April 08, 2021
Philadelphia prides itself on an influential history and ethos that combine to give it one of the nation's most distinctive urban cultures, an identity that perfectly brings together gravity and levity.
Take the easy example of Gritty: Philly is probably the only place where such a weird monstrosity could ascend to mythological proportions and resonate beyond the city as a global ambassador. The vague notion of "Philadelphia being Philadelphia" is really the only explanation for his larger-than-life existence, and yet that's somehow more than enough for Gritty to make perfect sense.
A fun meme making the rounds on social media this week utilizes the template of an iceberg to illustrate the old tip-of-the-iceberg idiom. Each tier deeper below the surface takes a closer look at the arcana of Philadelphia, from historical events to seemingly random happenings and people who have become part of the local lore.
The idea of the meme is basically that the part of the iceberg above the water – aka the tip – consists of things most people know about and associate with Philadelphia. As one descends lower, each tier is stocked with people, places and events that only more seasoned Philadelphians would recognize. (Note: The embedded image from Reddit below was later updated to correct typos and include a few important omissions).
Credit for this thorough depiction goes to Cameron Jones, a writer and illustrator who moved to Philadelphia from Tampa, Florida about five years ago. His meme has sparked a healthy debate and discussion in the comments to his post on the Philadelphia subreddit and local Facebook groups.
Consider the example of the ODB McDonald's in Grays Ferry — third tier out of seven — where the late Wu Tang Clan rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard was arrested in 2000. ODB was a fugitive at the time, having escaped from a court-ordered stint at a drug treatment facility in California. He was ducking the law and had brazenly popped up at a concert in New York City one week before a Philadelphia police officer happened to recognize him in the drive-thru lane at the McDonald's at 29 Grays Ferry Ave.
As hyped as the arrest became locally, surviving Wu Tang member Masta Killa told PhillyVoice in a 2019 interview that he had forgotten ODB's arrest happened in Philly.
On the Philadelphia subreddit, Jones commented, "I don't fully understand why people make such a big deal of it, but it's legendary for some reason."
"You could say that about pretty much every Philly 'thing' lol," another user replied.
It's strangely true: Philly always knows a "thing" when it sees it, logic be damned.
I personally stashed away this photo I took in 2018 while going to work at 5:30 a.m. on the El, a few months after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII. It was too funny to pass up the moment that this sleeping, woke Birds bro — a complete stranger — had gifted me. It felt like one of the most Philly things I had ever seen in my life. Or maybe I was just tired.
As you work your way through these tiers, you'll probably find quite a few entries that you've never encountered before. In some cases, an entry is specific to a certain part of the city that residents in other neighborhoods might not know about.
Penn Christmas, in tier three, for example, refers to University of Pennsylvania students moving out of their dorms and apartments each spring, leaving freebies to claim from the sidewalk.
Jones told PhillyVoice on Thursday that he was inspired to give Philly an iceberg meme after coming across another one that was made in 2016 for Rochester, New York. (That's another weird place, and if "garbage plates" pops into your mind, like it did for me, then congrats on being a normie in that city's top tier).
As Jones began developing his list for Philly, he shared rough drafts on local Facebook groups and on Reddit to get feedback and suggestions from others.
There's humor in the effort, but there's also educational value and a wish to satisfy historical curiosity.
"It was never intended as a joke, actually," Jones told PhillyVoice on Thursday. "I was genuinely trying to document Philly esoterica and sort of what I think a lot people know versus what I think they should learn more about."
Jones, 30, said he found creating the tiers especially hard for him because he's not originally from the city. In the absence of an opinion poll, he relied a lot on what people in Philadelphia seem to commonly discuss, whether in person, online or in the media. That's what gave him a rough sense of organization.
"The top layer, the sky, is basically like, 'I've seen Philly on TV,'" Jones said. "The second layer, with the iceberg, is things you could maybe learn by spending a long weekend. The first tier below the water line is if you lived here for a little bit and have an interest in learning local history – maybe you'd pick those things up in the first few months."
Everything past the third tier is knowledge that would belong to people who have lived in Philadelphia for a while and have an intense interest in learning about it, both culturally and historically.
Quite a few entries seem to be a byproduct of our interconnected online communities, where people from across the city and region can give things broader exposure and spin a sharable tale about them.
The question of what makes a local "thing" a "thing" is still mysterious, though.
"I don't really know what makes almost random things like that memetic," Jones said.
The ODB McDonald's entry is a great example of something that falls into a category of its own. By most accounts, the actual fast-food restaurant at 29th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue is nothing special, to put it kindly.
And yet, some Philadelphia residents have petitioned for a historical marker to be placed there.
