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In Love with the Details

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Anecdotes on memory and an argument for beauty as a right

photos and words by Brianna Belo

Brianna (Bri) Belo (she/her) is a first year Master of City and Regional Planning Candidate in the Housing, Community and Economic Development concentration and is pursuing a certificate in Urban Design. Bri is a native Philadelphian who is passionate about understanding the ways in which the built environment impacts the human psyche and how it can be used as a tool for healing, reconciliation and social cohesion. 

I've noticed I'm mesmerized by the sidewalk on the corner of 34th and Market

in the same way that I'm enthralled by the long walkways in the Gardens of Versailles or the streetscapes in Paris.

It's the detail that I find incredibly charming.



When moving back to Philadelphia from Paris I lived in a haze for the first 3 months of my return.

      The fog began to lift for me only when I made my first visit to my neighborhood’s coffee shop.

      I vividly remember walking into Two Sisters Coffee. Upon stepping inside I was greeted by the warm scent of baked spices—cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom. My eyes rested on freshly baked sourdough bread and a lingering scent of roasted coffee stirred my consciousness.

      I was instantly transported back to late mornings at French cafes and the daily strolls on which I was greeted with enticing smells wafting from patisseries.

      In August of 2022 I moved to Paris to attempt living nomadically. I decided to make the City of Light my first stop. I chose Paris to be closer to my sister, but I had an additional semi-conscious motive to this move as well. After living in DC for nearly 8 years I was ready for something different, but I wasn’t sure what. Feeling restless from the confinement of COVID and heavy from the work of BLM, I was searching for a life that felt lighter—even if just for a little while. Brittany, my twin sister, had been living in Paris for 3 years at this point, steadily building her career in styling and editorial direction. 

Image: Philadelphia

The twin cities

     Philadelphia and Paris have long held an interconnected relationship with one another. In some spaces Philadelphia is known as one of Paris’ sister cities, and Michelin’s “Le Guide Vert” has even crowned Philly the “Frenchest” city in America (the same guide asserts Philadelphia is a “perfect compromise between American excess and European spirit”). However, this title is not a recent accomplishment but rather a culmination of shared ideologies that have shaped the character of both nations [1] . Following Independence in 1776, French revolutionaries remained in Philadelphia—motivated by idealism—to assist in the establishment of the nascent United States [2]. Beyond shared, foundational ideologies, French architecture and art transformed Philadelphia’s popular cultural and urban landscape, leaving an indelible imprint on our city. Many of Philadelphia’s anchoring monuments—City Hall, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Parkway, The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, and even the Philadelphia Zoo were designed by French architects or native Philadelphians trained in some form at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts. 

     Growing up in Philadelphia, I adored my hometown’s prestigious landmarks for their beauty and the memories I’d attached to them—fireworks on the Parkway, trips to the Zoo, and summer movie nights at the Delaware riverfront back lit by the Benjamin Franklin bridge are top of mind examples. I was even convinced I would live in the Art Museum someday. My sister and I developed a deep affection for our home, nurtured by the pride instilled in us through formative experiences throughout Philly. 

     Beyond Paris’ foundational connection to Philadelphia, the City of Light served as a haven for African Americans seeking respite from physical, intellectual, and spiritual violence of racism in the U.S. This relationship has long existed but further solidified when African American troops were commissioned to fight alongside French soldiers in both World Wars because they were excluded from serving on frontlines with white Americans. Fighting in company with the French forged bonds and invited cultural exchange between the two groups. African Americans were awarded medals for their bravery and invited into French homes, creating a lived experience that was nearly unfathomable on U.S. soil at the time.

Image (above): Versailles, FR
Image (left): Paris, FR

[1] Virok, Christina, and Lauren Cooper. “France and the French.” Encyclopedia of
Greater Philadelphia, March 17, 2022.
[2] Haas, Kimberly. “Je t’aime, Jawn Française! New Book Explores Philly’s Inner Francophile.” Hidden City Philadelphia, July 16, 2021.

“I needed Paris… It was a feast, a grand carnival of imagery, and immediately everything there seemed to offer sublimation to those inner desires that had for so long been hampered by racism back in America. For the first time in my life I was relaxing from tension and pressure.”
- Gordon Parks, Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography


[3]  Virok and Cooper 
[4]   Chernick, Karen. “The Hidden Histories of Black Americans in Paris.” Atlas Obscura, August 24, 2020. 

