One of the first things you notice about Philadelphia is how pleased it is to bear an awkward resemblance to a cardboard cut-out version of Paris – and how much people love Will Smith. The city itself, self-proclaimed ‘Paris of America’, seems to be caught in between this polarity, the well-to-do creative-mafia harking to an image of ‘European taste’ as fraudulent as Peppy le Peu cooked in bouillabaisse, with most other Philadelphians resigning themselves to the modern icons of the city – cheesesteaks, the Fresh Prince, and that bit from Rocky where he (or rather his stunt double) runs up the steps. Bizarrely, one group who wanted to reinvent Philly aren’t from Philadelphia at all. They’re a bunch of twenty-something art school dropouts from New York on a mission to swell Philly pride, and create a project for the people. Their method: pizza.
If you head north-east from the city centre, through the now-gentrified areas of Northern Liberties and neighbouring Fishtown, you’ll find yourself in an area that has more than a whiff of slum about it. This place, ironically called West Kensington, is home to the world’s first pizza museum, Pizza Brain. This month-old museum chronicles the rise of pizza culture through music, cinema and advertising. It timelines the introduction of Pizza to America via returning US soldiers from Italy after WWII, and highlights the change from sophisticated adult cuisine in the 60s, to a mass marketed product aimed (for better or worse) at children. Following coverage prior to its opening from Huffington Post, USA Today, ABC and New York Times, the Museum was bombarded from items from around the world for use in its collections that adorn the carefully curated walls, including videos which now form part of a public screening schedule and a devoted .GIF art wall, pulling the best of Tumblr pizza culture into the venue.
Aside from having its own gas-fired oven (like the Americans do it, not wood like those crazy Sicilians) that serves up delicious pizza, vintage sodas, and boasts a ‘pizza playlist’ that carries everything from Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles to Adam Ant, the Museum has a serious point. In West Kensington there is a marked divide down race lines. Poor black and Latino kids make up most of the populous in close proximity to the new educated artist community fleeing the rising prices of Fishtown. They don’t mix, they don’t talk, and areas such as West Kensington are largely forgotten in the city centre.
Initiatives at the Pizza Museum are geared up precisely to break down those divides. Kids are invited to learn about pizza and cooking from ‘scratch’ in an attempt to kerb teenage obesity and food miseducation from children who will probably tell you pizza grows on trees, whilst introducing a bored and impoverished youth into an environment of illustration and music. Collections are created from items sent to the museum from around the globe, and participation is positively encouraged, if not demanded. The effect on the neighbourhood where every other building is a boarded up husk, is obvious from the minute you approach the place. People come here as a destination in and of itself, and whilst it will be foolhardy to suggest this ‘museum’ carries enough intellectual gravitas to provide for the chin-stroking complexities demanded by an institution, it has reinvigorated a deprived area in a unseen and unprecedented way. You can see why Philadelphia has decided to give pizza a chance.
Text: Coco Khan