The City of Brotherly Love is easy to love. The debates that took place here shaped the modern American nation but I found it a refreshing break from high-energy stress of New York.
by Liam Hetherington on November 13, 2011
They call it ‘the City of Brotherly Love’, and as a city I found it very easy to love Philadelphia. Having just arrived on the Greyhound from New York the contrast couldn’t have been more different. Despite Philadelphia’s size its centre was compact and walkable. There was a free-spirited and rather idiosyncratic approach to the use of public spaces that I found appealing. And the locals were friendliness personified. I was shocked the first time a passer-by spoke to us out of the blue; by the third time it happened I was no longer surprised. The natives here are friendly!All this came as a bit of a surprise for me. I hadn’t known what to expect from Philly. This was the first time I had ever been to America and Philadelphia was a late addition to an itinerary which was originally just to be in New York for my girlfriend’s 30th birthday. It was me who insisted that if we were paying so much for transatlantic flights we might as well upgrade our stay from four nights in NYC to a full fortnight taking in more of the country. Philadelphia made it on to our whistle-stop tour purely because, in Independence Hall, it housed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That was the main attraction and reason enough – in my eyes at least – to include two nights in the city. But when I left I thought that I would happily have spent longer here.The city is heaven for politics nerds or students of American history. Philadelphia played a large part in the USA becoming the nation it is today. By the late 18th century Philadelphia was the largest city in Britain’s American colonies. The debates that took place while the Continental Congress met here led to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence; once freedom had been won more discussions occurred to draft a constitution for the new nation. Philadelphia served as capital for a decade while Washington was under construction. The City of Brotherly Love, with its long tradition of tolerance, was the birthplace of America.Understandably then, the area around Independence Mall is the must-see location in Philadelphia. This has been designated the Independence National Historical Park. Its sights, such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell Center are free to enter. For die-hard politics nerds the National Constitution Center sits nearby. You can stroll down through the atmospheric Old City and check out Benjamin Franklin’s grave at Christ Church. We continued down to the waterfront walk along the Delaware River – enjoyable more for the breeze off the river and a couple of sombre Korean and Vietnam War memorials than for the much-hyped ‘Penn’s Landing’. Heading back through the modern city centre a stop for Philly delicacies at Reading Terminal Market is a must before gazing at the green-and-white needle-tipped City Hall. Pop culture buffs may want to head up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to recreate Rocky’s famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Our trip took place in July. We had missed the Independence Day celebrations but the city gleamed. Bunting hung along the streets. Fountains sparkled in the sunlight. Representations of the city’s baseball mascot, the ‘Philly Phanatic’, were scattered throughout the city. Rebecca posed kissing one for my camera in ‘Love Park’ (otherwise known as JFK Plaza, and a great example of Philadelphia’s public spaces). As she did so an overjoyed local sprang from the bushes with a cry of "You kissed the Phwanatic!" There was a sense of pride in their city that was palpably evident from everyone we encountered.Bizarrely, the streets emptied out in the evening. Thronged with families and tourists during the day, after 5pm the city seemed to empty. It looked like all those visitors we had seen were daytrippers. So to get the best out of Philadelphia stay over. We had no trouble finding places to eat, the summer evenings were balmy, it was safe to walk about, and Independence Hall looked stunning floodlit at night.
Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is one of the most important buildings in the history of the United States of America. The nation was shaped by the conversations that went on within its doors between men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Without those conversations there may not even have been a nation to shape…The Pennsylvania State House – as it was known at the time – was the setting for the meetings of the Second Continental Congress. The Congress was a selection of representatives from the separate colonies of British North America who were opposed to the calibre of rule they were subject to from London. Various British administrations struggled to wring any kind of profit out of their American involvement, and their stop-gap ‘solutions’ were inevitably handed down without any consultation with the colonists themselves. The Continental Congresses were meetings of influential colonial landowners, merchants and lawyers to devise their response to increasingly ham-fisted attempts to govern from afar. Blood had already been spilt in Massachusetts by the time the Second Congress convened in May 1775. In June the delegates approved that a Continental Army be formed under the command of George Washington to co-ordinate defence against the British forces that were arriving to quash the rebellion. And the following year the delegates in this building took the final, logical step – they approved a resolution to break ties with London. On 4th July 1776 Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.An independent America came into being – but not in the way we know it today. The early years of independence saw only a loose confederation of states with little or no central control. And so in 1786 another group of men met in the exact same Assembly Hall as the Constitutional Convention. The American constitution they produced, while occasionally amended, holds true today with a President, bicameral legislature, Supreme Court and a new capital. As a marker of the importance of the meetings that took place in this building it was renamed ‘Independence Hall’, and it now forms the heart of the Independence National Historical Park.Independence Hall sits on Chestnut Street and is a quite lovely-looking Georgian building. The red brickwork and white-painted woodwork create a harmoniously simple effect. The main building is joined by arched to two separate wings (one, Old City Hall, was home to the Supreme Court; the other, Congress Hall, to Congress) and is itself topped by a clock tower that was formerly home to the Liberty Bell. The public are free to wander down Chestnut Street and across the grassy Independence Mall in front of the building at any time and it does look particularly attractive when spot-lit at night. Photographers need to take care however as the city authorities have allowed the construction of some distinctly out-of-keeping skyscrapers behind it which have a tendency to ruin shots. Between March and December entry to the complex of the buildings is strictly regulated by timed tickets however. Not an issue – tickets are free. You can pick them up at the Independence Visitor Centre across the Mall at 6th and Market Streets. These will give you a time slot for entry to the complex (beneath the colonnade to the left of the Hall – expect to have your bag searched). Only a certain number of tickets for each slot are given out. We pitched up at the Visitor Centre and got tickets for XX with no trouble. Tickets can also be booked in advance for a $1.50 booking fee at www.recreation.gov. The ticket entitles visitors to a National Park Ranger-led tour of the interior of Independence Hall at the time stated. I’ve commented before that I’m a little in awe of the Rangers and I would really recommend the tour to provide some context about why the Hall is so important to American history. The guide’s commentary was pitched at a level suitable for children - and also foreigners for whom phrases like ‘Second Continental Congress’ and ‘Articles of Confederation’ and names like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton are not instantly recognisable. Rather endearingly, whenever his patter led him on to being in anyway critical of the British authorities I noticed that he gave a small concerned glance at Rebecca and I as if he was worried he might have offended us. Don’t worry about it – we’re over it.The tour starts with a bit of historical scene-setting before proceeding into the court room. The highlight is the Assembly Room where both independence and the constitution were debated. The desks are covered with moss-green cloths and scattered with props – paper and pens, reference books, spectacles and clay pipes. The impression given is that the delegates have just nipped out for dinner. It’s a nice touch and provides a human element. At the far end sits the raised desk used by the president of the sessions (the chair has, as Benjamin Franklin commented after the Constitutional Convention, a rising sun painted on its back). Unfortunately the tour does not go upstairs, but it is a good and informative thirty minutes. Afterwards visitors are free to stay around the complex for as long as they like.
Congress Hall is one of the detached wings of Independence Hall and is covered by the same (free) ticket that can be obtained from the Independence National Historical Park Visitor Centre on Market Street. While the tickets are valid for a tour of Independence Hall at a specific time, holding one allows the visitor to stay as long as they want in the wider complex. We noticed a sign stating that there would be a tour of Congress Hall starting in a few minutes, so we joined up.The Hall’s two wings were added after independence. The eastern wing, Old City Hall, was the first home of the US Supreme Court. This, the western wing, was intended to be the Philadelphia County Courthouse. However, following the ratifying of the American constitution the US capital shifted to Philadelphia whilst the District of Columbia was created. As such this building served as the American capitol between 1790 and 1800. Many early landmarks of US history occurred in this building. George Washington’s second inauguration as president took place here. Perhaps more significantly Washington’s stepping down and peaceful replacement by John Adams as the second President of the United States also took place here. The US Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified here. Three new states (Vermont, Kentucky and Tennessee) were added to the union here.Unlike in Independence Hall the tour took us through both ground and upper floors. The main ground floor chamber served as the House of Representatives. With its shared boomerang-shaped desks and green leather upright chairs facing the speaker’s desk it resembled to my eyes a rather dated university lecture theatre. The atmosphere was certainly academic – I really couldn’t imagine the sort of grandstanding partisan debate and argument that characterises modern politics taking place in such an environment!If the representatives’ chamber was quite austere and restrained, upstairs the Senate chamber was more ornate – though very masculine. Dark green walls, swagged red curtains, and a lush carpet made the room seem much less academic. The atmosphere I felt was more like that of a gentlemen’s members-only club. Here each participant had their own desk. What struck me was the size of the room – it wasn’t big. But then, it didn’t need to be. In 1790 the US was comprised of just thirteen states. With two senators from each state that meant the room only needed to fit 26 men. With just 26 men (women, of course did not even get the vote until the twentieth century), all from wealthy backgrounds, forming the upper chamber one could understand why America has been rather conservative from the outset. The most eye-catching decoration in the room, however, was a ceiling fresco of an American Bald Eagle. The committee rooms just off the corridor were notable primarily for two full-length portraits that hung in them, of King Louis XVI of France and his wife, the notorious Marie-Antoinette. These were gifts from the ill-fated Bourbon monarch and supreme examples of irony. Louis sent valuable forces to help the American revolutionaries, not because he favoured the concept of ‘no taxation without representation’ but rather to give Britain a bloodied nose. But the example of the democratic American revolution (as well as the increase in tax-collection to pay off the debt he had incurred in doing so) helped stir up opposition to his rule regardless. And so the American democrats ended up with a portrait of a monarch considerably more illiberal and despotic then the one they had fought to free themselves from!It is instructive to see the humble small-scale beginnings of American democracy. The neat little red-brick building is a world away from the grand pomposity of Washington’s Capitol and the Park Ranger-led tour helps shed light on those early days of wondering how to develop the country they finally had to call their own. With its lack of an entrance fee and its location right next door to Independence Hall it seems foolish to not pay it a visit while in the vicinity.
