Walking down East Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, it’s difficult not to notice the face on the ground. It reappears every few feet along the sidewalk. You step over it, on top of it. There are spilled drinks and occasional pieces of food laying all across its surface.
What’s harder to locate is any official explanation as to why the image—of a person in a Native headdress—is on the ground in the first place, or how it came to represent the area.
One of these faces sits outside a new bookstore where you can walk in and buy Tommy Orange’s There There, a novel about the “urban Native American” recently named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2018. It offers one explanation for the imagery, beginning with a prologue recounting the brutal history of the “Indian Head,” in which the writer draws a link between the literal beheading of indigenous people in American history—“the Indian head in the jar, the Indian head on a spike”—and subsequent, dehumanizing depictions:
Our heads are on flags, jerseys, and coins. Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.
This tradition persists across the country, perhaps most recognizably in American professional sports. Yet, it’s jarring to find it here on a series of manhole covers, which look a lot like the coins Orange mentions. Each cover says “East Passyunk Avenue.”
The same somber-looking face—what Orange calls “the sad, defeated Indian silhouette”—hangs off telephone poles and street signs across this neighborhood, which happens to be one of the hippest areas in what was recently named GQ’s “City of the Year.” In fact, according to Philadelphia Magazine, this ten-block section of South Philly is home to 12 of the 50 “best” restaurants in town, including the James Beard Award-nominated Townsend and a swanky spot from Top Chef winner Nick Elmi.
Since 2000, millions of dollars have gone into revitalizing East Passyunk, which gets its name from the Lenape word meaning “in the valley.” The Lenni-Lenape people lived in the Delaware Valley area of Pennsylvania long before William Penn arrived to claim it, and across town “Penn Treaty Park” commemorates the alleged agreement that Penn made with Tamanend, the chief of the Lenape Turtle Clan sometime around 1683. Their supposedly peaceful treaty was ultimately broken by Penn’s son, as were many other “agreements” while the U.S. moved forward with the larger displacement and genocide of indigenous people.
The use of the logo on the street today, according to representatives from the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District (EPABID), is meant to acknowledge some of this history. Neither the EPABID nor the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC) could confirm the exact date, but according to City Councilperson Mark Squilla’s office, the manhole covers were likely installed in the late 90s at a time when a multi-million-dollar non-profit called Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods (a predecessor to PARC) was buying up property on the street. That organization was led and largely funded by former State Senator Vincent Fumo — who would eventually land in prison on corruption charges.
South Philly has long been known for its Italian food and cheesesteaks, but as The New York Times wrote in 2010, in the past most people weren’t going to East Passyunk “unless they were looking for a Communion dress or a racy undergarment.” That all began to change after Fumo made his investments on the street and the city established the EPABID. Yet, despite the influx of cash and attention the rebranding of Passyunk has brought during the past two decades, the acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples, like in much of the United States, seems to have stayed entirely at the surface-level.
In 2015 more than 80 new Walk! Philadelphia maps — with the official “logo” on top — were approved by the EPABID to guide people towards local attractions, restaurants, and shopping in the area. The updated logo on these signs was developed by Joel Katz Design Associates, inspired by, according to Katz, that image on the manhole cover.
None of the signs, though, direct you to a place where you can learn more about why the logo is what it is. There are no historical plaques explaining the fact that the Lenape people were once forced out of this area, nor anything explaining the meaning of the street’s name. There is only this face, a drawing meant to represent an entire culture, an entire group of people, and the entire history of what has been done to them.
“We are still here! … We are REAL and not a mascot or some simplistic symbol,” emphasized educator Carla J.S. Messinger, director of Native American Heritage Programs—which works to “present, preserve, and perpetuate the history and cultural heritage of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians.” According to Messinger, the representation isn’t historically accurate either. “This image … has no relationship to the Lenape People,” Messinger said. “Another stereotype is the use of a male representative. This is so often the case that you might think there were no Native women.”
Rev. J.R. Norwood, PhD, of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, reiterated Messinger’s points, adding that the Passyunk Avenue logo “has a Western Plains-style headdress,” which suggests that Lenape people were not involved in its design.
Norwood further points out that these types of logos are not only often “appropriated without permission” or regard for Indigenous communities, but they lead to other “images, costumes, and behaviors that are mocking, stereotypical.” That’s certainly the case on East Passyunk, where a popular antique store, Jinxed, displays its own version of the logo featuring a Native headdress being worn by a cartoon mouse. The tattoo shop above it uses a tomahawk to advertise its business And a few blocks away, a shop called South Fellini sells hip t-shirts and pins featuring the street’s logo. There’s also a restaurant here, called Bing Bing, whose owners celebrate “funky inauthenticity” by putting slanted eyes on the anthropomorphized drawings of dim sum. All this on the same street as Geno’s Steaks, among the most famous of South Philly’s eateries, which itself once had a sign up that read “This is America, when ordering, speak English.”
It’s hard to believe that all these facts are unrelated; that there isn’t a larger story here about the power of symbols, and how the environment of a neighborhood is intentionally created — not just organically grown, particularly in this white enclave of the city: In contrast to Philadelphia’s population, which as a whole is about 45 percent white, about 70 percent of the residents around Passyunk Square and Passyunk Crossing are white.
When contacted, Adam Leiter, Executive Director of the EPABID wrote in a statement: “It is important to continue the conversation around the history of East Passyunk Avenue both as a place and in its etymology.” But for Norwood, who supports the idea of installing a historical marker on the street, it’s not only essential that the district recognize this area as part of traditional Lenape Territory, but that “the Lenape are not merely referred to in past tense.”
In a country which continues to destroy indigenous land — and where indigenous women face disproportionately high rates of sexual violence — the original intent behind East Passyunk’s logo may be irrelevant. The image is now being used to give an aura of authenticity to many white-owned stores along the street. In a city which is often referred to as the “birthplace” of the United States, it suggests “nostalgia” without ever naming what we’re meant to be nostalgic for.
In Orange’s There There, he describes a massacre of Pequot people in 1637 at the hands of colonists, and the colonists’ subsequent celebration of what the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony deemed a “day of thanksgiving.” For Americans then, the bodies of Native people were an intentional part of the celebrations, and Orange recounts that “at one such celebration in Manhattan, people were said to have celebrated by kicking the heads of Pequot people through the streets like soccer balls.”
This holiday season on East Passyunk, Philadelphians are arriving to take photos with Santa, buy gifts, and enjoy a pretty walk after dinner with their families and friends. Perhaps the question is not whether these Americans will notice the face on the ground, but rather, if for some, the ability to step over that face adds to the experience.