photo Eliza Rothstein

LOLadelphia: A Portrait of Unrefined Philadelphia

In Arts, Profile, Spring 2014 by Gina DeCagnaLeave a Comment

- Gina DeCagna

Chris speaks as if a waterfall of words will cover what he means to say, but he’s quick not to divulge too much, not to talk specifics. He sputters his ideas and moves back and forth in his chair as he leans away from the table. He says his blog, LOLadelphia, isn’t funny, despite its name, which combines LOL — the acronym for laugh out loud — and Philadelphia.

“Although,” he adds, “the other day I did step in shit and I posted that because that was unfortunate and that was funny.” He chuckles between his words but catches himself in a breath of seriousness. “It wasn’t funny at the time, but it was funny that someone took a crap in the middle of the sidewalk, and I took a step in it.”

Chris got down on one knee and snapped an artistic, angled shot of the human feces in the streetlights, he tells me. Another man on the street stopped and muttered, “Whattaya doing, man?” to which Chris replied, “I’m taking a picture of a piece of shit, man. Leave me alone.”

Chris doesn’t hold eye contact with me for too long. A few minutes earlier, I had encountered him as he waited for me outside a Starbucks around nine-thirty on a Friday night in University City. I had been following his blog, LOLadelphia, for a few months as I was trying to write an article about current graffiti artists in Philadelphia for my own interest as a young culture writer. I got in touch with the owner of one Philadelphia graffiti blog, but he dropped contact with me when I suggested meeting in a public place for an interview. LOLadelphia was the next best blog for Philly graffiti, according to one of my friends familiar with the scene. My friend had met Chris before and defined him as “a cool guy.” So, I emailed Chris a request to interview him. He responded the next day to my surprise.

We stand in the Starbucks line — Chris in a royal blue sweatshirt with a faded University of Kentucky imprint stamped on it and me in a gray pea coat and pink knit scarf. He couldn’t talk about graffiti, he warns me, but he would talk to me about his own site, which has much more than graffiti. He also won’t tell me about his personal life, though he admits to me that he “used to want to be a writer” as he tells the Starbucks barista he’s off of coffee — to get him a green tea, please.

* * * *

Chris is a 27-year-old modern nomadic wanderer. He’s alone most of the time, but with an iPhone in hand. His blog, LOLadelphia, is based on the popular microblogging platform and social networking site Tumblr. Through it, he extends his musings and bizarre sightings before the eyes of hundreds of followers as he’s on the go, posting at least once a day, but usually closer to three. In his travels around the nooks and crannies of the fifth largest city in America, funny shit happens all the time, he says.

LOLadelphia is one of a few Philadelphia-themed blogs on Tumblr that elicits frank commentary on the city’s affairs, like opinions on abandoned public schools. LOLadelphia owns the tag “philadelphia” on Tumblr — which means that Philadelphia-themed posts come most abundantly from LOLadelphia. The blog’s posts also generate considerable popularity on its corresponding Facebook and Twitter pages.

While Chris is the blog’s steadfast content creator, his partner and childhood friend since the seventh grade, Cory, manages its technical aspects, such as keeping track of the site’s viewing statistics. “All the credit for the site goes to my buddy Cory,” Chris says to me. They co-founded the blog in 2010 after discovering their mutual interest in “showing how messed up this place is and laughing at it.” Cory, in return, tells me in an email that he gives Chris “full credit for turning it into what it is today, as 99% of the posts are his.”

Chris’ posts have also garnered some bursts of wide attention. LOLadelphia was featured in Philadelphia magazine’s “Top Five Blogs to Follow” in February 2014 and was mentioned in the radio show “Preston & Steve” in April 2011. Particularly popular posts — such as one post that dissects another blog’s post about Philly stereotypes — will get over a couple hundred shares on Tumblr.

Nevertheless, Chris claims he doesn’t think too much about his blog’s popularity or lack thereof. He looks me in the eye, and says, “If this [interview] was through the Inquirer or The Daily News, there’s no fuckin’ way I’d do it. There’s no way I would do it. I want to keep everything level-headed.”