The Liberty Bell is a bell with a crack in it. Taken at face value it is one of the least impressive sights around. However it is also one of the most inspiring – its image and memory has been used as a mirror to inspire people in the United States in the search for freedom. And I think visitors to Philadelphia need to keep that in mind, because otherwise the Liberty Bell is pretty unexciting.The Liberty Bell Center is free to enter. Visitors do not have to join tours or specific time slots, which makes it a good thing to do if you are waiting for your entrance time at Independence Hall. It is a modern building on the grass opposite the Hall with information panels taking you through the history and significance of the bell. These don’t help matters if I’m honest. For starters they blow the biggest myth out of the water straight away: the bell has nothing to do with American independence. It was present in the clocktower of the Pennsylvania State House (as Independence Hall was then known), and there are references to bells ringing out to celebrate the reading of the Declaration of Independence on 8th July 1776, but there is no conclusive proof to state that this bell was one of those. Nor did it have any special significance. It was just a bell in a building where some momentous discussions took place – and not even an especially good one as its re-castings to correct defects and its famous crack testify. It was not even referred to as ‘the Liberty Bell’ until many years later. But after being treated to an exhaustive account of the minutiae of the bell’s life (who made it, the wranglings over payment, its tours around the country) you eventually come to a scrum at the end of the building. Pushing through the crowd you get to see it for yourself, with Independence Hall seen behind it through the full-length windows. And it’s just a bell. It’s not notably old, or big, or shiny, or impressive, or musical. It’s just a bell with a crack in it.The power of the bell, however, lies in the associations that have become attached to it. It has been mythologized and in these myths is a power that transcends the dull metal it is fashioned from. First there is the Biblical verse from the book of Leviticus that was stencilled on to it when it was first cast (in London ironically): "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof". They say it rang out to celebrate the declaration of independence; we have no proof but it is more than possible. Due to its central position in the city that gave birth to the United States it rang out at times of great importance or to celebrate them years later. And its image was appropriated for all those who fought for freedom. It was the abolitionists fighting for an end to slavery in America who first coined the name ‘the Liberty Bell’. When women demanded votes they used they cast a replica they called the ‘Justice Bell’. By the time the USA was fighting in Europe and the Pacific the Liberty Bell’s iconic image was everywhere. And when Dr Martin Luther King, in his ‘I have a dream’ speech, quoted the patriotic song ’My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’, his repeated demands to ‘let freedom ring’ echoed the ghostly peals of the long-silent bell. Much as the Statue of Liberty took on a meaning its erectors had never intended, so too the power of the Liberty Bell lies not in what it looks like but rather what generations of Americans have come to think of it as representing: the idea of liberty – specifically American liberty – itself. It is an icon for a people.
