by JR Kilroy
Travel writing piece about Philadelphia's Fairmount region.
|The Divine Lorraine Hotel stands like a towering ghost on North Broad Street. It is a beautiful building that has become a shell of its former glorious self. The building has been slowly ravaged by the wearing of time: windows are broken, a chain link fence separates it from the general population, and the whole edifice has become a canvas for spray-painting vandals. The looming reminder of the neighborhood’s degradation may deter some travelers from straying from Broad and exploring the rest of Fairmount Avenue, although beyond the run down beginning lies an oasis of culture.
Fairmount Ave is a beautiful region that has been attracting many young professionals as of late. There are hip little coffee shops and bars. There are some very nice restaurants, many of which has outdoor seating. There seems to be a rare mixture of history and modernism throughout the region. The major historical sites include The Divine Lorraine, Eastern State Penitentiary and the Philadelphia Art Museum which all claim Fairmount Ave as their home. But much like the stars that make up Orion’s belt, these three weathered landmarks are indicators of a greater entity; something beautiful and overlooked.
The street begins much like many others around the city. 15th to 20th streets are predominantly housing, though they start to look newer and nicer with every passing block. It is right around 20th street that Fairmount Ave really becomes ‘Fairmount’. The neighborhood used to house some of the nastiest criminals—from horse thieves to bank robbers—at Eastern State Penitentiary. Nowadays the prison is a landmark and major tourist attraction, especially around Halloween. The sidewalk at 22nd street runs along the walls of the penitentiary and the only glimpse a passerby will see is through the large metal front gate, which looks into the courtyard. While this peek into history might give some people the willies, the grotesque zombies that patrol the sidewalk growling at people could potentially scare others.
The “Terror Behind the Walls” haunted house hosted at Eastern State is the number one haunted attraction in America according to its website. Some of the horror enthusiasts will muster up their courage a block up at the London Grill bar and restaurant. The London Grill uses its proximity to the prison in conjunction with their creative bartenders to sell eight different “Potent Potions” the most popular being “True Blood”. These mixed drinks are served in long plastic tubes to align with the Halloween theme.
Fairmount is much less terrifying during the day, however. The sunlight turns ghosts and ghouls back into the shadows, and greets the numerous places to get coffee or brunch. OCF coffee house—located right across form the Penitentiary—is one such example. Large windows facing across Fairmount offer a great view of the prison during the morning glow. Artfully crafted lattes, delicious pastries and bagels: this is the sort of place you can just sit and read the whole Sunday paper. Luckily, there is plenty of space to do so, inside or out.
Coffee is a great weekend attraction to this hidden gem of the city, but Fairmount houses an ample supply of food as well. A little further down from OCF is Jack’s Firehouse. A renovated fire station, the restaurant is another prime example of turning history into luxury. The menu is extensive and decadent, and Jack’s is another example of a spacious restaurant with an impeccable view of Eastern State. Sitting outside with complimentary cornbread with homemade butter and buttermilk biscuits with homemade cherry preserve across from the ivy-swept walls is pleasant enough in itself, but it only gets better when the meal actually comes.
Jack’s Firehouse is a great place to spend your morning, but there are many other restaurants to compete. Fare (American/seafood), Zorba’s (Greek), Rybread (breakfast, coffee), and La Calaca Feliz (Mexican) are just a few to be listed. Fairmount cannot go on forever though; all good things must come to an end. After 26th street, Fairmount becomes recognizable to the average Philadelphian. Fairmount Ave pours into Kelly Drive, which leads you along the world famous Boathouse Row. Cross the street and stumble into the shadow of The Philadelphia Museum of Art. One might even be tempted to run up Rocky’s staircase.
The Fairmount region has much more to offer than many might assume. From world-class art to world-class frights, there is something to do no matter what your interests are. History has left its mark on our nation’s former capital, and that includes some scarring. While the beautifully constructed hotel has been left to die surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Broad Street, the infamous prison is turning the surrounding neighborhood into an affluent hotspot. With such a focus on the up-and-coming regions like Manayunk and Northern Liberties, Fairmount has been developing itself into a place that the likes of Al Capone might actually want to visit. Intentionally.