* * * *

Before meeting Chris, I had perused many of his posts. His photos span North Philly, West Philly, Center City, South Philly, Southeast Philly, Germantown, Fishtown, Italian Market, Mount Airy, Kensington, and more. I saw the beauty in his snapshot of the 30th Street shape-shifter building reflected pristinely in the Schuylkill River. I saw a child’s mega-sized pink car parked in front of a house, and I smiled. Then, I saw piled rubble in abandoned, ramshackle houses. I saw barbed wire fences, and pieces of wooden ones that were good enough to float down the Schuylkill as rafts. I saw stacked mattresses in the street, bent in half like folded tortillas. I saw a collection of liquor bottles against piles of stuffed animals—a memorial to a father and son. I saw a red, rusted car with shattered windows, the carcass of a once-roaring beast on wheels. I saw potholes, shit, and a wet, dirt-stained couch that’s been on the curb for months. I saw things I had never seen before — uncensored things I wanted to see (and did not want to see) on my college campus. But Chris had drawn me in.

The subhead of LOLadelphia reads “A love letter to Philadelphia: Cradle of Ignorance.” When I ask Chris for the meaning, he says there’s more to the city than what people often know — positive and negative alike. He thinks that even long-term residents can be ignorant.

“Philly isn’t skylines. Philly isn’t bridges. Philly’s not a pretty place to me, because I grew up around here my whole life. I know the grittiness,” he explains to me. “I know the struggles that people go through, because I talk to these people. I go through similar struggles.”

His eyes swing across the room, as he rambles on. They’re always racing. Black-framed glasses peek out under the winter hat covering his ears, two glass windows hanging lopsided from the bridge of his nose.

At the beginning of the blog’s creation, Chris tells me he tried to make the blog funny. But then, he stopped.

“I don’t want to call it a dark time, but it wasn’t a time I felt like laughing,” he reveals. “I was struggling with alcohol issues—I was drinking a lot. I wouldn’t call myself an addict—like I didn’t go to AA or nothing like that. There was just a lot of stress in my life. It just didn’t feel right to be funny.”

Yet since he frequently shows the unpleasant and inopportune aspects of the city, he often feels misunderstood.

“When people were sending me messages like, ‘Yo why do you hate Philly? What did Philly ever do to you? If you hate Philly so much, why don’t you move? Why don’t you get the fuck out of here?’ I was like, ‘Wait a second, this is all getting twisted,” he shakes his head to me. “I love this city a lot. I love it with every fiber of my being.’”

Chris pauses for a breath and then continues. “Philadelphia for the longest time was ‘Negadelphia.’ Like Philadelphians would shit on themselves and be like ‘Aw, we’ll never win a championship. We’ll never be New York. It was always like we were sorry for ourselves — like we have our own inferiority complex.” He pauses again, and then adds with a smirk, “Eh, screw New York.”

Chris finds popular blogs like Humans of New York that tell people’s life stories (often with smiling faces and professionally photographed portraits) annoyingly sappy: “Like, no. No. Philly’s not like that. You’re gonna get punched in the face doing that shit. You know what I mean.”

He believes that what distinguishes his site “is that you’re not going to feel good about it. There are some days where you’re gonna wake up feeling like shit. There are some days where I wake up, and I just want to fuck shit up. I’m not actually going to do it, but there are days where I feel that way.”

Despite his fluctuating pessimism, Chris reflects an optimistic perspective on the city’s future. He cites the city’s flourishing restaurant industry and the abundant graffiti scene as two of the city’s prime cultural assets. He has noticed that many Penn, Drexel, and Temple students are staying in the city, moving to neighborhoods like Francisville in North Philly and Baltimore Avenue in West Philly. He thinks the youth influx is good and that the city has everything of New York, but on a more comfortable scale.

Chris checks his iPhone and apologizes to me for his lack of attention.

* * * *

Chris tells me about a time when he encountered a homeless couple in Center City, and he handed them a dollar, “to just buy some hot chocolate with it or something.” Then, he overheard a woman say to them, “Why don’t you get off the street and get a job, you fuckin’ losers.” He was unnerved and yelled out to her, “Yo, have some fuckin’ compassion, lady!”

Philly journalist Drew Lazor selected LOLadelphia as one of Philadelphia magazine’s top five blogs to follow because of “its honest, unvarnished approach, great photos and variety of content,” he tells me in an email. A frequent Tumblr user, he believes, “There’s a lot of fluff out there, so it’s energizing to find an alternative that still highlights the oft-unconventional beauty of Philly.” Drew also applauds the blog’s “strong opinions on things. Plenty of people out there are afraid to take strong stances for fear they might alienate those who disagree. It ends up making everything boring.”

