Friday, August 18, 2006



My trip to Bridesburg began with the unfortunate realization that the SEPTA subway revolving doors – the ones with the big, interlocking metal bars – aren’t meant for people and bikes. To successfully navigate through the passage, I had to flip the bike up on one end and shuffle my feet until I was clear of the door – it probably looked a little like I was making an awkward attempt to mate with the bike.

I hopped onto Orthodox Street and pedaled through an African-American neighborhood in Kensington. Orthodox is one of only four ways in or out of Bridesburg; Route 95, the Betsy Ross Bridge, and the Delaware pretty much cordon off the neighborhood from the rest of the city, meaning that it doesn’t get a ton of through traffic. This, I suspect, is all well and good with most of the locals.

Bridesburg was more or less a name picked out of a hat as the first field trip for the site. I ran across the name sorting through the list of Philly neighborhoods, and recognized it as the “thank God, we’re almost home” stop on the SEPTA line from Trenton and New York. It’s relatively crime-free, relatively small, and has a distinct, traceable history.

I am totally indebted to Tony J., who runs the website, for almost everything I know about the ‘burg. I won’t get too deeply into the history of the place; some really awesome historical work has been done here and here. For most of the century, it’s been a heavily Polish (with some Irish and German sprinkled in) working community with strong historical ties to the river and to the industry that’s dotted the riverbanks since the early 19th century. Tony was nice enough to play tour guide for about half of the trip, and told me about his summers working at the Rohm & Haas plant off of Bridge Street. When the plant was operating at full capacity earlier in the 20th Century, it employed over 3,200 people; by the time Tony worked there a couple decades ago, numbers had dwindled into the 700s.

One of the first things that strikes your eye when you get through the I-95 underpass into Bridesburg: American flags everywhere. In Center City, you’d have to poke around for a while to find one block with a flag on display; I counted over 100 on one randomly selected block of Bridesburg alone.

Signs of military affiliation are ubiquitous, and the neighborhood is home to the second oldest VFW post in America. The VFW was founded in 1899, after the Spanish American War, and you can imagine that the sons of the neighborhood headed out to every major conflict of the last 100 years. Obviously, a sense of community has built around this fact, and you see yellow-ribbon “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS – COME HOME SAFE” on so many houses. To risk stating the obvious: wars are different when it’s personal rather than just political.

We jumped in Tony's minivan and headed over to the Harmonia Club, one of the clubs that has functioned as a social hub for Bridesburg for decades. Apparently, membership in these clubs - the Polonia and the Point-No Point Clubs are two others - had been on the wane in years past, but there's been a movement to revitalize them for a newer generation. The activities at the Harmonia Club have diversified; they serve great crabs for dinner many nights of the week, and a bowling league starts up in the winter.

There were only a few guys around when we came in (it was, after all, 2 PM on a Saturday), but the place looked pretty nice - sort of a combination of a bar and a church dining hall. After a beer, we headed downstairs to check out the two-lane alley, and I bowled a frame - a spare, no less - in my beat-up sneakers. Beats the hell out of a $40/hour lane (with a $5 beer to boot) at Strikes. We went back to the bar for a few minutes, and had a friendly argument about the Phillies, the Eagles, and the upcoming smoking ban in Philadelphia. For the record, Tony says the Eagles are going 10-6. Now that this is on the internet, he's got no way to take it back.

Tony had to head out, and was nice enough to drop me back at my chained-up bike. I rode around the neighborhood a little bit longer - I tried to get a good shot of the Betsy Ross Bridge, but public waterfront access in Bridesburg really isn't there, unfortunately. In a community with such heavy ties to the river, it's really a shame that you have to leave the neighborhood to get to it.

I commented to Tony that for the most part, the neighborhood has about 90% of everything you'd really need - bars, a few places for food, hardware, produce, drug stores, schools, a travel agency (specializing in trips to - where else - Poland), and more bars. Tony then told me that a number of places had moved out of Bridesburg in the last few years; in particular, a lot of bars have closed down since he was younger. Now, Bridesburg has about 30 blocks, and at least 7 or 8 places to have a drink - my hometown of 40,000 people has about 3. Another pertinent fact: the price of my pint of Yuengling at Ozzie's Tavern was $1.60. Well done, Bridesburg.

Walking around, things are busy and quiet at the same time, if that makes any sense. Apparently, after a few years of decline, people are moving back into the neighborhood; new houses are being built, and prices, like everywhere else in Philly, are headed through the roof. Bridesburg has a bit of a bad rap for being an entirely lily-white neighborhood, and while it's pretty homogenous, I did see more black and Hispanic families than I was expecting to. With the construction of over a thousand homes down by the river on the horizon, the neighborhood's set to continue expanding in the near future. It'll be interesting to see how Bridesburg evolves when it takes in a couple thousand newcomers.

A random observation to end with: half of the houses seem to have really sweet inflatable pools in their back yards, and, in some cases, their front yards. Nice.

More pictures:
Row houses near the Betsy Ross Bridge on-ramp.

The baseball field for the Cougars, a popular local sports club.

The elaborate gatehouse to Holy Redeemer Cemetery, the largest graveyard in the neighborhood. Really cool building.

Renzi's Pizzeria, where I had the finest cheesesteak hoagie to ever give me a severe case of heartburn.

Plunkett's Place, home of the 10-foot TV. Open 365 days a year. I know where I'm spending Christmas.

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