A May 2005 trip
to Philadelphia by Jose Kevo
Quote: Using public transportation, Philadelphia became my capricious hideout while livingin NYC. Disappearing for the day in America's fifth largestmetropolis, the neededchange of pace corroborates that this is The Place That LovesYou Back while conjuring allthose lessons dazed away inhistory class.
My inner tracking device had honed into the pulse from where America's heart was conceived - Independence Hall. Skittishness felt more like trespassing with absence of traffic and people as the street lamps flickered. Taking one last mental Polaroid, familiarity back in the car was calming. Guilty pleasures fueled my beeline for NYC like fleeing from some major heist. Spoils? An inherent desire to "find myself" repeatedly within whatever felt so different about this brief escapade.
Oddly enough, Philadelphia is not the typical urban area and became my frequent, calculated escape to "The Country." Values that founded America still mandate factions of everyday life in this historic vacuum that's been in the making for over three centuries. The city has retained a genteel pace that soothes the city warrior while fostering the country bumpkin. Splicing into the roots connects everyone with the type of hometown genealogy we've all descended from.
Humble beginnings encourage collecting pieces of self-identity most never knew were missing, much like no one seemed to have told Philly that the nation's capital defected south years ago! It is the birthplace of America, with more examples of historic relevance than classroom scholars could ever absorb. Beyond prevalence, the City of Brotherly Love has mastered the finesse of harmony willingly lavished on visitors from around the world. Walking Philadelphia is the only way to follow in the footsteps of our forefathers, loosing all track of time and place, even if it means limping home at the end of the day.
Prescribing which direction to head, or what to see, is all but trifling when it's the city itself that has never failed as the most highly recommend attraction regardless of interests. The night I left NYC for good, there was still one farewell turning off the Jersey turnpike for driving a U-Haul through the streets of Philadelphia. Returning for another escape more than 4 years later, the heartbeat of the nation still recharges my lifeline, an imperious tune-up that is now being prescribed to the masses.
Travelers should first stop at the new Independence Visitor Center at 6th & Market, which replaced the downtown bureau. Aside from maps and information, this is where reservations for all city tours must be made, except City Hall. The number is 800/537-7676.
We the People...
After walking around the Historic District, which clearly defines what it means to be an American, take time to amble through nearby residential or ethnic neighborhoods to see how the earliest monumental decisions are interpreted centuries later. Four very distinct communities have formed around the city's original squares: Rittenhouse, Washington, Franklin, and Logan. Significant attractions are clearly marked, but numerous historical markers in between, trivializing the birthplace of America, will have more mental bulbs lighting up than if reliving history and flying a kite in an electrical storm.
The R7 SEPTA stops at 30th St. Station, along with Amtrak. Suburban Station is 1 block west of City Hall, and Market East Station is closest to the Historic District.
Walking makes exploring the city a pleasure. "User Friendly" route markers line sidewalks. Everything runs in a grid; if you've a sense of direction, carrying a map isn't necessary.
Restaurant | "The Great Cheesesteak Debate"
Pat's and Geno's were born to be rivals, slugging it out daily on the gritty end of 9th Street at Parsyunk at the southern edge of the Italian Markets. As for who was first and who serves the best cheeseteak, it's debatable, with varied opinions the faithful won't hesitate defending. When standing in the narrow intersection that separates the two establishments, one can all but imagine the feuds that have developed. The competition stares daily at each other through vendor windows, while close proximity even allows customers to greet and/or taunt each other between the two establishments.
Long before McDonald’s or glorified fast food, these restaurants were designed for rapid service, and for good cause. Traffic circling the block, and even double parking for making a quick haul, only complements the frenzied atmosphere. Sandwiches are ordered at one window, and further down is another for picking up cheese fries and drinks.
Pat's seems to blow their horn more when it comes to "bragging rights," based on annual awards some will swear are rigged. They even have a four-step How to properly order... placard that's supposed to be a spoof. But considering the no-nonsense disposition of employees, coupled with the final step suggesting if you don't get it right, going to the end of the line and trying again, don't be surprised to receive razzing in the process!
Both restaurants have an impressive collection of autographed photos lining outer walls from celebrities and other notables which have stopped by. But, in my opinion, and for reasons not even remembered, Geno's is still my pick for serving the better cheesesteak and where I've eaten four out of five times coming here.
A basic steak with grilled onions on a hoagie costs $5.75, or $6.25 with choice of American, Provolone, or Cheese Wiz. There's not nearly enough cheese fries at a cost of $3.50, and drinks are $1.50. Across from the pick-up windows are service bars with a variety of condiments, including sweet hot peppers. There's a limited amount of outdoor tables at both places. If it's really busy, customers munch shoulder-to-shoulder at stand-up counters.
