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Monday, 6 February 2006


By Richard Carreño
I'm told they're calling the neighborhood south of South Street, between Broad and the Schuylkill, 'SoSo.' That's 'South of South.' Yes, I suppose I do know that's old news. But it's good news that keeps on giving. The name is cheeky, upbeat, and a tad New York-ish.

SoSo's spot-on sobriquet isn't the norm. Not in Philly. Never in the course of naming neighborhoods has any city been as afflicted as Philadelphia, burdened as it is with so many vulgar, ugly, and down-market neighborhood names.

Where else but in Philadelphia would residents settle for such deadbeat names as 'Nicetown' (jeez, is that for real) and Brewerytown. O.K. There were breweries in the hood (north of Girard Avenue) in the early 20th century. But why not get down and dirty, and just call the place 'Boozetown'? That has a true Philly Liberty Bell ring to it.

Then there are names -- in no special order -- that are just boring. What excuse for imagination went into naming West Philly, or North Philly, for that matter. At least the cops got the Western thing going when they nicknamed parts of bad-ass North Philly (boring!) 'The Badlands.'

And try repetitive. Even Boston has a Chestnut Hill. We need one, too? And how come, by the bye, we have a Chinatown. But no 'Little Italy'? Did they run of 'Little Italies' when they came around to South Philly?

Don't you love Old City, once 'Olde,' pronounced 'Oldie' City? By the way, ain't this whole bloomin' city 'oldie', er, old? Of course, my personal favorite is 'Fishtown,' a patch along the Delaware noted for young thugs. What was this place? A neighborhood of fishmongers? A neighborhood, per chance, of anglers?

In the same vein, there's 'Germantown.' I can picture the PR firm's pitch. This goes back I bit, of course. 'Listen up, mein herren,' the PR guy declares. 'No more Indian names. Indians don't like things named after them, like sports teams and stuff. But we have to find a way to keep the ethnic flavor of this multicultural, diverse neighborhood alive. By Jove, I've got it. You guys are German, right, like in Bavarian. Let's see. This a town, right. That's it! Germantown!'

Give that guy the hook.

Other names are simple unpronounceable tongue-twisters, at least for Philly newcomers who aren't blessed with a fluency in the Lenape language. It took me five years after moving here to figure 'Wissahickon,' and 'Wissinoming.' Even 'Manayunk' tried me for a while. Now, of course, I speak Lenape like a native, er, I mean, 'Native American.'

Not all of Philadelphia's neighborhood names are so pathetic. There's 'Paradise,' at Hunting Park and Ridge avenues. But did I miss that memo? Which part of paradise are we exactly speaking about? There's Strawberry Mansion. Check. Anyone for tenements and weeds? Even Society Hill isn't what it's cracked up to be. It was named for original settlers in 1681, the Free Society of Traders. And you though the name had something to do with the Richardson Dilworth's posh '400.'

Actually, some neighborhood nomenclature is posh, if you're thinking that naming places after those in London is a way of goosing your market value. This list is almost endless. There's Mayfair, Richmond (and Port Richmond), Harrowgate, Kensington, just for starters. Spring Garden, north of Ben Franklin Parkway, is named for the Spring Garden section in London's Whitehall. And Southwark on the banks of Delaware has its provenance in a South Bank London hood by the same name. But it's pronounced 'Suth-ick' over there.

This is where it gets weird. Believe it or not, some histories teach us that Charles Dickens, while visiting Philadelphia in 1842, bestowed a local 'bouquet' in the form of a neighborhood name to no other place than 'Fishtown.' That's right. That Dickens. That Fishtown.

That story has to be just fanciful humbug. Otherwise, Dickens would have named Penn Square (home of City Hall) 'Piccadilly Circus.'