"The ODB McDonald's occupies a sort of different tier than almost all of the others," Jones said. "The vast majority are major historical events or historical figures or places, or what they call 'horseback Jesuses,' the kind of local character that everyone sees about. ODB McDonald's just doesn't seem to fit neatly into any category. Maybe it's the association with the famous person and the notoriety that comes with it."
For contrast's sake, a few months before ODB's arrest in Philly, the entire boy band NSYNC made an appearance for a press event at the same McDonald's in Grays Ferry. About 1,500 fans showed up to the event — a summer tour announcement that was not supposed to be open to the public — and yet basically nobody ever talks about this anymore or even remembers it happening.
Why? It just wasn't really a "thing" in the same way ODB getting busted was, for whatever reason.
As you make your way through the seven tiers of the Philly iceberg meme, you'll come across many entries that have been covered in the media at various points, so finding answers to things you don't recognize shouldn't be overly difficult in most cases. You can take a look at PhillyVoice's coverage of some entries using the links below:
• Swiss cheese pervert
• Toynbee tiles
• Cave of Kelpius
• Elmo drumline
• Fairmount Park cherry blossoms
• Mummers blackface controversy
• Spanish Flu parade
• Furnace Party
• Washington Square mass grave
• Vent Man
• Jim Stix
• Philly Jesus
• Veterans Stadium courtroom
• Octavius Catto
• MOVE bombing
• First Legionnaire's outbreak
• Frankford Slasher
Below, we've taken a selection of the more obscure items and provided brief explanations about them.
• Harriet Cole was a Black woman who served on the custodial staff at Hahnemann University Hospital in the 1880s. When she died at 35 years old, anatomist Dr. Rufus B. Weaver claimed to have meticulously extracted and reconstructed her entire nervous system, photos of which are now widely shared in medical texts. Little is known about Cole, who is said to have donated her body to science.
• Omar Lahayne was an eccentric resident of West Philadelphia's Spruce Hill neighborhood, a man seemingly everyone in the area encountered beginning in the early 2000s. He was a mysterious figure known for a mix of good deeds and sometimes unwelcome interaction. He died by suicide in 2017 and the neighborhood held a vigil for him.
• The Walking Treaty of 1737, sometimes called the Walking Purchase, was a deceptive land agreement made by the sons of William Penn and Thomas Logan to obtain more territory from Native Americans for settlement in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The deal with the Delaware Indians (the Lenapes and Munsees) was based on an agreement that the settlers could buy and inhabit as much land as a man could walk in a day.
What the Delaware Indians didn't know was that the land had been scouted by the colonists in advance and a path cleared to ensure that they would go further — about 60 miles — than the boundary of the Tohicken Creek that had been expected. Tensions over the trickery were a contributing factor in the onset of the Seven Years War from 1756-1763. In 1682, William Penn had signed the Treaty of Shackamixon with the Lenapes to agree on perpetual peace. Sachimaucheen Ing, seen in the bottom tier, was the Lenape name for what is now Philadelphia in the Lenapehoking, the lands they historically inhabited.
• Grip the raven was a pet of English novelist Charles Dickens. The bird, who appeared in Dickens' lesser-known novel "Barnaby Rudge," died in 1841. The book was reviewed by then-literary critic Edgar Allen Poe, who based his breakout narrative poem "The Raven" on Grip. Dickens had Grip preserved using taxidermy, and because of Poe's ties to Philadelphia, the preserved bird was given to the Free Library, which displays Grip in its Rare Books Department.
• Along the banks of the Delaware River, tombstones bolster the foundation of the Betsy Ross Bridge and run along the riverbanks. The headstones were once part of the Monument Cemetery, whose property was condemned by the city and given to Temple University to be converted into a parking lot. Though the human remains were moved to other marked locations or mass burial sites, the limestone and granite grave markers were used as a bulwark for the bridge.
Undoubtedly, there are countless other examples that would resonate with enough Philadelphia residents to land on a tier somewhere. What about the famed Silk City Dancer near 5th and Spring Garden? Or Rocco's Italian Sausages, the little shack outside Home Depot in South Philly?
Spotted lanternflies? Top tier? Anywhere? I asked about them, and Jones was dismissive. They're insecta non grata.
The whole iceberg concept provides an interesting exercise to think about and wonder — how many of our experiences in Philly warrant a place on one of these tiers?
At PhillyVoice's old office at the corner of 15th and Walnut streets, there was a man who belted out popular songs every afternoon each winter, for months on end. He was much more of a spirited singer than he was a good one. As time wore on, he became the soundtrack to work if we didn't wear headphones.
One day, at home, on a weekend, I realized that this man's rendition of "Hallelujah" had found its way into my head and gotten stuck there, randomly. I didn't know whether to be haunted or impressed with the guy. If the iceberg meme had any space below the ocean floor, I'd put him in his crooning glory down there.