Understand, dining at either of these places is solely about nostalgia and tradition. Cheesesteak sandwiches are personal favorites, and I've devoured some memorable ones far beyond Philly, undoubtedly hands-down better than either of these places. Decent, less-expensive sandwiches are available downtown from street vendors and at the Hard Rock Cafe on Market Street in The Gallery shopping complex, with a loaded cheesesteak platter for less than the $11.25 meal price at Geno's or Pat's.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on June 14, 2005
1219 South 9th Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19147
Attraction | "City Hall = Philly Goose Bumps!"
America's most grand and elegant city hall characterizes The Pride of Philadelphia, and, until recently, an ordinance prohibited any building to rise higher than the 37-foot statue of William Penn thath caps the main tower. Philadelphia finally got their skyline, and one of the best places for enjoying it has finally caught on.
At base of the Penn statue is a small, enclosed observation deck with panoramas that rival the Empire State Building. Before 2000, it was possible to wander in, leisurely browse the small museum featuring the building's affluence, and then have endless viewing time in the tower. Growth in tourism has justified timed-guided tours that are still well worth the effort.
From either the northwest or northeast entries, elevators run to the seventh floor. Exit and follow the colored line to the escalator, which, unfortunately, was broken down during this last visit. There's also an official City Hall tour, but freely roaming around the building with no security checks is also possible. Cavernous hallways formulate the aged sterility of public facilities. Desks and outdated office equipment are stacked in halls while ongoing renovations could never erase the epoch.
Most every Philadelphia-based production has familiarized this icon, but what's found taking place on any given day surpasses any script. Attorneys argue outside of courtrooms, and beyond open doors are large offices where everyone works in silence. A series of halls and stairs connect all floors on the four wings around a collection of interior walkways and courtyards. Poking my head out open windows along the interior hallways, like a high-school rebel without a hall pass, an intriguing view of a turret eclipsed by the tower and Penn statue was worth a photo. Positioned on the floor ready to focus, a young bailiff passed with a scolding for taking pictures. Turned out, the only problem was I hadn't first gotten a clearance pass in ROOM 702 for taking photos.
Free City Hall Tours
Reservations can be made by calling 215/686-9074 or by stopping by the small tourism bureau in ROOM 121 on the centralized corridor walkway that connects Market Street. Observation deck tours run every 15 minutes, from 9:30am to 4:30pm on weekdays. An in-depth City Hall tour, which includes the tower, departs at 12:30pm. They can't accommodate large groups and book tours for 15 people or less. Reservations are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
* Aside from the observation deck, don't miss the rotunda stairwell in the southeast corner.
* Public restrooms are located throughout the building.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 14, 2005
Broad and Market streets
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19107
+1 215 686 1776
Attraction | "The Italian Market"
Having no idea, fate led me north on 9th Street through one of the city's greatest cultural encounters. On that late Sunday afternoon, the Italian Markets were just winding down. Scattered carts and crates of damaged produce had spilled off sidewalks, further confining the crowded street. Captured by grittiness, turning off the stereo and rolling down a window allowed smells and sounds to invigorate the adventure, stuck in a snail's pace-parade, with immediate transport to old-world Italy.
Nine years later, the Italian Market has organized in hopes of luring tourists from downtown. I was surprised to find banners advertising street festivals and their website, but the "sprucing up" has definitely eroded the authentic environment so questionably appealing. Over time, each return visit signified progressive changes that come within poorer immigrant neighborhoods, namely with ethnic turnover. Asians were gaining annual momentum as business owners and customers. Now it's the Mexicans.
Coming here on a Tuesday morning, the day after a major holiday, was hopefully why many businesses were closed and vendor carts sat abandoned along streets. Finding people of every race working behind counters spoiled the quixotic memories of when Italians literally had the market and area cornered.
Trendy bistros and cafés serving numerous types of foods have crept in among the forefathers, proudly vaunting their family-run traditions since the mid-to-late-1800s. Reputable Italian restaurants are still secondary to the market, where handmade pastas and cheeses, butcher shops and fish stands, and bakeries and produce carts feed the neighborhood with traditional feasts prepared at home.
Visitors shouldn't go hungry, whether snacking from the markets or dining at one of the many restaurants, including a pair of Philly's favorites reviewed in the dining entry. There's also an abundance of discount stores with household supplies and trinkets jamming sidewalks with more selections inside. Whether planning to eat or shop, the real highlight is what remains of customs and traditions.
