Meeting Innovators in Philadelphia
Philadelphia has always been a city of history and innovation, but that’s no surprise. Many of the first innovations in Philadelphia occurred on the oldest continually used residential street in the United States- Elfreth’s Alley, which people began living on in 1702.
A very diverse group of people lived on Elfreth’s Alley in the 1700s: Moses Mordecai, a Jewish man who founded the first synagogue in Philadelphia, Cophy Douglas, an African tailor, and Sarah Milton and Mary Smith, two women who broke into the male-dominated fashion industry by creating dresses for working class women that eventually made their way into high fashion.
By visiting Philly’s Elfreth’s Alley, you can see how innovation and creativity were central to Philadelphia as early as colonial times. Seeing this historic street is definitely a must if you’re visiting Philadelphia.
Graduate Hospital: An Inventor’s Dream
Nextfab creates a space for artists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to come together to design products for the future.Nestled in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of Philadelphia,
Founded in 2009, Nextfab serves as an incubator housing the whole product development cycle by allowing brilliant minds from all academic disciplines to come together, learn from each other, and make new things.
Currently, Nextfab has 300 members, and it also has numerous machines that are worth almost a hundred thousand dollars. Makers at Nextfab do many things: some people create things for companies, while others provide educational services for the community.
John Tecack, the events and outreach manager of Nextfab, explained Nextfab’s mission by simply stating “we exist to help the community.” He continued on to say they do this by having people in Nextfab teach each other how to use machinery and software that is necessary for the future of manufacturing.
Kevin Huang, one of the makers at Nextfab, just completed a project for Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative redesigning Pearl Street, a street in Chinatown that houses two homeless shelters. For the project, Huang created the pieces for over 100 chairs, which hundreds of people came to put together on Pearl Street.
Huang explains “with Nextfab here I had the technical expertise… having this type of facility for someone like me is really a tremendous asset. There’s no way as a small business owner [that] I could own the machines that are available to me here.”
Artisans Don’t Take a Back Seat in Philly
It’s not just engineers who are succeeding in Philadelphia- it’s the artisans too. Margaux and Peg & Awl four years ago after being inspired to make simple, basic, multifunctional items after they were married in Iceland.Walter Kent started their business
Currently, they are making bags, journals, chalkboards, jewelry, rope swings, and more out of a former casket factory that now serves as their workshop.
Why did the Kents choose to start their business in Philly? Well besides wanting to stay close to family, Margeaux states “we’re here where so much has started.”
One of the most incredible things about products from Peg & Awl is that they are almost always made with “reclaimed” items- wood from houses being torn down, fabric from local flea markets, etc. Peg & Awl products are now sold internationally through companies like Anthropologie buying their products in bulk.
Another store that sells items from Peg & Awl, Art in the Age, started out as an artist driven t-shirt line in Philadelphia a few years ago but has already turned into a life brand. Art in the Age now sells clothes, art, soap, and more, in addition to having their own spirits line.
Each spirit from Art in the Age has its own tie to U.S. history. Root, a spirit that sits like a whiskey, connects to the history of root beer, which was invented in Philadelphia.
On the other hand, the spirit snap was created based on inspiration from the Pennsylvania Dutch gingersnap.
If you would like to try the Art in the Age’s spirits while browsing their products, you can stop by their weekly in-store happy hour where you can try all of their cocktails free of charge. Unfortunately, you cannot purchase any liquor in the store, but the spirits are available at numerous bars, restaurants, and package stores throughout Pennsylvania.
The Arts Add Value to the Neighborhood
The Philadelphia Fringe Film Festival, an experimental, edgy film festival, finally has a home in the new FringeArts Building in Old City. Each year, for two and a half weeks after Labor Day weekend, the Fringe Festival increases the cultural life of Philadelphia. Now, the Fringe Festival is an international arts festival and is also one of the largest and most successful independent festival presenters nationwide.
The new FringeArts Building is located in a former fire hydrant pumping station, and Vice Presidence of FringeArts David Harrison said they are preserving the building as much as possible to keep its original aesthetic charm.
“This building used to save lives, and now it’s being repurposed to enrich lives,” states David Harrison. In addition to having plays, ballets, operas, and other performances, the building will also hold a restaurant that will feature caberet-esqe performances most nights. The building’s grand opening will be this Spring, but there will be numerous performances in the FringeArts building before the official grand opening occurs.
The Craft Beer Revolution
Innovative thinking isn’t just left up to the engineers and artists in Philadelphia- it’s for the beer drinkers too. Tom Kehoe, owner of the Yards Brewing Company in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia, started brewing beer with his buddies when he was in college. Now, he owns a brewery that can produce 24,000 barrels of beer each year.
Every Saturday and Sunday there are free tours of the Yards Brewing Company, and they provide free tastings from 12p.m.-7p.m. every day. During the 30 minute tour, visitors will learn about the fermentation, bottling, and distribution process.
The brewery boasts beers made from the recipes of historical figures called “Ales of Revolution.” They brew the General Washington’s Tavern Porter based on brewing instructions George Washington wrote in a letter.
The Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce is brewed based on Benjamin Franklin’s recipe for spruce beer, and the Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale is brewed based on Jefferson’s recipe for beer that required twice the amount of grain, giving it a higher alcohol concentration.
Why do people keep coming back to Yards Brewing Company? “It’s the Yards culture,” answers Kehoe, “it’s the employees and the pride we have in what we’re doing here… everyone is family. It’s how we do things here.”
A True City for Foodies
Despite the city’s famous reputation for the artery-busting Philly cheese steak subs, we skipped these for something a little more healthy.
No matter what cuisine you prefer, Philadelphia has food you will love. Han Dynasty is the place to go for Chinese food: they rate each dish’s level of spice on a scale of 1 -10, and people can adjust the level of spice from mild to WOW!! to suit their tastes.
Another restaurant that’s perfect for dinner in Philadelphia is Zahav’s Restaurant, an Israeli restaurant where each table picks a few items to eat family style. For a simpler meal, Paesano’s is a good choice for a delicious, unique sandwich with out of the box ingredients on them such as potato chips.
For food earlier in the day, Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat is the place to go. Honey’s is well known for their French toast and grits, but they serve a multitude of breakfast items, including breakfast quesadillas, pancakes, and biscuits and gravy.
However, Honey’s Sit ‘n Eat also has a great lunch and dinner menu, and there’s no need to worry about the lack of a drinks menu since their restaurant is BYOB.
Visit Philadelphia for the Creativity
Philadelphia is made up of a diverse array of neighborhoods containing many creative people that are constantly contributing to the city’s success. From inventors to artisans to restaurant owners, the people of Philadelphia definitely give traveler’s a reason to visit every neighborhood.
Alyssa Pirrello is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD.com Travel and a senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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