     It was also during this time that Black soldiers introduced their French comrades to Jazz, igniting France’s love of the genre and African American creativity [3]. France garnered a reputation as a place where Black Americans could “just be” and prolific African American visionaries and activists began to seek refuge, find solace and inspiration in Paris’ embrace [4]. Figures such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Beauford Delaney, Josephine Baker, W.E.B DuBois, Loïs Mailou Jones, alongside notable Philadelphians like Henry Ossawa Tanner and Julian Able, were among those who selected the city to develop their craft and advance their ideologies. The contributions and philosophies of these individuals empowered African American expression and advocacy, particularly at a time when it faced suppression in the United States. Local historians and African-American expats alike celebrate Black culture’s ubiquity throughout the city.  With an awareness of this context, Paris felt like the ideal place to slow my pace and make room for ease in my life.

      On my walks to and from Britt’s apartment – 20 minutes each way—I’d slow my pace and marvel at the streets, stopping at the windows of patisseries and forgoing headphones in order to take in the honks of scooters, or the sounds of petit voices playing in the parks I passed by. 

      One morning we set out on a walk that became a 2 hour stroll through Montmartre. The streets were empty and our pace was leisurely. I savored the sense of wonder that I felt as I discovered this new place, lingering on corners and in corridors. We ended at my sister’s favorite café, Two Doors Coffee. When stepping inside, as the shop was lit with soft morning light, I was greeted with echoes of Cleo Sol’s “23” and an aroma of freshly ground espresso.    

      This walk allowed me to reclaim a childlike moment with my sister. We were close growing up, our younger years full of long days of play and longer conversations about everything and nothing.

      It was in Paris that for the first time, since childhood, I was able to experience what it meant to just be—to linger and mosey.


Savoring small details

   Back in Philadelphia, Two Sisters led me to once again be mesmerized by the details of a place —exposed brick and steel beams boasted the building’s original architecture, and the space itself held a warm hum of chatter. The baristas were busy fulfilling orders while the cafe’s in-house baking staff were pulling pastries from a stone fire oven.

   As I settled into my seat and continued to take in my surroundings, I fell into the same trance I’d felt during my travels when my eyes were drawn to the way a light hit a surface, a texture, or art hidden in plain sight. This space in my home city evoked the same sense of wonder and curiosity.

   I recalled this first long walk with my sister in Paris, one of many walks where I inspected nearly every corner, sidewalk, and wall searching for new intricacies I’d never noticed before.

   I’d call each outing “a little adventure” and take photos, savoring the small details of my surroundings. I loved my photo walks because they grounded me and put my nervous system at ease. 

Image: Versailles, FR
Images (above): Paris, FR
Image (below): Paris, FR

[5] Prihar, Asha. “Michelin Is Coming to Town with Its First-Ever Philadelphia Tourism Guide.” Billy Penn at WHYY, May 10, 2023. 


     I continued the practice of photo walks when I moved back to Philadelphia.

    Over time I found myself beginning to obsess over the beautiful intricacies of this city that I was born in—realizing my hometown had as much to offer as the streets of Paris when I looked closely.

   Photo walks were quite sensory—they brought forward a slow, unraveling sense of relief—like kneading bread, sculpting clay or flowing through a yoga sequence. I could breathe deeper and connect more to the environment around me.

   The sensations I’d felt on my photo walks often revisit at random moments when I walk around Philadelphia. A cool gust of air would trigger a memory and suddenly I’d feel that same sense of freedom I felt exploring autumnal Paris or Menorca. I liken these senses to cravings. In the same way that the smell of roasting herbs may evoke a taste for one of my mother’s staple recipes, or the light hitting red bricks on rowhomes makes me long for golden hours spent at French cafes watching the light cast shadows of building facades.


    Today, as a city of neighborhoods, it is difficult not to find yourself reflected in some facet of Philadelphia. Though not perfect, and often threatened, the city has somehow managed to maintain much of its deeply rooted character. Philadelphia is expressive, rebellious, resistant, and dynamic —it bucks at uniformity, perfection, and sterility, instead insisting that you come as you are, with no heirs and no agendas.  Here, you can tap into identities you may have tucked away in less cosmopolitan spaces and invest in facets of yourself that might have been challenging to explore in less accessible cities.

   As I reflect on Paris’ impact on me, I now do not find it surprising that Paris and Philadelphia are considered sister cities, and that the City of Light has a legacy of attracting people of color from the States to its streets. 

   Like Paris, Philadelphia often acts as a mirror for who you are, a challenger and catalyst, helping you embrace dormant factions of yourself. 

   In the same way that Philadelphia’s boastful architecture pays homage to its French influences, Philly’s whispers, snickers and nuances do the same—as if the dialogue between Paris and her kid sister have never stopped. Together, they point at you and ask you who you are.

   This time abroad revealed to me how different environments can uncover hidden facets of my personality. Searching for my environment’s intricacies helped me notice my own by deepening my connection to my innate curiosity and rekindling my admiration for creative expression in urban landscapes.

