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Signe Wilkinson’s “Penn’s Place” character Hannah Penn.

Best known for her work in the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer, Signe Wilkinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose political cartoons regularly sear the Philadelphia and state political establishment. The first woman to ever win the Pulitzer for Editorial Cartooning, Wilkinson is also — you guessed it! — a cyclist.

“Wilkinson started as a reporter, working as a stringer for various Philadelphia-area papers,” noted a Philadelphia Inquirer article about the cartoonist. “She says facts and spelling got in the way, so she began to study her love, art. In 1982, the San Jose Mercury News hired her full time as a cartoonist, and three years later she returned to Philadelphia to draw for the Daily News. She has been there ever since.”

We spoke to her about cycling in Philly.

How did you get into bicycling?

When I was six. Always loved it. I biked in Philadelphia ever since I was in my twenties with a basket in front of my bike.  Biked over to the Library to use their photo files to find images — the Print and Photgraphy Section, which is what you used before Google — to use for cartoons and over to the Academy of Natural Science where I worked. Also, I’m too lazy to walk.

Today, there are a few main reasons I ride: It’s the fastest way to get around town; a 20+ minute bus ride to go 21 blocks to get to our offices and a 9 minute bike ride.

Also, I bike just to annoy [my Daily News colleague] Stu Bykofsky.

What’s your favorite part of Philadelphia to ride a bike?

The bike lane on Pine Street has the fewest potholes. I appreciate a bike lane without potholes. Not easy to find them.  As opposed to the bike lane on Spruce St. which is one long obstacle course. I would also say the bike path on Schuylkill Banks when there are no other people and no other bikers.

How has bicycling changed during your time in Philadelphia?

Well, bike lanes. It’s a fantastic improvement. And more places to park a bike. Although there still isn’t enough. I appreciate the businesses that put bike racks out front.  The place that needs a bike rack so badly is 13th and Sansom. And in front of Blick, on Chestnut Street. There’s one rack with so many bikes it looks like shrubbery.

Given your expertise as a satirist of the city, how have bicycles made their way into your cartoons in recent years?

For three-and-half years I did Penn’s Place, and I had a character, Hannah Penn, who loved and hated bicyclists, loved and hated pedestrians and loved and hated motorists…she particularly hated bicyclists riding on sidewalks, against traffic and without lights,

Bicycles are hard to draw. One of the Rhode Island School of Design’s entry qualifications is to draw a bike because it is so hard. You have two circles, spokes, and awkward mechanisms. Also, bicyclists are usually drawn in motion with a person on top. They are a pain in the neck to draw, otherwise I would have them in every single cartoon.

Why did you end Penn’s Place?  (For three and half years, Signe drew a Sunday strip called Penn’s Place that was published by the Inquirer)

I needed to free up a little time.  It took about 12 hours to complete one Sunday strip. That translates into a good part of one weekday and nighttime hours to do a layout, color processing. I wanted to learn how to water color. I found myself so busy, I had no time to explore the city. The other week I went out for a hike with my husband to the Pennypack. I never would have had time to do that before. Something had to give, so Penn’s Place gave.

What message do you have for other bicyclists?

Get a light!  As a motorist, I can’t see bicyclists coming up behind me, weaving in and out of cars and then passing me by.

The mother in me wants to say, “Young man, do you understand that I can’t see you?!!” The last time I tried that, the guy looked right down at me and screamed at the top of his lungs “F*** you b****!”

That was certainly amusing but I couldn’t use it in Penn’s Place! If bicyclists want to be respected in any way whatsoever, treating others like that doesn’t help. If I had his mother’s telephone number, I would have called her.

What would you like to see more of in Philadelphia for bicyclists? 

More biking signs that indicate which side of the street I should be biking in. I think it would be helpful if there were more signs guiding us.

This post is part of our March Member Drive. If you are interested in becoming a member of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, renewing your membership, or making a special donation, please click the link below. We are a people-powered organization and your donations make a real difference.


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