Out & About: The West Philadelphia cycle

Let me say this up front—I am not a cyclist. Sure, I’ve ridden bikes before, but never in the city. I’ve never shared the road with a stream of cars. I don’t even own a bike.

So when I volunteered to test ride Patricia Vance’s recently published book, “Intimate Bicycle Tours of Philadelphia” (Penn Press, 2004), I surprised even myself. The appeal lay in the title: The word “intimate” reminded me of tranquil country bike rides on lazy summer days. Why not try it? I could bundle up, borrow a bike and get to know more about the West Philly neighborhood that Penn and I call home.

Before setting out, I asked Vance, who is a research specialist in the Medical School’s Hematology Department and author of two other bicycling books, how she developed the 10 routes (all under 10 miles) that span the city, from South Philly to Society Hill, and as far out as the Wissahickon and West Mount Airy.

Tours for the leisurely rider

“I rode around,” she said. “I did some reading. I found out a little bit about Philadelphia. I took a map with me.” The advantage to being on a bike, she said, is that if you end up riding down a street that’s too busy, or undesirable, you can easily turn around—or hop off the bike and onto the sidewalk for safety. Vance gives practical tips for navigating traffic and plenty of nuggets of information about notable buildings and sites. This is a book for the cyclist who wants to complete a nine-mile route in hours, not minutes.

As I set off on a crisp Sunday morning, planning to follow the University City and Streetcar Suburb route, I keep in mind Vance’s advice for riding in the city: “You want to be highly visible and predictable.” I hit Spruce Hill first, traveling slowly to appreciate the beautiful Victorian craftsmanship of the homes along Pine and Spruce. I find drivers courteous, perhaps buoyed by the day’s bright sunshine.

On Baltimore Avenue, the pace is faster and drivers seem less inclined to allow me my rightful share of the road. I keep to the designated bike lane and vow to be more courteous to bikers next time I’m behind the wheel. Turning right onto Woodland Terrace, which boasts the former home of architect Paul Philippe Cret, I can see why he chose to live here—in the summer the Woodlands Cemetery, just across the street, offers a calm, fertile counterpoint to the urban bustle of Baltimore.

More stately mansions

Once inside Woodlands, I come upon the crumbling mansion, now undergoing restoration, and pause to take in the view of the Schuylkill and the far bank. Now dotted with industrial complexes, it must once have been a magnificent view of wide-open space. Back on the street, I loop around CHOP and, taking Vance’s advice, stick to the sidewalks on Spruce to avoid the dense traffic. I duck down a path to the Biopond for a moment of quiet, then ride by College Hall and Fisher Fine Arts Library on my way to Powelton Village.

Vance writes that “some of the city’s best Victorian Gothic homes are along Powelton Avenue,” and she’s right, though several of the most imposing now belong to Drexel fraternities. The creepiest part of the tour comes as I pass 3411 Race Street, the house, Vance points out, where Ira Einhorn hid Holly Maddux’s body. I continue down tree-lined Powelton Avenue, Pearl, Baring and Hamilton streets, pausing to read about the neighborhood, which, writes Vance, is no longer considered to be one of the toughest in Philly, thanks largely to the civic groups that kicked out the gangs in the 1950s.

As I finish up the route and head home, I marvel at how much I noticed, thanks to Vance’s detailed notes. The ride wasn’t always tranquil, but it was, as the book title promised, an intimate tour of a historically rich Philadelphia neighborhood.

Now I can’t wait to borrow a bike again to tackle Vance’s favorite route. And this one really does sound tranquil—Fairmount Park’s car-free Forbidden Drive along the Wissahickon Creek.

As part of the festivities surrounding Earth Day and University City’s Annual Bike to Work Day, Vance will speak at 1 p.m. on April 22 at the Penn Bookstore, 3601 Walnut St.

Originally published on April 1, 2004