   Savoring these details was therapeutic. Photo walks allowed me to be more present, and became a key strategy in the rehabilitation of my mental health. I felt as though the built environment had loved notes dispersed for me to find.

   Our brains process senses, emotions, and memories in tandem. For instance, smell is closely linked to memory storage and emotional recall. Therefore, landscapes and places can trigger memories and evoke values through their physical attributes. Even if memories are created elsewhere, landscapes can become vessels to revisit what is not immediately tangible. By paying attention to the sensory experiences provided by our surroundings, such as what we see, hear, smell, and feel, it can help us remember that we share common human experiences. Mindfulness in the natural world can serve as a way to connect with and understand one another better.

   This single coffee shop spurred an internal dialogue I am still mulling over to this day:

   Similar to music, food, and poetry, our physical landscapes
   communicate to the soul and to the mind.
   Physical landscapes have the power to hold memory, ease
   or even disrupt our sense of being.
   For this reason, in the same way that I am fascinated by
   the sidewalk on 34th street, I find myself fascinated by
   the language of our built environment.


“[Philadelphia is] a very human city... with a strong human identity that you can see when walking or cycling in its neighborhoods.”—Philippe Orian, Editor-In-Chief of the Michelin Green Guide [5]


Beauty is a right

These anecdotes remind me that beauty is a right, and beauty is justice.


    Architecture and design are often posed as luxuries—indirectly communicating that beauty is only for those who can afford it.

     My love for urbanism is not attributed to Paris or Philadelphia alone. I will not over-romanticize the legacies of these cities. France and other imperial nations have colonial histories that I hope reparative planning will address, while Philadelphia has enduring histories of divesting and policing communities of color.

     But before Paris I was not conscious of the hypervisibility and weight I felt as a Black woman in America. 

    The weight can feel heavy on your shoulders—much of the time. 

     It is difficult to admit that before Paris, I didn’t know what many Black Americans meant when they said they felt like they couldn’t breathe.

     It wasn’t until I felt what it was like to expand, breathe and stretch out—free of weight, that I understood what it meant to breathe without burden attached. 

     I argue that for me (as for many)—the city’s emphasis on beauty awakened a demand for beauty that already existed inside of me. The same way it provided an environment that pulled out the prolific work and sentiments that were gestating in the Josephine Bakers and James Baldwins that have paved the way for my generation. 

     Black people saw ourselves reflected in the urban, social, and cultural fabric of the City of Light—and time spent there has imprinted a call to pull that forth, to continue creating and revitalizing, leaving our mark on tangible and intangible landscapes. 

     It is my love for Philadelphia that calls me to critique it. Growing up in this city I noticed disparities across neighborhoods and counties before I understood what they were. I have always remembered how that made me feel. 

     Not everyone in is provided the same opportunities to sit in a sense of awe and wonder, to dream, and to soak in the beauty of the environment around them. 

     Those living in neighborhoods heavily impacted by inequity, discrimination, and structural violence are often told by their environments that they are not enough, and that they must strive, adapt and assimilate to achieve a better quality of life. 

     Some of us have chosen to leave the U.S—while some have come back—revived and willing to reshape what tried to assimilate or contort us. There is no one way to heal from the generational and internal ruptures caused by systemic racism.






     As a Black woman I am still finding my way and recovering my voice, and as a planner and designer I am constantly looking for the ways in which my identity is both reflected in and shaped by the environment. So far, I know that I aspire to help craft external landscapes that mirror our internal worlds.

     As a result, I continue to ask myself questions like “what prevents us from designing as if beauty is a universal right?”, “how are we using coded language to police public life in the way we design?”, “what uncomfortable realities are we overlooking in this field?”, “how can we transform the internal (individuals) and external (communities—physically and socially) environment at the same time?”, and  “in what ways can we promote healing in design processes and outcomes?” I am insistent on continuously evaluating my biases in this field, and the impact of this work on the human psyche. I care deeply about the subtle and obvious ways in which we are creating opportunities for shared experiences that leave emotional imprints and ease in our collective memory.

     I look to human-centered design principles, joy, liberation and the frameworks of anti-racism, restorative justice, radical imagination, to design a world that reminds community members they are worthy of all they dream of, and that resources and peace need not be withheld from them.

Space for deep, expansive breaths was the propellant of my predecessors.
I believe we need more architects, planners and designers who are willing to play with the built environment,
     and leave love notes that remind people that their humanity is welcome.


So finally, I am reminded that I want to be a designer who makes sidewalks sparkle, 
     because joy is an act of defiance 
         and resistance. 

It is my love for Philadelphia that calls me to critique it.

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