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It’s okay to say it: 2021 was a bit of a dumpster fire. So we’re striking a different tone with our year-end roundup.
Quick recap of things we’ll gladly leave behind: The year started with the city’s surprise vaccine provider crumbling amid malpractice and the need to consider what would happen if an insurrection hit Philly. The health commissioner resigned after uproar over human remains. Students suffered as virtual learning was stretched to its limits. From pools to rec centers, public spaces struggled to reopen as upticks in gun violence placed a premium on safety. New COVID variants threatened, while finding a test was difficult.
Oh, and the Sixers had another failed playoff attempt, there was a potential cicada infestation, and Schuylkill River floodwaters forced people to be evacuated from their homes. Recounting even a few of this year’s headlines is dizzying.
But there was also joy to be found — thanks to new landmarks, impromptu parties, and plenty of Philadelphians committed to social change.
Looking to enter the New Year feeling optimistic about the state of our city? We collected a dozen of our most uplifting stories from 2021.
1) Temple alum creates a martial arts program to divert kids from gun violence
Jeff Whittingham turned to jiu jitsu after playing for Temple Football and nearly entering the NFL draft. Now, he leads Gracie Academy’s “Growth, Love, Success” program, which offers free martial arts lessons to Philly teens to interrupt the path to gun violence.
“I was one of these kids, so I know what it’s like to go through certain situations,” Whittingham told Billy Penn in January. He hopes the program will also diversify the sport, and instill a respect for patience in his students.
2) Rare piano that escaped Nazi Germany gets another life with restoration in South Philly
In 1936, an Ibach roadrunner piano traveled 4,000 miles to Delaware County as its owners sought solace from the Third Reich. After sitting as the centerpiece of the Brauer family’s home and then languishing for three decades as its new owners raised a family, the instrument was restored in South Philly and is being passed to the next generation.
3) Kensington’s Original 13 Ciderworks challenges industry standards with a woman-led staff
Women make up less than a third of the brewing industry. But at Kensington’s Original 13 Ciderworks, nearly all the tavern’s full-time staffers are women. Led by general manager Maggie McHale, the team changed up the menu and made ciders on site, while encouraging others to follow in their footsteps.
“My personal goal is to go ahead and make it very obvious and well-known that women can run whatever establishment they want in the service industry,” McHale told Billy Penn in March.
4) After brushes with gun violence, a South Philly native starts a youth boxing program to create different outcomes
Maleek Jackson lost three of siblings to gun violence. At his Fishtown boxing gym, the Azzim Dukes program — named after his brother — is a free initiative that helps kids learn control and stay busy after school.
“When he got murdered, I couldn’t think of why he didn’t have something else to do,” Jackson told Billy Penn in April. “So the boxing program for me is to help kids do something different.”
5) Philadelphia Community Bail Fund frees over two dozen people ahead of Mother’s Day
The Community Bail Fund flew past its Mother’s Day fundraising goal this year, bringing in over $200k for its Black Mama’s Day Bail Out. That allowed them to free dozens of women and trans or gender-nonconforming people who hadn’t yet been convicted, helping get them out of jail as COVID continued its dangerous spread.
6) Montco native Sierra Schmidt dances her way to the Tokoyo Olympics swim trials
Raised less than a mile outside of Chestnut Hill, swimmer Sierra Schmidt has always had a distinct pre-race ritual: a dance party. And it worked pretty well, securing her a Big 10 Championship with the University of Michigan, a Pan American Games record — and eventually a spot in the 2020 Olympic trials, where she qualified for the 1500 meter freestyle finals.
7) With a focus on uplifting Black entrepreneurs, Chelsey Lowe distributes $100k to social impact startups
Hailing from Pittsburgh, Chelsey Lowe grew up idolizing Black entrepreneurs: Her aunt ran the city’s African American arts festival and her dad funded his little league team through merch sales.
This year, Lowe took her passion for funding community-driven Black founders to the Well City Challenge, where she helped award $100k to ventures competing to improve the health of millennials in Philadelphia.
8) Four Seasons Total Landscaping hosts a sold-out punk rock concert
The Northeast Philly lawn care operation that gained worldwide recognition for its unlikely role in the 2020 election built on that reputation to become a true cultural phenomenon.
When the woman-owned business announced it was hosting Laura Jane Grace rock concert, tickets sold out in seconds. It almost didn’t happen because of zoning laws, but in August the show did go on, and was a resounding success.
9) Philadelphia woman collects pocket change — and uses it to pay off others’ medical debt
Lisa Phillips is really good at finding money on the street. So much so that she’s collected around $750 dollars in pocket change over the course of two years. Each cent of her collection goes directly to a nonprofit called RIP Medical Debt, which pays off burdensome healthcare expenses for people living below the poverty line.
“Everybody’s got a jar of pennies somewhere,” she told Billy Penn in July. “Why throw them out when they could be put to use?”
10) Architectural designer turns newly constructed roundabout into a pop-up roller disco
The man responsible for the Fishtown dumpster pool and the backflip off the Vine Street Expressway threw an impromptu roller disco in a newly constructed neighborhood roundabout. Over 150 people skated around the new traffic circle before it opened for business, and no one interrupted them.
“If you’re not harming people and you’re actually bringing happiness, the city doesn’t seem to care,” Kieran Ross, who deejayed the event, told Billy Penn in September.
11) Pa.’s first Latino historical marker honors Philly LGBTQ advocate Gloria Casearez
Philadelphia unveiled the first Pennsylvania state historical marker to honor a resident of Latino or Latina descent. Located outside City Hall, placard honors Gloria Casearez, who founded Philly’s Dyke March and served as the executive director of the nonprofit GALAEI before becoming the city’s first Director of LGBT Affairs.
The placard’s unveiling was bittersweet, coming after two earlier tributes to Casearez were quickly removed.
12) Instagram meme account @phillyaffirmations pokes fun at our city’s quirks
You’ve seen the memes: “I’m the hottest person on the El,” reads one in front of a stock image of a SEPTA train. “I can resist the urge to beat up the people posing in front of the Rocky statue,” says another in a tacky neon font.
These posts originated from @phillyaffirmations, a hyperlocal Instagram account whose following grew from single-digits to 25k over the course of one November weekend. Run by South Philly resident Ariel Cifala, the account offers the opportunity to commiserate over the quirks of living in the city.