Groups of old codgers still cluster in shaded areas, avidly debating daily issues using communication skills that define the Italian-American stereotype. Proficient shoppers argue with vendors over quantity and quality under watchful eyes of Guido-type owners. For some, nothing's changed, with even styles reflecting decades gone by. A bearded, apron-clad meatball obstructs the doorway to his shop waiting for customers while randomly belting along with the opera music coming from an apartment window. Now that's Italian.
The Italian Markets are located along 9th Street, a pleasant 12-block walk south of Market Street. The 47M bus, caught on 8th St., loops back along 9th, a one-way street heading north. Using the subway, take the Broad Street Line from City Hall south to Ellsworth-Federal and walk 5 blocks east.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 14, 2005
700-1100 South 9th St (9th Street between Christian and Wharton streets)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19147
The Rocky & Bullwinkle Tour
Across from the northwest corner of City Hall is LOVE Park, which has a fountain shooting sky-high jets of water, great for lounging downwind from on a hot summer day. Off the tip of the park, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway leads to Logan Square, which bases the cluster of city museums. The parkway ends at the steps made famous by Sylvester Stallone's triumphant Rocky run to the top outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
On one of my first trips to Philly, I was surprised to find that the city celebrates the 4th of July with a week's worth of activities and nightly firework shows leading up to Independence Day. A street festival along Franklin Parkway provided enough of a distraction to make the long walk enjoyable. Public transportation was used during the other time spent in this area.
Clearly marked bus stops line Market Avenue along LOVE Park, including a direct route to the zoo. The Philadelphia Zoo is America's first chartered zoo, though New Yorkers still claim the title thanks to an unorganized menagerie of cages behind The Arsenal in Central Park. The predominant lingering memory is wishing there'd been more within the 42-acre facility, which has been engulfed with no space to grow. Extreme makeovers have allowed the grounds to retain historical significance while doing away with cages in lieu of natural-setting viewings. The zoo opens at 9:30am and was a great place to spend the morning.
The same bus line that passes the zoo loops back around the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which makes for a convenient double feature. Beyond special exhibits, regular collections rival anything found in NY's museums, and admission is cheaper at $10. However, with all that's found inside, don't hesitate to take an in-depth look around the outside, where facades are intricately detailed like how The Parthenon in Athens once appeared in its glory days. The museum is closed on Mondays.
The Gallery Shopping Plaza
East of City Hall, along the northern side of Market Street, The Gallery is a four-level complex of shopping and dining that extends 4 blocks and is linked with the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It's a great place to unwind and end the day while waiting for off-peak trains that can be accessed from the Market East Station on the lower level. Even if you don't have need for trains, the station is worth a quick look thanks to uniform, colored tiles along track walls that materialize scenes like a Monet garden from different vantage points.
Melting Pot Heritages
Part of Philadelphia's small-town charm is how the city has retained some very distinct ethnic communities, with a host of museums and monuments paying tribute to the diversities that contributed to our concepts of liberty and justice for all, regardless of origin.
Chinatown comprises the area between 8th and 12th Streets north of Filbert, behind The Gallery shopping mall. The impressive Friendship Gate, located at 10th and Arch, was the first of its kind, designed and built by Chinese craftsmen in 1984, but the community's roots go back as far as 1845. The Independence Visitor Center has a detailed brochure with listings of neighborhood attractions and businesses, including 42 restaurants serving Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, Taiwanese, and Indonesian cuisine.
* Philadelphia's main bus terminal for Greyhound, Peter Pan, and other lines is located on Filbert, just off 10th.
Of all the Ethnic Museums, the African-American vestige is the only one I've visited as a regular stop when bringing students. The collections, which opened as part of the country's 1976 bicentennial, celebrate the journey African-Americans have made through numerous struggles and contributions to American society. In addition to art galleries and rooms containing significant time pieces, photos, and factual displays, live performances showcasing how African-Americans have expressed within the arts and entertainment are regularly scheduled.
The city's rich Jewish Heritage patchworks the downtown landscape, with historic synagogues and cemeteries further extolled with a trio of specialty museums, including the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Other rare ethnic collections are assembled within the American Swedish Historical Museum, the Polish American Cultural Center Museum, and the Philadelphia Doll Museum, which allows patrons to view the people of the world depicted through native dolls.