Things—or jawns, as LOLadelphia defines in its sidebar page called “How to Speak Philadelphian”—that strike a nerve for Chris often end up on the blog. He admits it is an outlet for his own expression. Though his language is “tongue-in-cheek” and he tries to stray away from using profanity (but sometimes, “it’s better to use profanity to get a point across”), he tries to be careful: “I don’t want anyone to think, ‘there’s another dickhead blogger just hiding behind a keyboard, staying anonymous, saying things.’ I don’t do the site to just get notoriety.”

He’s interested in knowing what people think, and they respond to him in the comments sections of his posts. “You think I’m full of shit? Tell me why you think I’m full of shit. I wanna know. Do you agree with me? Great. Tell me why you agree with me.”

Recently, Chris has taken to criticizing People of SEPTA, a Facebook page with over 62,000 followers that deeply offends him. When I observed the page’s posts, I noticed that the inclusive title itself, People of SEPTA, is misleading. Without a tinge of political correctness or racial sensitivity, the page broadcasts pictures of societal outliers—absurd, clumsy, or unkempt individuals, such as a man in a full-sized penis costume, an woman eating steamed blue crabs on the bus while her entire backside is exposed—an obese man with two rolls of stomach fat protruding from his short gray shirt and hanging over his legs, sausaged between black leather leggings. Many of the photos are disproportionately of black Philadelphians, alcoholics, or drug addicts. They generate at least fifty shares and comments like, “Lump of Shit!” or “Fat slob.”

Chris believes that the abundance of social media and texting as means for communication has caused people to lose empathy: “people just look at each other like animals in some fucked up zoo.” Thus, in response to People of SEPTA’s overt racism and anonymous public shaming, Chris encourages his own followers to stop and think before they perpetuate the public shaming. He posts: “What if it were me, my kids, my husband/wife/partner, my parents, my siblings, or someone who I care deeply about?”

In conversation with me, he refers back to his past struggles with alcohol: “If People of SEPTA had been around five or six years ago, I would have been on there for sure, because I was that crazy guy on the subway.”

* * * *

Chris is a recluse who finds social satisfaction through the very same communicative technology he denounces. Self-admittedly, he’s an awkward character, “just a dork with an iPhone” that places his LOLadephia stickers all over the city. He says he tries to draw as little attention to himself as possible, though.

“I’ll show ya,” he says to me. He lifts his hood over his hat, and hangs his head low while shifting his shoulders. He’s like a turtle that only pokes his head out when he wants to. When he encounters a person, however, he claims, “I’m gonna be courteous so I’ll say ‘hey [nods head], how’s it going’ or ‘good morning.’ If I see a woman struggling with groceries, I’ll help her out.”

No parts of the city are off-limits for him in his monk-like wanderings. He hates it when people stereotype areas by crime statistics or say they can’t go to certain places: “Like, yes, the fuck you can—yes, you can. Just don’t be an idiot.”

Chris cites the Hispanic neighborhood of North Philly, El Centro de Oro, as an example of a place where people “are always saying hello, always waving,” even if they don’t know him.

Yet, sometimes, he does admit he feels his presence is wholly unwelcomed in in certain neighborhoods: “People don’t say hi. People don’t know me. I don’t feel threatened, but I know that I gotta be a little more on my toes.” Once, a woman was bothered when he snapped a picture of an abandoned house, but she didn’t seem to care that at the same time, two men from the neighborhood were selling drugs across the street. Another time, a man chased Chris with a bat for taking a picture, but he got away unscathed.

* * * *

I ask Chris about the future of the blog, and he tells me he’ll be working on adding new interviews with the various people he encounters: “I want people to see more of Philadelphia like the way I see it, which is a city of good-hearted people—a city of hardworking people. Everyone’s got their story to tell, and I want more people to appreciate what’s around them.”

I try to ask about his life beyond the blog, but he doesn’t like it. He draws his head back into his shell, because it was not a part of our agreement.

“The site is about Philly. It’s never been about me. I don’t want it to be about me.”

Gina DeCagnaLOLadelphia: A Portrait of Unrefined Philadelphia

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