As Mary Chapin Carpenter once sang, it’s Christmas time in the city. With that in mind, we sent photographer Paul Gargagliano out into the twinkling Philadelphia streets to capture a taste of the holiday glow.
Paul’s job wasn’t only to photograph the city’s holiday makeover — we also wanted him to investigate how the urban environment figures into people’s memories and why they returned to perform certain seasonal rites year after year. Is it just about shopping, or is there something else at play?
Gargagliano’s photos and interviews fit into our larger conversation about public space in that each person’s story reminds us that urban centers, despite their challenges, remain our civic commons. Public spaces like Dilworth Plaza and Love Park are the places we return to in times of shared ritual.
John: You come down and you just feel the vibrance. You see the bridges, the buildings, they’re all decorated in Christmas lights. The skyscrapers change their lights. Love Park changes. It’s just awesome. I’m 26 years old and I’ve probably been coming here for 24 years.
I work at Macy’s. We put up lights and have Christmas shows and Dickens’ Village comes out. Even if you really don’t like Christmas, you still have everywhere to go in Center City with your kids. I really like—this is weird—but I really like ugly sweaters. I love ugly sweaters. Every year I like to throw an ugly sweater party. It’s been tradition. Now that I’m older, and I really don’t have a lot of family to be around, I can always invite friends to an ugly sweater party. I still can have fun around Christmas time. Because I don’t have any kids or anything, so the ugly sweaters are like the best part of Christmas for me.
Paul: Is there a place in Center City that you think of as symbolizing the holidays?
Ryan: Depends what you consider Center City, but I always think of Franklin Square or Love Park or City Hall, right here, because they really do do them up so much, or even Jewelers’ Row when they bring our all the decorations every year. Do you remember the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook”? When they came in and did some of the main shots there, they decorated the whole street, and the Jewelers decided it looked so nice that they’d buy all the decorations. So they now put those up every year.
Matt: Macy’s, the lights display show – that’s always the prime spot. I’ve been going there since I was a little kid. Back in the day they used to do shopping sprees for little kids. It stayed the same pretty much.
Interviewer: Does it feel different to you during the holidays?
Matt: I think it does feel different. It feels more welcoming. People are happier. You know, spending money and stuff like that. There’s definitely a lot of quietness going around, people caroling. I don’t feel like people are tense or in a rush.
The column, In Public, is made possible with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.