The area southeast of City Hall is known as the Washington Square District within the borders of Market, Broad, South, and 6th Streets. Once clearing the first couple of blocks lined with thriving commerce, the area eases into a NYC's Greenwich Village ambience with frowzy bars, cafés, and shops. Jewelers Row is on Sansom, between 7th & 9th, and Antique Row runs between 6th & Broad along Pine Street, but the best character feature of this neighborhood is one of the city's highlights which doesn't cost a dime!
The Washington District was obviously one of the city's first affluent neighborhoods, and there's no place better to get a sense of historical Philly than from loosing oneself within the maze of narrow brick streets and back alleys, some mere carriage paths too narrow for cars. Cottage-styled homes with colonial-shuttered windows still fly the original flag of the 13 colonies. Shaded streets trimmed with colorful flower boxes invoke the spirit of America with the anticipation that any of our forefathers might round the corner or appear from a doorway at any moment.
The neighborhood affords an up-close and intimate viewing into how modern-day yuppies have maintained the elite-ness. One can't help but notice the innumerable John Kerry campaign posters still hanging in windows. Beyond, gated courtyards reveal spacious hidden patios overlooked by private balconies. Yet, in the daytime, the area is usually abandoned and makes for a quaint step back in time I've passed through with each visit.
The Waterfront and Beyond
Heading east along Market Street, towards the waterfront, cross the bridge that leads to Penn's Landing on the banks of the Delaware River. Check their website for the list of free concerts, festivals, and firework shows that run through the summer. I've yet to make it to the Independence Seaport Musuem, but have thoroughly enjoyed what waits on the Jersey banks.
The city's Adventure Aquarium is in Camden, New Jersey, and can be reached by ferry service (215/925-LINK) April to October or by other forms of public transportation. From looking at the latest brochure, I barely recognize the place, which already had my vote for the country's best aquarium before the latest round of extensive renovations. Continued expansions include a 4-D-theater scheduled to open in July, 2005, and more interactive, educational displays that are all the rage in family entertainment, with even printed invitations for "brave ones" to take part in supervised swims with sharks!
Camden has jumped on the opportunity for luring Philly tourists and has put great effort into converting their Waterfront into a top-notch family attraction, including a newly opened Children's Garden. However, the ferry ride across the river, with views of the Philly skyline, is worth the trip, even if you've no interest in these attractions.
Malik was beguiled that day in Philly. I gave my first city tour, thoroughly foraging through the Historic District, discovering how frivolous and limited previous enlightenings had been. Standing within the pages from which textbooks had been written, Malik's enthusiasm was highly contagious. By the time we'd got back in NYC, a plan was hatched to offer an incentive trip to students at our youth center. It became one of our most popular awards and was the ultimate educational field trip in the process. Many visits and years later, Philadelphia is still a feast of knowledge to savour and slowly digest, especially if a person's anemic to U.S. history, lest risking overdose.
Retention in Detention
Time spent in Philly proved how much of history class got phased about when it came to topics about the founding of this country. Grades were carried when refocusing for the Civil War or How the West was Won. I could identify with cowboys and Southerner outdoor types, but Philadelphia seemed so far away. It simply didn't exist, nor the desire to really learn anything about New England and the mid-Atlantic, where it all began.
As a freshman in college, ignorance was fully exposed when a professor abruptly informed me the Liberty Bell wasn't in Boston. As for really profound, acquired Philly knowledge, "Rocky" hung out in cool neighborhoods and persevered up those endless stairs at some big-ass museum. The Phllies’ Mike Schmidt was an ace at first base. Anyone could make a cheesesteak sandwich, but cream cheese only came from one place. And once a former roommate was traded to The Eagles, he used to call with stories us country boys couldn't begin to conceive of. Beyond that, whatever else "important" happened in Philadelphia was no different than math or other subjects suffered through. They'd never be put to use, let alone was there a Valley Forge snowball's chance in hell of ever visiting there.
Life in NYC and touring Europe's largest cities thankfully dilated my scope of identity and was probably the only thing which curtailed going totally bonkers discovering such guilty pleasures. The refining process from Midwest inhibitions was about to get purged since very little in Philly doesn't have some type of historical or traditional significance. Retained but forgotten knowledge from years gone by was finally awakened!
I'm not sure how anyone could pay a visit and not feel a visceral connection to places where the concepts of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were conceived. Sage types will need spectacles for skimming through magnitudes of information tucked away in classic collections, but there's still no escaping recitations, even for us outdoor types. Picture-less facts materialize in the streets, and the city hasn't missed a single opportunity to exploit every occurrence and landmark with great detail.
