Getting Real in Philly

There's much more to this city, home of the Super Bowl's Eagles, than you see on MTV's 'The Real World.'


February 06, 2005|By John Muncie and Jody Jaffe | John Muncie and Jody Jaffe,Special to the Sun

What do you get when you throw together seven body-beautiful, barely legal knuckleheads; an ultra-hip group home within shouting distance of the Liberty Bell; and an indefatigable camera crew?

You get Real World, Philadelphia, MTV's voyeuristic reality show that each week follows the antics of some kids doing everything parents hate and younger siblings long to do.

What you may not get with Real World, Philadelphia is the real Philadelphia, because the kids spend most of their time in bars, the house hot tub or each other's beds.

What a waste. Because not only is Philly home to the Eagles, who after more than 20 years have finally made it to the Super Bowl, but it's a great place to explore. We recently spent a cold, clear, winter weekend in the real world of Philadelphia, and we had a blast. Here's what we found:

Old City

We started our Real World tour where the Real World kids started theirs -- at Third and Arch streets in the heart of Old City, the gallery-heavy district bounded east and west by the Delaware River and the Independence National Historic Park.

Like practically every building in the area, the show's group house radiates history and gravitas. At the turn of the century, it was a bank; later, it became the Merchant Seaman's Center Church. A $3 million renovation turned the 10,000-square-foot building into a bachelor pad on steroids. Altars and confessionals were replaced by a smoking lounge, spa, bedrooms, rec room and a kitchen so hip it looked like something from The Jetsons.

Next door is more history -- Betsy Ross' flag-draped house -- where we met Kim Hart, tour guide for the Trolley Works & 76 Carriage Company. Hart had stopped her horse-drawn rig at the curb and was educating her passengers, Howard and Alyssa Zimmerman, New Yorkers here for the weekend.

"That's the notorious Real World house," she said, turning her attention from Betsy Ross to current events. "I'm not sure how they got their hands on that building, but I prefer it to be the Seaman's Church."

Though the house is not open to the public, it gets lots of gawkers. It's on the tour bus itinerary. People drive past, pointing. While we were there, a stream of teens and twentysomethings knocked on its pale blue front door or rang the buzzer or took snapshots. Even the Boy Scout troop leaving the Betsy Ross house took note of it.

But generally the Old City inhabitants temper their curiosity with skepticism about the show.

"It was pretty much a nonevent for us," said R.J. Thornburg, one of the owners of bahdeebahdu gallery, at 309 Cherry St. Two of the gallery's wild assemblages helped decorate the Real World house. Animal Dreamland, a concoction of bedsprings and animal figurines that sells for $11,000, hung in the party room.

According to Thornburg, the Real World gang didn't make it to his gallery.

"This would be a little not their scene," he said. "They were, like, party people. It's not like they were out looking at museums."

Or galleries.

None of the gallery owners we talked to had been visited by the gang. Another waste. You shouldn't go to Philly without seeing R.J. and partner Warren Muller's gallery / studio / explosion of the fantastic.

Warren's the artist; R.J. is the interior designer (he calls himself a "fabulist"). Warren's studio, in the rear of the showroom, is a work of art in itself. Half-finished sculptures hang from the ceiling, shelves overflow with toys, bike wheels, chains and a dizzying array of junk -- the assemblage maker's raw material.

The local arts guide lists nearly 50 galleries in a seven-square-block area of the Old City, which is also sprinkled with boutiques, second-hand clothing shops, clubs and trendy restaurants.

We nosed around bahdeebahdu, Artists' House, Muse and other galleries for a while, then, on R.J.'s recommendation, ducked into Fork: etc., at 306 Market St., to get warm and eat panini sandwiches. The cozy bistro features a center horseshoe counter, small tables and a selection of soups, salads, sandwiches and interesting breads. The beef barley soup was delicious.

Back out into the cold afternoon, we wandered over to the old Christ Church, between Market and Arch streets, where bells pealed out the first July 4th and Ben Franklin occupied pew No. 70. In the tiny entryway gift ship, we asked tour guide Leslie Watson, if any Real World people had ever visited there.

"I really seriously doubt they'd go into a church," she said.

After dark, the Old City turns from history to nightlife. Club-hoppers walk past the birthplace of William Penn's wife (in 1671) to Rotten Ralph's, one of the area's many bars. Traffic on the narrow streets is crazy; parking is crazier. The roped-off lines outside the clubs are longer than the stretch Hummers that disgorge beautiful young women in tight jeans and skimpy tops.

Within a couple of blocks are such bars and clubs as LoungeOneTwoFive, Moda, Bleu Martini, 32 Degrees and Club 27. This is Real World territory.

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