A Midwest Girl with South Philly Roots

South Philly resident, Meera, can be described as a modern-day Renaissance woman of sorts: she has a degree in French and speaks German, Spanish and even some Croatian; she designs and makes her own clothing; and she’s a culinary daredevil unafraid to try exotic ingredients.
As we sat sipping our beverages of choice at Grindcore House (a vegan coffee shop) in the Pennsport section of South Philly, Meera shared her thoughts on relocating to Philly, on her eclectic neighborhood, and why her new favorite cooking ingredient is salmon belly.

Meera wearing a dress that she designed
Meera wearing a dress that she designed

Meera moved to Philadelphia four years ago from Iowa City. When I asked her why she chose Philadelphia she said, “I was looking for diversity. I wanted to move somewhere on the East Coast, and Philly had lots of libraries, art, and music.” She has been living in the City of Brotherly Love for four years now.

A Serendipitous Relocation

Her first apartment in Philly was on 10th and Porter. When she gave her mother her new address on Porter Street, her mother recognized the location. “I think your great-grandparents used to live in that area,” she said. Meera’s mother is the genealogy guru of  the family, as well as a master knitter, author and blogger. She referenced her family-tree research, and found an old postcard with the Porter Street address on it.

“I think they lived around 5th or 6th and Porter. There was a synagogue nearby,” Meera said. She recalled an old family story about one of her relatives who was in the Russian mafia and died in a shoot out with the police near Girard Avenue. I was amazed at the twist of fate that would have Meera living in the same neighborhood as her great-grandparents decades ago.

Meera has also lived on 10th and Tasker as well as 9th and Oregon. Now she is settled in the Pennsport section and enjoying her new neighborhood, which she described as cute. “We have trees. You can feel the nearby river in the air, and we have a park, a grocery store, a pool, and a bunch of libraries that are super close to me.  I like my neighbors, I like my house. It’s kind of perfect.”

Midwest Memories

I wondered how growing up in Iowa (and Minnesota) compared to her experience in Philadelphia and she reflected on the natural setting of her past. “I had a big backyard, I could go wherever I wanted on my bike. I lived by the Mississippi River in Minnesota, so I’d ride along the river to a bridge, cross over into Minneapolis and try to get lost.” She’d often hike by the river, visit the sandstone caves and even get a view of a waterfall.

I assumed she missed that part of her life. “I do,” she said, “but I guess there are ways to fulfill that.  You can take your bike on a train outside of town, go to a different park outside the neighborhood, I love Girard Park.”

When she returns to her old stomping grounds in the Midwest she has complicated feelings. “It makes me sad to see the changes, it makes me sad to see what hasn’t changed.” She sighed. “I’m such a sucker for nostalgia.”photo

The Winter of Our Discontent

We began talking about the change of seasons and I asked what Meera thought about winters here in Philly. She’d been here for three winters so far. “The first one was nothing,” she shrugged. (The second one she spent in New Orleans with friends,) “…and last winter sucked,” she said. “We didn’t have a shovel for a couple of weeks and we had to jump over the hump of snow on our stoop because it was horrendous.”

Luckily, she didn’t have to park a car in that horrendous snow. Meera bikes everywhere and is comfortable traveling on two wheels throughout the city. “At least the city is fairly well lit at night,” she said. “Philly is pretty bike-able.”

When I told her that I don’t think I have the guts or the skill to bike around the city, she said, “Driving would be so frustrating with the parking…”

She had a point there.

Summer in the City

I asked Meera if she planned on attending some of the many festivals that take place in the city. She nodded but said she prefers what she calls “impromptu festivals” (crashing people’s block parties.) “I love that there’s a pick up baseball game in every field that you ride past. The other night on 4th and Washington, there was a nighttime kids soccer game, all these parents and kids in their uniforms. I love to see that happen.”

Meera has traveled to the shore, but she calls it the beach. “I know that’s a give away to call it the beach. Anytime someone wants to drive to the beach, I say ‘yes, please! I’ll bring cherries!’”

Utopia in South Philly

I asked Meera if she had a sense of the ethnic make up of her neighborhood. She said, “A good mix of all kinds of ethnicities. Old townies, new townies, old immigrants, new immigrants.” I mentioned that it kind of sounds ideal. “Who would have thought?” She smiled. “Utopia in South Philly!”

RibbonDress_MeeraGessnerMeera mentioned that she loves to cook and to try new ingredients. “I try to get something new when I go to the Asian store so I’ve had some really weird things, but some of them are delicious. I love salmon belly. It’s really cheap. It’s the bacon of salmon, full of salmon oil, rich and ridiculous. I like dried seasoned anchovies, and weird stuff like that.”          I asked if the locals had encouraged her to try any Philadelphia staples, scrapple, perhaps? She nodded. “People made a big deal out of making me eat that,” she said, unfazed. “It’s fine.”

I asked if she was surprised by any of the Philly vernacular. She’s heard the typical Yous, Yous guys, and yuz, wudder (for water), and hoagie. When she mentioned the word, jawn even I had never heard of that one. Meera clarified it for me. “It’s like, ‘Hand me that jawn, that thingamajig.’”

She added, “People say the word anymore for things they still do, not things they don’t do anymore.” This is so true!

She was perplexed by the term water ice when she first heard it. “What is that?” she asked, rhetorically. “A glass of water with ice?” She’d grown up calling it Italian Ice. I asked if she’d tried a gelato yet. “No,” she said. “I like ice cream, and I like water ice, and I don’t really care to mix them up.”

Besides the difference in vernacular, Meera noticed that people from Philly and the East Coast in general are more straightforward than in the Midwest. “There, you have to read between the lines to hear the thing behind what they’re saying.” Her parents are originally from the East Coast, so in the past, when her family was at a restaurant, she’d think her father was being rude to the waitress, “but he was actually just being straightforward, he’s actually not being Midwestern.”

I was curious about Meera’s thoughts regarding the physical changes in her neighborhood. “There are some row houses being remodeled, they put in a community garden on the corner and a cement patio space next to it,” she said. “They also did a huge clean up by a small pier by the river. I feel like they’re starting to pay attention to this area and really gentrify it. I’m not necessarily thrilled by it…they’re taking care of it from afar, but not looking at what’s actually going on. From over here it looks like, ‘That’s a mess, we have to do this to it,’ but they’re not like ‘how is this effecting the dynamics of the neighborhood? How do the people use the space presently?'”

It seemed like Meera was growing attached to Philly. “I had a great time [for one winter] in New Orleans,” she said, “but I was very happy that I was coming back to Philly in the spring. As much as I think I have to get closer to nature, I want to live in Africa, Mexico, Israel, I’m also, like, I’m going to miss Philly.”

I asked if Philadelphia was what she had expected it to be. “I don’t think I had any real expectations except for that it’s going to be different and I’m going to love it.” She smiled. “And it was, and I did.” Then, more pensively, “…On the other hand, people are just people.”

I was glad that Meera took the time to speak with me about South Philly and I hope she remains one of its residents for years to come!