Santo Domingo may be loaded with "firsts" as birthplace of the Western world, but Philadelphia trumps with the U.S. firsts, seconds, and even thirds! The Independence National Historic Park claims to be the country's most historic square mile, and rightly so, but my favorite of relics isn't even a first and had more to do with enhancing privilege and franchise.
The Second Bank of the United States, on Chestnut Street, is the city's most impressive structure of Greek Revival architecture. I found the mammoth structure open with a special exhibit only once, but the interior holds nothing that could surpass presence of the facade.
Philly frames an old-world European feel, perhaps more than any other American city, especially when considering that our Bill or Rights was devised in hopes that everyone could somehow live together and get along despite obvious differences. Nowhere is this more evident than the collection of churches. Pine Street Presbyterian, St. George's United Methodist, First Reformed, and St. Mary's are some of the oldest houses of worship still in use. The Mother Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church represents the oldest piece of property continuously owned by African-Americans.
Eventually, notion of keeping church and state separate came into play, undoubtedly inspired by the various ethnicities and religious sects. Drawing one's own conclusions isn't difficult when realizing freedom of worship could've also been the root of segregation! Founded in 1740, the Congregation Mikveh Israel still serves the thriving Jewish community as "Synagogue of the Revolution." Just around the corner is the Arch Street Meeting House, which housed a church and community center for Quakers. Even if you don't have time to read all the material, pass through the main facility, which doesn't require reservations. Simplicity is confounding compared to what's nearby, billed as The Nation's Church.
Christ Church, at 2nd and Market, has a free tour that drops impressive names of the who's who that called the church their own. America's Episcopal denomination was founded here, the country's flirtatious alternative to Catholicism cloaked in religious freedom and tolerance. There's no denying worship of the wealthy was embraced, a spiritual encounter that included seeing and being seen. Everyone that was anyone filled coiffeurs, securing prominence within the community, as well as personal spots in pews or cemetery burial plots. In many cases, performed acts and deeds by parish members are more recognizable than names, but there's no escaping who could easily be considered Father of Philadelphia.
All About the Benjamins...
As founder of the city, William Penn may have secured the loftiest position atop City Hall, but just about everything else below memorializes the man who arguably made some of the country's greatest contributions. Benjamin Franklin embodied the spirit of America with a lot more than his kite-flying skills. It's no wonder he was the only non-president to grace our currency, developed at the original U.S. Mint on 5th and Arch.
Franklin Court, on the south side of Market, between 3rd and 4th, is not even specifically listed in the official visitors guide. An arched walkway between the pair of green doors trails to the foundational remains of the house Franklin shared with his wife, Deborah, and one of the best learning resources in the city. Placards line courtyard walls, detailing the Franklins' everyday lives, as well as factual trivia about the print shops where he worked.
Towards the rear is free entry to an underground museum, which contains artifacts from the couple's home and examples of more Franklin contributions than ever appreciated. The main exhibit room is centered around a sunken display paying tribute to the Franklins and their neighbors, but visitors of all ages will gain from the wall of Franklin quotes or the bank of telephones where listed hotline numbers can be dialed to hear voice-overs of what some of the world's most prominent have said about this Statesman throughout the centuries.
Combing over the places Franklin frequented is all but surreal, perhaps standing in the exact spot where he told a funny that wiped the smugness from George Washington's face. The Franklins, along with numerous notables, are buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch, separate from the church. Wishing to repay respects, a pair of colonial-clad students stopped me at the gate, now requesting $2 admission. No wonder the cemetery was "void" of life.
For being such a central community figure, perhaps tourism plans for the 21st century were already in place when the Franklins were laid to rest in 1790. They're along the wall, where a section of bricks has been replaced with caste-iron fencing. Tourists congregate bouncing pennies off the marble grave marker for good luck, a $999.99 discount.
While Our Forefathers Sleep...
Philadelphia would experience a massive earthquake if all the significant people buried rolled over at the same time, especially if they ever sensed how far their ideals for America had been elucidated, and the new National Constitution Center isn't even a necessary reminder. We, as a country, have came a long way, at times appearing to have progressed even farther with ideals than Philadelphia.
Ongoing development within the historic district has all but swallowed Independence Hall into vagueness. Barricades might have been initially placed in response to 9/11 and potential terrorist attacks, but a double-purpose helps control the multitudes that have turned Philadelphia into a quest and pilgrimage. Even the peaceful garden where Betsy Ross is buried had turned into a three-ring circus!
When considering the overall state of our nation, the City of Brotherly Love seems to have clung to what our founders intended and manages to make the wrongs right. That's how Philly will always remain a timeless destination, an opportunity to revisit the past while passing through our living history in progress.