It was an icy Sunday afternoon as I made my way through the remnants of the weekend snowstorm to a little neighborhood (or should say, Gayborhood) in the heart of Center City. Formally recognized as Midtown Village, the area is situated between 11th Street and S. Broad Street and extends from Chestnut St. all the way down to Pine. Its quaint, narrow streets are lined door-to-door with charming shops, cozy eateries, and distinct bars and nightclubs whose mere presence attests to the sparkling local nightlife that attracts the largely LGBTQIA community inhabiting the area. It’s one of my favorite places to go because there’s just so much fun to be had all within one small area, not to mention there’s a palpable presence of diversity amongst the people and the businesses. It’s also easy to get around, especially for non-natives, and the shop owners are some of the most friendly that I have ever encountered. From Arcadia and other areas outside of the city, the journey might seem long, confusing and arduous, but hopefully my experience will open many of you up to the idea of hopping on a train and exploring one of Philly’s most exciting neighborhoods.
I began my half-hour long trek from my home within the suburbs of Havertown. Boarding the Market-Frankford Line (or “the El” as it’s known to locals) from 69th Street Transportation Center, I rode the partially subterranean train until I reached 13th and Market. Emerging from the dark and dank depths, I was greeted with a biting gust of wind and the sights and sounds of bustling urban activity along the sidewalk. I allowed myself a moment to take in my surroundings; my eyes were drawn to the modern window displays of each business, their exterior surprisingly complementary to the building’s Georgian architecture. As I strolled down the cobblestone street, I made a mental note of places that I wanted to stop by later in the day. Though my wallet was aching to be relieved of its contents, my inner shopaholic would just have to wait. I was on quest to satisfy my growing appetite. After all, you couldn’t have expected me to go shopping on an empty stomach?
There are lots of familiar food chains around if you’re looking to grab a quick bite to eat: from the ever-popular Starbucks to the reasonably priced Chipotle. For more authentic Mexican cuisine, the richly decorated El Vez on S. 13th Street is definitely the place to go, but be mindful that it’s almost always jam-packed and loud with music and energetic conversation. If you wish to experience Italian dining at its finest, I recommend trying Zavino, which is actually right across the street from El Vez. Although the portions are small for their price, the unrivaled flavor of each dish more than makes up for this! Everything is made from scratch with only the freshest of ingredients. As far as aesthetics go, the restaurant is dim, austere and intimate. The owners are gracious towards their customers, always asking them if they’re satisfied with their meal. For first timers, I suggest ordering the Veal and Ricotta Meatballs, Gnocchi, and brick-oven Polpettini Pizza. On the whole, Zavino a great place to treat a special friend or a date!
My destination, however, wasn’t any of these places. Being the foodie that I am, I decided to push my luck and try someplace new. Never did I suspect that I would find another fabulous Italian restaurant that specializes in their beef, chicken, veal, and veggie meatballs. Marabella Meatball Co. on 12th and Walnut might seem like a hole in the wall at first glance, but don’t let its size and minimalist menu dissuade you. I ordered a Traditional Classic Sandwich: four beef meatballs in marinara on a six inch white roll topped with melted provolone. The entire meal, plus a San Pellegrino Limonata, cost me less than $10.00 and I can honestly say that it was worth every penny. With each steaming bite, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia as I remembered the days when I used to roll meatballs and make gravy with my late grandmother as a child. Those memories along with the warmth and savory taste of the sandwich made my voyage into town that much more worthwhile despite the frigid weather. After complimenting the chef, I left with a feeling of intense satisfaction and a desire to explore every nook and cranny of Midtown Village in search of other hidden surprises.
After browsing Verde, one of six businesses in the neighborhood owned by entrepreneurs Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney (a Mexican place called Lolita and Marcie Blaine, an artisan chocolate company in the back of the aforementioned boutique, just to name a few), my next formal stop was Duross & Langel on S. 13th Street. My reason for patronizing this beauty supply gift shop was to run an errand more than anything; I had used up the handmade soaps that I’d purchased on my last visit! Upon opening the door, I was hit with a wave of natural scents wafting from every corner of the shop, some of which were unusual and others with which I was already familiar. The cashier gave me a smile and offered her assistance should I have any questions or needs. I nodded shyly in acknowledgment, more eager to sniff out new soaps than I probably should have been.
While I was reading some of the bold labels stuck to each hand-packaged product, a couple of them immediately caught my interest: cannabis lip balm, PMS soak (a cure for cramps at last? – le gasp!), fizzy bath balls, and … cupcake toothpaste? It sounds almost too bizarre to be true, but there’s a wide selection of unconventional health and beauty products available at Duross & Langel. This isn’t your Bath & Body Works, so you can wager that you or a friend will find something there that you’ve never thought to try or have even heard of before. Sounds like the perfect place to buy someone a one-of-a-kind gift, am I right?
So, after what I believe was a half hour of just pressing my nose onto multi-colored soap bars, I had made my choices. I purchased half-sized bars of sea salt scrub, lemonade, strawberry seed, and violet, opting out of anything too left field for now. The total cost was just under twenty dollars, making each bar around $5.00 each when weighed on a scale. A bit pricey, but totally worth it in my opinion! I mean, where else can you find fudge soap made with real Hershey cocoa? Or procure aroma-therapeutic bars made with essential oils designed to cure whatever ailment you might be plagued with? I know that if I had the money, I would definitely invest into some stress relief soap bars for all of Arcadia – God knows the entire student and faculty body needs it.
