Sipping an espresso at the coffee bar inside Fitzwater Caf� at Seventh and Fitzwater streets, Nathaniel Popkin looks every bit the urban author.
Wearing stylish small glasses and dressed in a black T-shirt, blue jeans and fashionable brown leather shoes, nothing about the 33-year-old could be mistaken as suburban.
Song of the City: An Intimate History of the American Urban Landscape is Popkin’s first book. A fine-art photographer as well as an author, Popkin snapped the photographs of Philadelphia that appear on the jacket and throughout the 210 pages of the book.
The portrait of urban life is broken into four parts: Pulse, Body, Soul and Seed. In Pulse, Popkin describes the rhythm of the city. Body dissects the city as if its buildings, streets and avenues were the limbs of a living being. Soul is like the soul of a human being. Seeds is the city’s future — the new generations, gardens planted and dreams that evolve.
"The book is about breaking down the city into a living organism that has a pulse and a soul," he says.
Popkin views the city as "a collection of people."
"It’s our city at this moment. People from all over the world are living together in close proximity. It’s a moment of vitality. When someone comes from the Ivory Coast to Philadelphia, they bring a gene pool, as well as culture and ways of life. This adds to the melting pot," says Popkin.
In the two years it took to write Song of the City, the author ventured into the trenches. He drank at bars, ate at restaurants and caf�s, rode buses and the subway, sat on stoops, played softball in the parks, visited churches and schools.
But most of all, he walked. In his own words, "At 135 square miles, to someone on foot, [Philadelphia] is endless." In walking, Popkin met people and listened to their tales.
Song of the City doesn’t thumb its nose at suburbanites or extol the virtues of city life. Instead, it expounds on the realities of the daily grind in the big city — the good, the bad and the ugly. Several of the people whose stories made their way into these pages were the victims of crime, some violent, some not, says Popkin. A Bella Vista resident since 1998, and a Center City dweller long before that, Popkin easily could have glossed over the negative and focused on the positive aspects of his beloved Philadelphia. But the author chose to include the dark with the light because it’s all a part of the microcosm known as the city.
South Philadelphians will find Chapter Two of particular interest since the author reveals his own observations and experiences inside what he calls "The Bazaar."
Popkin defines "The Bazaar" as Fourth Street, South Street, Washington Avenue and Ninth Street.
According to him, the distinctive flavors of each — the tattoo parlors on South Street, Fabric Row on Fourth Street, the open-air market on Ninth Street, and textiles and industry on Washington Avenue — constitute a world-class cultural bazaar.
"It’s every bit as much of a bazaar as you would find in Morocco. It’s just a little more spread out. It’s the same frenetic energy," says Popkin, who has traveled extensively.
Originally from Bucks County, Popkin’s own urban dwelling is on the 600 block of Bainbridge Street, where he lives with his wife, Rona, 3-year-old daughter Lena and 3-week-old son Isaak. Popkin dedicated Song of the City to his wife and daughter, using only their first initials.
After earning a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania, Popkin worked for more than a decade as a planner and an activist in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Some of his experience includes job training for the homeless and working with neighborhood groups to devise strategies for housing and education. While his urban-renewal days are behind him, Popkin remains active in community life as a volunteer gardener for Cianfrani Park in his neighborhood.
The progression from activist and city planner to city novelist isn’t too far a stretch. Popkin says he absorbed many of the countless books published about cities over the past 60 years.
"I always wanted to become a writer and to put my ideas out there. I wanted to try and communicate something different about a city," he says.
Most books on urban life, says the author, portray the city one of two ways, Either Philadelphia is dying, or it’s experiencing a rebirth. "The whole idea of death and life of a neighborhood is missing the point," he says. "What this book does is it attempts to show how cities change and adapt. All of us come here and interpret it differently. And we adapt to it or change it and create it in our own image with our own values."
Popkin believes most people view cities as either elitist or rundown. Song of the City represents neither of those descriptions. Instead, it examines the realities of everyday life, he says.
"South Philly is great because it is neither rich and glitzy nor a ghetto. In some ways, it’s just a solid, teeming, everyday place," Popkin says.
Since its Aug. 1 release, Song of the City has solicited some glowing local reviews. Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano called the book "exquisitely literary … an accomplished first book."
Popkin is working on his second book, a fiction novel. But again, as with his tales of the city, he will attempt to tell a unique story.
The book is about two lives intersecting — one character is dead while the other is living, the author says.
Upcoming readings, Oct. 9, University of Pennsylvania Bookstore, 36th and Walnut streets, Oct. 24, Borders Books, Chestnut Hill