le Bec-Fin. The bar became a poster child for gentrification. But people came around when they realized that Le Bok Fin was just one part of the whole, and that the building would primarily cater to up-and-coming artists and indie brands.
Bok is now home to more than 140 vendors, including furniture makers, jewelry designers, skin-care companies, and artists’ studios. The roof now has a permanent tenant: Bok Bar, which has stunning views of the city. On my first visit, I was a little tripped out—the hallways are still lined with lockers, and some of the stores are in rooms that have the original chalkboards. But eventually you get over any qualms about going to a school to have drinks.