By my estimate, I hadn’t quite burned a large enough hole in my pocket, so I ventured further into Midtown Village, stopping in Ten Thousand Villages on 11th and Walnut to check out some handcrafted jewelry, accessories and home décor from around the world. In hindsight, I can say that I’ve never felt bad about spending money in this store because I know it goes towards fairly paying the artisans in other countries who’ve crafted their products. In brief: yet another great place to buy gifts and interesting creations and knick-knacks for your dorm room or home.
By four o’clock, the bone-chilling temperature was starting to really get to me, so I went on the hunt for a place to get hot chocolate (no, not coffee – I’m trying to lay off the caffeine, if you must know). Luckily, I remembered that there was a café on S. 12th Street that I passed earlier in the afternoon. Upon seeing it again, I remembered that there had been another coffee shop in the same location a few years ago by the name Brew Ha Ha!, but I had never had the opportunity to go at the time. Peering into the lofty windows of Café Twelve, I observed a fairly sizable amount of people just lounging at round tables with their laptops or reclining in armchairs with a book – very classy and down to earth! As I approached the glass counter, I began to internally drool over the sight of chocolate muffins, butter croissants, baguette sandwiches, turnovers, and desserts of all kinds. The line was short and my affable barista quickly brewed my hot chocolate, topping it with whipped cream and sending me on my way.
A few sips of my heated drink and I was in love. Call me an easy person to satisfy, but it everything about it was just right. The authentic chocolate flavor, the temperature, even the size of the cup – my expectations had been met. My only complaint was the organization of the seating in the back room of the coffeehouse. It was cramped and I had chosen to momentarily sit in the only seat available; a rather sunken-in leather chair placed awkwardly in the narrow aisle facing the main counter in the coffeehouse. If you’re not a fan of staring at people’s asses, don’t sit there. I imagine that once the seasons change, the seating is more spread out when the front windows are opened and the tables moved outside. I’ll have to return when this happens – and of course, bring friends!
Around five o’clock, I was itching to explore one last place before I made my way back home in time for dinner. To be honest, I was all out of ideas. I had visited practically every place that piqued my curiosity and could only think of one shop that was a few blocks outside of Midtown Village. “Was this cheating? Should I include a place slightly outside of the neighborhood?” I asked myself. After much inner debate, I came to the resolution that exposing my fellow anonymous shopaholics at Arcadia to a cute store was definitely more of a priority. That being said, I walked to 16th and Pine St. to a little place called Omoi. Within relative distance is the Avenue of the Arts on South Broad St., so if you’re taking the subway the Lombard-South stop is where you would get off. It’s not an especially long walk from City Hall either, and you simply can’t miss the bright yellow sign with bold black lettering.
It was my friend Cathleen who introduced me to this store, which specializes in their imported goods from Japan (as well as other countries in Asia and Europe). The shop’s name “想い” translates roughly to “thoughts and ideas”, a phrase that wonderfully embodies the overall cheerful impression of the store and the types of products that they carry, many of which appear quirky at first glance, but also serve a practical purpose. Multi-colored stationary and pretty notebooks, animal tea sets and decorative chopsticks, bento lunch boxes, clothing, books about Japan, pouches and functional book bags, mini cameras, trendy watches, fragrances – the list is endless. I think I must have circled the store five times while I was there, each time noticing something new. The woman at the register was very kind and offered to let me try on the watches that I was eyeing in the display case. When I asked her for the price and she happily told me, the color from my face drained. I had forgotten that Omoi can be very expensive, so be prepared to spend at least thirty dollars if you plan on buying any accessories or clothing.
During my last visit, I remember picking up a copy of KERA magazine, a teen street fashion and lolita magazine in Japan. Every couple of months, Omoi subscribes to magazines overseas and has them shipped to the store to sell, converting their cheap price from yen to US dollars. They normally sit in a rack on a table and I often flip through them, albeit not being able to understand a single word. To me, just being able to get my hands on a Japanese fashion magazine is way cool in and of itself! This time around though, many of the magazines were dedicated to men’s fashion, so I wasn’t very interested. With my growing collection of chopsticks in mind, I purchased two sets of the utensils: one with a pineapple theme and one with a cat theme. As I suspected, they made a great addition to the rest of them. On my next visit, I am determined to buy an adorable bento box to pack lunches on the go. If you appreciate one-of-a-kind objects, this is definitely the store for you!
With numb fingers, arms weighed down with bags, and tired feet, I ended the day after what I consider to be an enlightening experience. Not only did my love for my hometown renew itself in the span of a single day, but I also grew to appreciate the strength and value of urban communities and small businesses, which expose people to diverse and honest ways of life and provide unique goods and services. Little things like being able to taste a hundred year-old meatball recipe and buy handcrafted soaps and pottery from foreign countries truly make me recognize what a privilege it is to live in a city where there’s a harmonious blend of cultures, lifestyles, hopes and dreams. As I boarded the El train home, it almost seemed as if I was leaving one separate space and entering another, as I knew that elsewhere I would never find another neighborhood quite like the Gayborhood.
View larger map
Duross and Langel
117 S. 13th St Philadelphia, PA
Verde and Marcie Blaine
108 S. 13th St Philadelphia, PA
Ten Thousand Villages
1122 Walnut St Philadelphia, PA
Omoi Zakka Shop
1608 Pine St Philadelphia, PA
Marabella Meatball Co.
1211 Walnut St Philadelphia, PA
112 S. 13th St Philadelphia, PA
121 S. 13th St Philadelphia, PA
212 S. 12th St Philadelphia, PA
For more photos of Alixe’s trip, visit Loco Mag’s Flickr account!