My mom recently reminded me of a call we had in the first weeks of my freshman year at Penn. She asked me if I felt comfortable at school. I responded, “Yes, but Penn is nothing like home.” My response suggests that I grew up in a sunny beach town or a quaint suburban neighborhood with pools in backyards and 50–person graduating classes. But surprisingly, the place I call home is a 20–minute walk from the Quad. I spent my first 18 years living in the same row home on the same pesky–to–drive–down narrow street, two blocks away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
I love Philadelphia. I love its quirks, its dead ends, and its weird smells. I love that Philadelphia isn’t New York City—it’s smaller, more comfortable, and more personable. Despite being so small among the city's millions of residents, my life here has always felt big and exciting. In high school, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Now, I return to my little row home after seeing Philadelphia through the lens of a Penn student.
Before Penn, I never thought about Philly's social scene, its most photogenic restaurants, or its expensive shops. But sometimes, I take a step back and remember where I am. I am no longer surrounded by native Philadelphians, but instead, I live in a melting pot of new interests and identities. On the precipice of young adulthood, I'm supposed to explore beyond what I already know. I often worry that staying in Philly hinders my self–exploration.
I can’t stroll down Locust without running into a high school acquaintance. As I approach them, I wonder if I should wave hello or look down at my phone to avoid eye contact. Most of my friends came to Penn without knowing anyone. Yet I am surrounded by Hebrew school classmates, high school rowing teammates, family friends, and several Jewish boys my family dreams of setting me up with.
I feel guilty for not taking that big step away from home. I take the Route 49 bus to my mom’s house while my friends board planes. I still sometimes tell myself that I’m not truly experiencing college because my dad can pick me up from school when I have the flu.
Penn students tell me I’m not supposed to walk past 40th Street alone, but my best friend from high school grew up on 44th. I still haven’t figured out how to reply when peers ask me, “What are the, like, dangerous neighborhoods in Philly?” Sometimes, I choose to just shrug my shoulders. But inside, I’m bubbling with anger, wishing that I didn’t have to explain why it’s not fair to demonize a city based on preconceived notions and prejudices.
Like most other underclassmen, I am still finding my place at Penn. I worry about boring my closest friends by bringing them to places that were once special to me. I turn to them, hoping their eyes glimmer at the park benches, fire escapes, and backyards I’ve loved my entire life.
Sometimes, I selfishly wish I could have this city all to myself. In this impossible scenario, my beautiful life at Penn would be far away, and I wouldn’t have to explain my love for Philly to anyone. I could enjoy somebody else’s city—a new city that has its own quirks, dead ends, and weird smells.
Since that is not the case, all I can do is try to share my favorite parts of this city with my new friends and hope that they’ll love these places as much as I do. While the bench by the Schuylkill River is just a bench, I can bring somebody special there and trust that everybody likes a good sunset and skyline view. I can take my roommate to the quiet spots I used to share with my childhood friends and hope that we’ll make a new memory together.
I still grapple with the guilt of growing up here and continuing my life in such a familiar place, but Penn Philadelphia is far different from Home Philly. Despite interfacing with my old trolley routes, Penn is a completely new place. Each day, I find new spots to sit and new restaurants to enjoy. And each day, I miss the new people I've met at Penn that make this summer at home so incredibly difficult because they’re not here with me.