On a Friday afternoon in winter, the Market-Frankford El rolls into the 8th Street Station, the screech of metal-on-metal rising then fading as the car slows. A dozen-or-so travelers on the platform look up in unison, stepping forward and clutching the straps of their bags and packs. A balmy wave of marijuana crests.
I’ve never ridden the El before. That was painfully obvious when I tried to buy a token from the man at the token booth. My plan was to ride out to 69th Street then all the way back to toward Center City, past Eighth and Market again, and up to Frankford.
I’m most familiar with the line from driving beneath it, under its shadow, when my dad would show us the house he grew up in at Kensington and Allegheny. The El’s trusses looked to me like a blue centipede, frozen in place over the city.
The smell of weed in public still shocks me, but no one looks around for the source or seems to care all that much as the doors open at 8th Street Station. The El is definitely not the PATCO High-Speed Line that sometimes takes me from suburbia to the city.
Down in the dark, beneath sidewalks and the muddy Schuylkill, the El rises electric and alive above us, filled with the city’s marrow. Doctors in scrubs. Students shouldering backpacks. Sleeping addicts. Children with noses pressed against smeared windows. Reporters riding for the first time.
SEPTA’s busiest rail line sees them all.
In a growing Philadelphia, the El truly keeps neighborhoods from growing fallow. Census data has shown that to be true, the Philadelphia Media Network and Billy Penn found, with neighborhoods in and around the El growing at 1.5 percent, a rate surpassing recent annual growth rates for most American big cities.
The El leaves the Frankford station traveling south on its steel backbone painted what SEPTA calls "East End Elevated blue." It dives down again after the Ben Franklin Bridge, bending in Old City, then shooting nearly straight west for six miles, gathering passengers from one neighborhood and distributing them like seeds in another.
Reflections of ourselves
Underground, train windows reflect back like black mirrors. The work week ending, shoulders sag and faces look drawn. The subterranean reflection, occasionally lit up by passing, grimy light bulbs, isn’t helping.
There are vast, surface-level differences between the two dozen people in this car, picture proof of how public transportation is a pot that still boils. They are white and black, Asian and Hispanic, young, old, and in-between, some seasoned and at ease, eyes closed and heads bobbing to the tunes in their earbuds.
Some riders rest their foreheads on the cool glass. Others eat shrimp fried rice from Styrofoam containers and drop greasy napkins to the floor. A man taps his fingers on a briefcase perched on his lap. He wears a wedding ring, stares dead ahead.
Other riders look alert. Their eyes dart and they sit mostly in silence, route maps clutched in their hands. Children sit silent beside them, bundled in puffy winter jackets and they have to ask more than once before the adults hear their questions.
Mostly, passengers’ eyes are locked on their phones or a book. Riders have brief meditations on the state of their shoes or go deeper down into mini naps, interrupted by each stop’s lurch.
11th Street. 13th Street. 15th Street. 30 Street. 34th Street. 40th Street.
People get off and on. There’s no eye contact.
The El rises slowly after 40th Street, out into West Philly and on top of Market Street and the transition feels like more like a sunrise than a light switch. People pick their heads up again at the unfolding city.
Suddenly, there’s so much to see. This is like an amusement park ride everyone’s grown bored of, but most people still look outside.
The stately, Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. building rises near-empty off to the right. The building had been slated to become the new police headquarters. To the left, there’s a massive satellite antenna on the roof of the Enterprise Center.
Dormered windows, some square and others pointed and boarded-up, are nearly at eye level atop third-floor roofs. These random houses and apartments interest me the most, not for their architecture but simply their age, for what they’ve seen in their decades. All houses are haunted in a way, I think as they pass. The trees here are plentiful and tough, some twisting right through walls.
Some duplexes have been cleaved clean in half and the remainders are well-kept with turreted windows. On the open walls facing lots and grass, Stephen Powers’ simple and bold typeface murals pop.
“See me (Beautiful) like I see you,” at Farston and Market.
“This love is real so dinner is on me,” near the bustling 52nd Street station.
The way back
At the western terminus, the 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby is dull and yellow, both majestic and grimy inside and adorned with National Guard banners. A man sits on the floor, selling flowers. Jehovah’s Witnesses stand in pairs selling a message.
I take lots of pictures to help remember the scene.
“Look at his ass, taking pictures,” a woman comments.
When enough riders fill up the seats for the El’s eastern trek back to Center City, announcements echo out over the stairs and brick walls above the platform. These cars have plush seats and the walls are venues for personal-injury lawyers’ solicitations.
Back over Market Street, at the 52nd Street station, teens leap onto the car before the doors close, breathing heavily with bulky backpacks sagging on their shoulders. They dig into little brown bags and pull out sodas and energy drinks, debating which flavor of Doritos trumps the others. (My kids love the purple ones.)
“Why you need an energy drink?” one teen asks. “You 'bout to be sweating like crazy.”
A man asks for change. Everyone ignores him, including me, and he shuffles up the line.
Graffiti, not murals
The El goes down again and emerges by the Ben Franklin Bridge, filling all the windows with blue. New construction in Fishtown and Northern Liberties spreads out on both sides.
The El feels wedged on its eastward journey, between homes and streets, a rambling mass that must rattle windows when it veers right from Front Street to Kensington Avenue.
Up here, there's more graffiti and tags than murals.
A man rides backward, dozing with mouth open wide. He makes me tired. The train’s tempo jostles his head. Heat blows from air ducts, pulling in the smell of Chinese takeout, blending it with a woman’s perfume. She checks her makeup in the glass partitions by the doors.
Up the train, a little boy asks a woman a whole bunch of questions.
Does she have a refrigerator?
Does she have steak?
He asks too many questions, she teases — and, that quickly, he’s bored. He looks out a window, spelling out a station as it slows into view over Frankford Avenue.
“M-a-r-g-a-r-e-t,” the boy says.
The Frankford Transportation Center, the end of El’s northeastern route, is dimmer and more cramped than 69th Street.
The same Jehovah’s Witnesses are there.
Men with speckled paint on their jeans hustle through the main hall, bounding up the escalator toward the waiting lifeline.