The Gritty Sincerity of Philly

Posted on
Oct 23, 2013

Self-portrait, Magic Gardens, Philadelphia.

We spent a week in Philadelphia, and halfway through our trip someone asked me what I thought of it.

We were in a neighborhood bar, dark and cozy, the breed of which sadly does not exist in my town. Everyone knew everyone by name, and no one seemed to give a damn about tabs or checks or crafted cocktails.

“I like it,” I said, pausing to come up with the right words. “It has this sort of … gritty sincerity.”

She stared at me for a beat, and I was worried I’d offended her with my description of her hometown. I was about to explain that I meant it in a complimentary way, but before I could, she spoke.

“Oh, man,” she said. “I love that.”

Perhaps the phrases that we ourselves coin shouldn’t stick in our own heads (because, really, we shouldn’t be fans of our own cleverness, right?), but this one did. It followed me throughout Philadelphia, as I hopped on and off subways and buses, and wandered from museums to parks to old prisons.

Gritty sincerity.

Something else stuck in my head, too. This time it wasn’t my own – ahem – brilliance, but a comment someone made after seeing my photos from Eastern State Penitentiary.

“There is so much TEXTURE there,” she wrote.

Texture. Such a good word. After hearing that, I could focusing on nothing else in the penitentiary.

After I left the prison, I fixated on it still – the texture of Philadelphia.


It was worn, and beautiful, and so, so real.

Trials and hardships and history, etched on the face of the city.

The gritty sincerity of Philly. The texture of the town. I liked it all so very, very much.


Leave a Comment

  • Posts like this are what I love about this blog. You have such a great way of conveying the feel of a place! And your photographs are the perfect accompaniment. I’ve never been to Philadelphia, but I can guarantee I’ll recall this post if I ever make it there.

  • Amy

    I love the idea of ‘gritty sincerity’ and the way your photographs capture something beautiful in what other people might consider an ugly and rundown place. I come from an industrial town in England that is generally portrayed as ugly and poor; it always frustrates me that people overlook the positive aspects and don’t bother to look for the flashes of beauty that can be found everywhere, if you’re willing to look beyond the obvious.

  • Sometimes we’re more gritty than sincere–and vice versa.

  • I love how this is such a micro-representation of Philly but it captures the soul so well 🙂

  • Beth

    Absolutely perfect description!

  • Mike N.

    Was just there (for the first time) at roughly the same time and your description is perfect. BTW, hope you had a chance to check out some of the murals in Philly. It started as a program 30 years ago to combat graffiti and morphed into a revitalization/education program that is quite incredible. Now 3500 murals, created by locals to reclaim buildings, lots and neighborhoods.

  • It’s nice that your friend got to hear such a interesting opinion about her city from an outsider. I feel like it’s always tempting to ask people what they think of your city but usually the answer is either a total cliché or something you didn’t really want to hear. Love the photos!

  • Anne Marie

    Gritty sincerity. That’s just lovely.

  • Deb

    Elegant economy of words in that phrase. Images reflect it perfectly.

  • Yay for texture!

  • You nailed it. With the phrase and the photos. Nice work. Glad you “got it” — not everyone does. ESP is one of my favorite spots here, but I never think to take the macro or textural shots. Love the perspective on those.

  • This post is exactly why I have a problem with Bart Blatstein, Eric Blumenfeld, and Steven Starr. They are erasing the very thing they are trying to capitalize on, leaving Philadelphia confused in the dust of their failures. Thanks for visiting, you are welcome here 🙂

  • Those are actually some very gorgeous photos. I would love to see that. Brings a lot of character to Philly. The last time I was there, we just kind of went around and looked at the major landmarks.

  • Emy

    Love these types of photos! I take photos like this wherever I am and when I post them people always comment “ew, what is that?!” I’m glad someone else gets it!

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