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Philadelphia's Transportation Systems Need a Facelift


Can you imagine willingly hanging out in a subway station?

I once did just that while I was living in Boston. I was waiting for the “T” at the Park Street Station. And, strumming her guitar and singing into a microphone was Mary Lou Lord, a critically acclaimed indie songwriter. This was the only time in my life that I enjoyed watching a performance in a Boston-area subway station, a place where street musicians, clowns and other acts brighten up the morning and evening commutes.

Here in Philly, the only way I’d hang out at one of our major transportation centers is if I was living in my nightmares. Market East and Suburban Station are more depressing than a mass grave. When I’m not looking over my shoulder wondering which nearby drifter is planning on cutting me with a box cutter, I’m busy huffing in fumes from an odd, but distinct, combination of exhaust, paint and human waste.

One of the only things that makes the horrors of Philadelphia public transit a little more tolerable are the presence of buskers – the term used to describe the street performers who get by on the friendly donations of those waiting to go somewhere else. But while other cities such as Boston and New York tolerate (and encourage) subway performances, the City of Brotherly Love has instituted policies which makes it harder for buskers to do their work. The new law restricts performers to obtain a permit, to play in certain marked areas, without amplifiers, for up to three hours a day.

Those of us who follow crime trends know all about the “Broken Windows” theory. This theory says that a place that has broken windows attracts vandals and squatters. But if you fix the broken windows enough times, the vandals will move on to another place. Former New York City police chief William Bratton, along with Rudy Giuliani, extended this theory to other crimes and started locking up subway hoppers and the like, which ended up leading to a drop of crime. (People forget that New York City was an absolute horror story of a crime cesspool until the mid-90s.)

If Philly was to get serious about its train and subway stations, they wouldn’t be these menacing hellholes. If they were a little brighter, clear of litter, and had musicians playing music, then roving gangs of teenagers probably wouldn’t look to assault innocent passengers, since those kinds of things don’t happen in nice places. Philly has such a complex when it comes to other cities. I have a conversation at least six times a week where I try to convince someone (and, subconsciously, myself) that Philadelphia’s the best city in the country, if not the world. Subway performers may seem like a little thing, but it’s the little things that matter most.

When my friends from out of town come to visit, they want to see if this place lives up to what I’ve made it out to be. Living in Roxborough means that I frequently take the train a lot. And waiting for the return trip home in a dark, dank hellhole isn’t exactly a great way to show my friends that I live in a better place than they do. It’s probably a little too much to ask the art museum to donate an original Thomas Eakins to hang up at Federal/Ellsworth.

But a few brighter lights, mopping up the sewerage leaks and letting musicians play music without impunity will go a very long way.


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