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The Small Street

You turn the corner and walk into the small street, and everything changes. You are only, then, a few steps in from the wide, bustling multilane road – and you are still, of course, in the city, in the very center of its downtown area – and, yet, you are immediately in a place apart … or, perhaps, actually at the core of the silent but insistently beating heart that truly propels a city. It is the beat that you can feel, if you try, under the quotidian rumble and buzz. The quiet places, not the teeming boulevards, are what make great cities great; what soothes a soul is not the lively place you’re in but knowing that there’s a hushed place where  you can go.

There is something about a small city street. It is, elementally, little different from its larger siblings: cement and asphalt, brick and wood and glass, buildings and path. And, in an old city like this, built without plan: one kind of house cheek to jowl with one so unlike it, sometimes in gross ways, sometimes subtle. Constructed by different people at different times, with different desires and different ideas about what a city should be and what a street ought to contain.

No city can be great without great little streets. Metropolises that have decimated the twisty, ancient parts of their downtowns to build superblocks, cities that have been designed or refashioned with the automobile in mind, suburbs that were devised with car-rivers but no pedestrian tributaries – all these have traded humanity for expedience, and made life more barren, and certainly less stimulating. Each large gesture needs a small one to be seen as such, and vice versa; one without the other creates an imbalance.

For example, this little street you have just entered. It is one block long – an entry at one end, a dead end at the other, with high rises jutting up and above a short distance beyond. Houses line one side; garage doors and the backs of houses from an adjacent street make up the other. Not one house looks like the other, and not one of them dates back to the time in the 1800s when this street was laid out – so, it is not history, per se, that gives this street, with its poking-up cobblestones, its strong sense of place. Two of the houses are Modernist – one inexplicably, idiosyncratically and beautifully so – another is a latterly reimagined carriage house; there are only 4 or 5 residences on this street. Each house was planned, but as a collective there was no overriding plan or aesthetic. Intention and accident, artfulness and artlessness, cognizance of neighbor yet selfishness of taste and vision, disparate elements creating a totality that is somehow unified in its distinct placeness — that is what art is.

You can never remember this little street’s name, if you ever knew it, and sometimes you can’t recall how to find your way here, but you can’t forget how it makes you feel when you find it: private and public, privileged and interloping, inwardly reflective yet outwardly attuned, explorer and castaway. City dweller, at least for the moment.

Then you walk back to the busy byway, put 100 feet or so between you and that little street, and as it begins to slip into the past … oh, look: another one. Let’s enter this place, too, and see who we are in it.

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Filed under Philly-centric, Small & Great