There are lots of reasons I bike. It's good exercise. It's cheap, foreign-oil-independent transportation. And there's no schedule; you're never waiting on the corner for your bike to show up.
But the other day, while pedaling into parts unknown, I was reminded of the best reason. There's just no better way to get out and see a city. Like, really see a big chunk. I think exploring is something akin to civic duty when you live in a large metropolitan area like ours. If you care about a city, you owe it to that city and to yourself to experience it live, in the flesh. And sometimes you see some really amazing stuff.
I've got a few regular courses I ride with friends. There's the FDR Park loop that returns up under the 25th Street trestle. The Tour De Kensington. The Pennypack Park long haul.
The one I've been doing a lot lately branches off from the not-uncommon Kelly Drive route and, veering away from the Schuylkill, gets into the guts of the city. From Kelly it takes you up Sedgley Drive, across Girard, onto 33rd and up to Oxford where you make a left onto Reservoir Drive and into Fairmount Park. You cruise a bit, around softball fields and barbecues until you come across a weirdly placed amphitheater, the Robin Hood at Dell East, in the middle of what appears to be a transformation to all-lawn-seating.
After flying down a steep decline you make a hard right onto the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, a span that provides — especially early in the morning or a bit before dusk — a breathtaking view of the river. It's traversed regularly by cars, bikes and, as evidenced by the souvenirs on the wooden sidewalk, horses.
Over the bridge a bit, up some winding hills, you hit a road called Chaminoux Drive where you'll pass the least-expected dozen tennis courts in the city. You wheel around a little bit more, then end up on Parkside Avenue between Wynnfield and Monument where there's a stretch of, no lie, ridiculously regal stone houses with huge, manicured lawns and shrubs, and stone walkways.
Follow Parkside a bit farther and the houses disappear until you find on your left a handful of basketball courts where, late last week, a well-attended street game was happening. Here you'll find a tiny pocket of Parkside neighborhood that seems practically strangled by the city around it; it's closed off to the south and west by railroad tracks, to the north by the butt end of the Mann Center and to the east by the long-promised retail monolith Park West Town Center.
I find this kind of stuff fascinating. There are tiny streets here that, best as I can tell, exist nowhere else in the city. A two-block stretch of Heston Street. A wee block and a half of the aristocratically appointed Monticello Street. And there's a North Aberdeen with no south complement. It's not a particularly pretty, or scenic, area, though it's hoped that the new shopping center will help. And it's not on the way to anywhere. I feel lucky to have found it.
And where, perchance, am I going with all of this? I don't think this wayward journey into parts unexpected is so different from Natalie Hope McDonald's story about photography-obsessed Philadelphians who use the photo-sharing site Flickr to hunt down fresh takes on the city.
Firing up your browser and popping "Philadelphia" into a search box may not, in general, be particularly mind-expanding, but spend a minute or an hour exploring the city through the eyes of its amateur photographers, you'll find at least one take, nook or perspective you've never seen or considered.
It's why in September we'll be launching a new photo feature in these pages that we'll be calling, simply, photostream. We've set up a pool on Flickr and we'll be inviting photographers to submit their photos of the city. We'll cull the best and run them online, and choose one to run each week in the physical paper — with the photographer's credit, of course. See citypaper.net/photostream for details. Now get out there and find something you've never seen.