As I was turning North onto Front St. from Berks, I spotted the candles and cardboard arranged around the entrance to Tony’s Way Sports Bar. On a pre-COVID weekend evening, strains of latin music would mingle with the sounds of the el rambling by, and people would be spilling onto the sidewalk in front of this local watering hole. On this particular hot, muggy afternoon, the place is shuttered (permanently it seems). No one is around, but clearly, people were here. I want to take a moment to think about these two things: this place and the collectively activity that took place here.
First, I want to think about this space. It is a relatively busy intersection. The Berks stop on the el is directly across the intersection. The Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School sits on the opposite side of Front St. This intersection has become much busier in the past few years as Front has seen an influx of development, which new local shops, bars and restaurants like The Liberty Market and Evil Genius. The Berks stop seems to have become the go-to for young professionals who walk through the gate that leads behind the Kensington High School practice field to get to Frankford Ave. and Fishtown. There is even an Indego bike rental stand just outside the stairs descending from the el.
All of this has increased the weekend pedestrian traffic, as people come to brunch, drink, and just check out the neighborhood. While COVID has put a damper on that traffic and attention–and everything else fun and good in the world–this still makes the corner a prime space for a memorial. Memorial sites are often located in spaces that are visible to the public. That is, after all, part of the point. To call to people walking through a space, to say “remember.” To mourn a loss and insist others acknowledge the grievability of that life, to recall it and in doing so to ask those who happen to pass by to remember it as well.
But space is not place. As the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan explains, “space is freedom,” but “place is security.” In other words, space presents us with the unknown to a certain extent. It proffers the possibility of mystery. It is open for exploration, full of promise for an interesting and unexpected encounter with a person, a sight, a sound, a happening that could become eventful. Place on the contrary is safe. We know it and those others who frequent it. We belong. Compared to space, place is richly meaningful, coherent, storied. Tony’s Way offers a good illustration. One afternoon, I got off the el at Berks just to walk around and explore. Across the corner I saw this stoop wrapped in metal capping. Above the stoop, also in shiny metal block letters, was the word: BAR. The door was open. I heard the jukebox playing as I walked by and so, on a whim, I stopped in. I had a beer and checked out the ambience. There is sign that reads: Who Cares What Ever. After I finished my beer, I walked home to cook dinner. Tony’s Way was a space, open to exploration. As a space connected to the broader urban space, it presented a mystery, the possibility and promise of encounter. Now I have that story, which is now linked up with this story about the memorial. What makes it a place is the result of a chance encounter, an experience, through which it becomes more coherent, more meaningful.
“Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.”
– Yi-Fu Tuan
While Tuan’s conceptual distinction is phenomenological–it seeks to describe how we as individuals experience space and place differently–his work nevertheless suggests a collective dimension. Think of the bar in Cheers, “where everybody knows your name,” and “where they’re always glad you came.” While the personal experience matters, it does so in part because it is shared. Or rather, that personal experience is woven into the personal experiences of others, of a collective that exists as such before I walk in the door and sit at the bar. This space belongs to someone, to others, not to me. I am able to be there and take respite there because of them, and my experience is shaped in advance by their collective connection to this place. The space of the bar is physical, outside of us, and in some ways abstract. It is located and locatable. You can search for it in public records or in Google Maps. It has a longitude and latitude (roughly 39.978770, -75.133674). Anyone can walk up to it or into it (when it is open for business). But the place is something more. It is deeper, a felt connection. It belongs to those who belong to it because they belong there.
This brings me back to the people and the activity that took place here on the street corner. Why here? This involves a bit of speculation, because I wasn’t there when it happened. But I suspect this shrine is here because this was their place, and probably Richie’s place, too. Consider the messages that appear on one column of the entrance:
“Richie! I love you! I miss you, you brought joy love happiness to everyone here at Tony’s Love, Noel and my family you brought to my life.”
“Richie, I’m crushed.”
“Whatever! Who cares! I do!”
The first message includes a direct reference to this place–“Tony’s”–and at the Botton the word “here” is emphasized. The second message is a reference to the sign inside the bar: “What Ever Who Cares.” That line gets repeated elsewhere in other messages left around the entrance. These examples suggest the writer is connected to Richie and maybe even because of this particular place.
“Noel” isn’t the only one who felt the need to come here and engage in these acts of remembrance. At some point, before I took these photographs, a group of people met here. They must have arranged a time to gather. They brought with them the things they knew they needed: sharpies and other markers, cardboard to write on (that could have been improvised from nearby), flowers, candles, a lighter, packing tape. They worked together to arrange the candles in front of the shuttered door. They wrote messages to Richie–and in a way to me and anyone else who sees them. You can tell they thought about us, our point of view, how we would appear to the public. In one spot, a writer explains his misspelling of Richie’s name as “Richy: “The (Y) is because we love you!” These messages were posted on the cardboard signs, written directly on the metal-capped entryway. And someone with a deft hand through up a tag for Richie on the brick wall beneath the glass block window. These people spent deliberate time together here, in full view of the traffic and the commuters and the random passers by. Given the intense, emotionally vulnerable nature of many of these messages, I expect some tears were shed and some hugs were shared.
The effect of all of this action and feeling and communicating is that it makes this space on the public sidewalk a place. Not just for the group of people who belonged here when Tony’s Way was still open. It makes this a place for me, even though this was not my place and I only went in there once. Arguably it becomes what the French historian Pierre Nora calls a place of memory for anyone who walks by, pauses, reads the messages. It is the place where Richie was mourned and remembered. I can’t claim it will always be this place for everyone. The flowers were already wilted and dried out. The flames no longer dance in the prayer candles. The rain and sun have begun blurring the messages and decomposing the cardboard. Eventually, the global pandemic will end, a new bar will open there, the tag will be buffed. No trace will remain of this, except as collective memory. Tony’s Way, the community of people who belonged, the shrine they created to remember Richie as a dear friend, family member, one of their own. The place of memory, the collective who remembers, the memorial they left will all disappear.
RIP Richie. But also RIP Tony’s Way Sports Bar. And along with it, RIP the regulars who may find another place even though it won’t be the same. If thinking about these losses makes you sad, you aren’t alone. I only hope it also makes you curious enough to wonder at the city. To wonder why neighborhoods change, why they do so when they do in the particular way they do, and what might be lost in the process.
July 20, 2020
Tuan, Yi-Fu. (1977). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, MN: U. of Minnesota Press.
Nora, Pierre. (1989). Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire. Representations 26, 7-24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2928520.