On Third Street, it's revenge of the nerds
America's first nerd, Benjamin Franklin, had to cross North Third (a.k.a. N3RD) Street several times a day on his way to and from his rented rooms on the south side of the 300 block of Market Street to his print shop on the corner of Second and Market, where a SEPTA subway entrance stands today.
Young Franklin would have marveled at the notion of an underground railroad powered by the same mystery of electricity that he would begin to unravel just a few years later.
And he would probably be intrigued, amused, baffled, and delighted by what has become of North Third Street in his adopted city, where curious young men and women - not entirely unlike Franklin in 1727 - are competing and cooperating to make Philadelphia and the world a better place.
Years ago, such people were condemned as nerds - the uncool smart kids, the ones with slide rules and pocket protectors and shortwave radios in their basements because, well, they knew what the rest of us didn't:
Cool is what cool does.
In March, the City of Philadelphia proclaimed that the blocks of North Third between Market and Girard Avenue will henceforth enjoy the designation N3RD Street - pronounced Nerd Street. Start-up Internet, design, and software firms have been proliferating along the corridor, from Center City through Northern Liberties, since 1996.
It was Dan Harvith and John Fazio of Jarvus Innovations, a software development company in Northern Liberties, who first noticed the coincidence of street name and commerce. It started out as a private joke among the techie community congregated there, but the possibilities became irresistible.
"It was Danny who took the lead" on introducing the idea to city officials, said Alex Hillman, one of the founders of Indy Hall, a cooperative of freelance techies founded as Independents Hall in 2007.
Indy Hall was an idea without a home in its first year. Freelancers would gather at WiFi-equipped bars and coffee shops to share and learn together, taking a break from their solitary home offices. Now as many as 50 independent techies gather daily around keyboards and monitors to do their own thing while sharing their workdays with like-minded people at 22 N. Third. Someday, one of them might rule the world - or save it.
The location is inspirational, being a short walk from the tavern meeting places and homes of the 18th-century "leather apron club" of young Philadelphia tradesmen organized by the 21-year-old Franklin. They called their group the Junto, and at weekly meetings after a hard day's work, they sought common ground on ways to improve the city.
Junto members who insisted on arguing for argument's sake were fined or, as Franklin described it, "prohibited under small pecuniary penalties."
"Our debates were to be ... conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory," Franklin wrote in his autobiography.
In other words, it was just like Congress today.
Those Junto conversations resulted in the organization of America's first volunteer fire companies, lending library, and hospital.
Does that set the bar high enough for Philly's 21st-century nerdlings?
Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have turned insults into boasts before. The city and state were of course founded by Quakers, whose own founder, George Fox, was repeatedly imprisoned in England.
A judge apparently coined the word Quaker as an insult to mock Fox's advice that he "tremble at the word of the Lord." Members of the Religious Society of Friends ultimately responded by calling themselves Quakers.
In a less weighty case of a disarmed insult, after the Pittsburgh Alleghenys of the National League were called brigands and thieves for stealing players from other teams, they decided to call themselves the Pirates.
And after the players on Philadelphia's 1967 expansion franchise of the NHL were called bullies, the Flyers answered by winning back-to-back Stanley Cups and celebrating the insult heard round the world, from Broad Street to the Soviet Union.
So go ahead, make our day and call us nerds.