A city laid bare

Alon Abramson
Favorite Spot: Belmont Plateau
Neighborhood: Fairmount Park West
Address: 2000 Belmont Mansion Dr, Philadelphia, PA 19131

I Am: All about ways to create more livable and equitable cities. I’ve expressed this passion by starting a running club, getting involved in local non-profits and trying to promote a sustainable future in Philadelphia.
Years in Philly: 8
Current Home: Cedar Park

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My Love Note 

The first step in getting involved in a city should be discovering your place there and learning to love something about it. My love for Philly is inseparable from running. I moved here in 2006. That seems important to tell you, as if the time I’ve spent here, running here, lends me some legitimacy to talk to you about running in Philly. Truthfully, every day I go out running feels a lot like those first days. Yes, I have acquired some street smarts when running in the city. I’m hyper-vigilant at intersections, basically assuming that a car is going to do its best to hit me. Yet, the running itself has stayed the same, a stress-releasing means of exploring my city and making it my own.

Whenever I try to express what running means to me, I am reminded of a Radiolab episode titled Cities. The episode begins with a tale of a country kid who moves to NYC, and finds himself completely overwhelmed with the experience. In fact, he hates it. That is, he hates it until he finds a way to center himself in the giant shifting seas of the city. He does this by coming up to the roof of his building and seeing the city calmed by a dense fog, no longer so massive, and suddenly completely coherent.

This was me at the top of Belmont Plateau for the first time. The green expanse of Fairmount Park gives way to an uninterrupted view of the skyline, the city laid bare. I just ran here, from my house. This is how I came to center myself. Whether my runs take me through Cobbs Creek Park, over the Ben Franklin Bridge, to the Navy Yard, or along Frankford Creek, that view of the skyline reminds me of where I am.

Once centered, I started to own pieces of this city with every new place I ran through. When I run, I’m an invisible observer of my city, a ghost forgotten by the people I pass almost as quickly as I disappear from view. I’ve gotten a broad, hard look at this city and its people. Some of it is challenging to see, but at times I think I can see the things that connect every citizen of the city. I’ve seen kids running through sprinklers in Rittenhouse Square, Kensington, Society Hill, and Strawberry Mansion. I’ve seen people on stoops, on porches, on roof decks, at block parties, at corner stores, talking to friends and neighbors, smiling, laughing. I’ve seen fights, shouting, shooting victims rolled into ambulances, scorn, fear. What I’ve seen has taught me to appreciate this city, warts and all.

Then three years ago, I decided it would be cool to start a running group in West Philly, which we creatively named West Philly Runners. We make our way through the good and the so-called “bad” neighborhoods west of the Schuylkill and regroup for some beers after. We run across the invisible divides that segregate us from neighbors and, in that way, we come to understand where we live. For me, this is one of the primary reasons to run, along with the meditative cleansing, the runner’s high, the sense of accomplishment, the camaraderie, and the beers at the end. Oh, and to stay in shape, too.

Part of what makes Philly’s running scene so special is that at its core, it’s made up of a few people with cool ideas that rally the hordes behind them. Don’t believe me? Rebecca Schafer saw a humorous Philly Mag article that showed what Rocky would have actually ran in Rocky II’s training montage: over 30 miles. She thought, “we should actually run that” and organized a “Fat Ass” run (unofficial, unsanctioned, unsupported) and started spreading the word. More than 300 runners turned out on a freezing morning in December to take part. The race was featured on the Wall Street Journal.

After the devastating Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Ryan Callahan, Marketing Director of Philadelphia Runner, sent an email to the running leaders in Philly to help him gather runners for a solidarity run. A few days later, over a thousand runners from every part of the city congregated at City Hall. The plan was to run as a group to Independence Mall and then disband, but with such short notice, no one was able to coordinate the road closures along Market Street. But when we emerged from the City Hall courtyard onto Market we found police officers posted at every intersection holding traffic for us. That kinship, that unexpected support is what Philly is all about and why I love to run this town.

*This essay was originally published on the Young Involved Philly blog.

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