The US Constitution was given birth to in Philadelphia. This was perhaps unlucky, as it has always had to play second fiddle to the Declaration of Independence in this town. The building where it was signed is known as Independence Hall, not Constitution Hall, and it sits in Independence National Historical Park, not Constitution National Historical Park. This is perhaps understandable – patriots taking a principled stand against oppression makes a more understandable and heroic narrative than politicians sitting down to work out how to organise a government. But in awareness of this the National Constitution Center opened in 2003 to try and get a bit of love for Philadelphia’s other piece of paperwork…The aim is to make the Constitution approachable, relevant and, well, fun. Entry is into a large atrium. Overhead hung the flags of all fifty American states. Around the walls were boards with mock-ups of gossip magazine front pages: ‘We The PEOPLE’, promising such scandalous revelations as ‘Alex Hamilton’s Tragic Death’, Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Frenemies in High Places’ and ‘Hello Dolley’ about James Madison’s wife. Personally I did not think the Center itself was quite as fun as these promised – I would have been happier with the gossip!The entrance fee is $12 each – a not-inconsiderable sum for a museum with an educational bent (students get just $1 off the admission price). First off, visitors process into a circular auditorium for Freedom Rising. This is a theatrical presentation where an actor narrates the stories of independence and the search for a ‘more perfect union’ against an encircling multimedia backdrop. And it’s okay. Not as great at the Center seem to think, but okay, none-the-less.From there you are free to make your way around the exhibitions, analysing the different clauses and amendments of the constitution and seeing how the American government works in practice (or is supposed to). There are interactive sections – voting for one’s favourite president (FDR seemed worryingly low down the list!), voting to change America’s national bird from the bald eagle to the turkey and so on. I would say it was pitched at secondary school level. American secondary school that is. As a foreigner while I could find parts informative or entertainment I’m not sure I had the relevant background knowledge or emotional ties to the US Constitution to make this a must-see. And to my liberal European sensibilities the majority of comments other visitors had made in some discussion booths about current debates such as gun control or health care seemed to reinforce that my political beliefs and prejudices were very alien to those held by many American visitors.Any visitor to the National Constitution Center would, I think, need a keen interest in politics in general and an appreciation of American politics in particular. For politically engaged students from the US I can’t fault the place. For those from abroad who never got past series three of The West Wing it is a less essential visit. The entrance fee of $12 is surprisingly high (though one should point out that many of the other attractions along Independence Mall such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are free to even things out). Also I found that it shuts at 5pm, which seemed very early for a bright July afternoon. After we were ushered out we still had plenty of time to wander past Benjamin Franklin’s grave, stroll along the Delaware for a long time, stop for a drink and then amble back to our hotel before the sun even started to dip. I would not, unfortunately, consider the National Constitution Center a must-see on any visit to Philadelphia.
Farmicia (sorry, I mean FARMiCiA) has a wonderful central location in the middle of Philadelphia’s historic Old City district. It sits on South 3rd Street between Chestnut and Market, only two blocks east of Independence Mall, in a stately red-brick building – very convenient. I will admit, however, that what made us choose this venue for dinner over any other had to be the name. Not the self-consciously idiosyncratic mix of capitals and letters, but rather the play on farms and pharmacies: Rebecca, you see, is a pharmacist by trade. But I suppose the name is meant to conjure up the idea that the food inside is wholesome, healthy and good for you.Inside the theme was exposed brickwork, girders and flues. Inner partitions divided the room up into smaller more intimate sections. Our friendly waitress sat us – only a handful of other diners were present – and took our orders. When I asked for a local beer she knew just the thing. I accompanied the beer with a simply grilled pork chop, off the bone, served with sweet potato mash ($21.00). Rebecca had a selection of vegetarian tamales with refried black beans and spicy salsa ($16.50). The portion almost defeated her. Thoughout the atmosphere was understatedly chilled and convivial, with the sun continuing to shine through the large front windows.We were not in Philadelphia long, but Farmicia undoubtedly provided the best sit-down meal we had in town.(Farmicia is closed on Mondays).
The Reading Railroad may have ceased to exist, its terminus may no longer handle trains, but the indoor market beneath is thriving and is well worth an investigation.The Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia has been in existence since 1892. It has been spruced up a little since those days and is now home to over one hundred stall holders with a wide and impressive range of merchandise. Rebecca and I were more than impressed by all the different foods and beverages on display. Tanks of live lobsters nestled next to drawers of coffee beans or displays of hand-made chocolate truffles, artisanal bakers crowded next to Pennsylvania winemakers, tubs of multicoloured sweets, pretzels and breakfast cereals were piled high on shining metal racks. An entire section of the market is devoted to merchants from the Lancaster County ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ (aka Amish) communities. This stood in darkness on our Monday visit as they only open their stalls Wednesday to Saturday.As well as being interesting for a nosey at the stalls, the produce and the crowds, Reading Terminal Market is a superb place to grab lunch. You can stock up for picnics here, but we thought we would get some fast food. And for fast food in Philadelphia there is only real option: Philly Cheesesteak. These are hefty hoagie rolls stuffed with heaps of thin-sliced flash-grilled beef and onions, salad and topped with meltable cheese – a surefire dgut-buster. We found our way to Spataro’s and soon worked out the drill from watching other punters. Specify whether you wanted your cheesesteak with or without onions, with or without salad and with provolone or processed cheese on top – and have cash. I went for everything and the processed for the full experience. I handed over my cash while the cook behind her sizzled away steak on the griddle, spatula constantly in motion. My cheesesteak, when it came, was steaming hot. We found seats just across the way and tucked in.Verdict: good! Despite the size even Rebecca was able to finish hers. I’m not sure that a cheesesteak a day would enhance a person’s life expectancy much, but for a one-off treat it was a perfect taste of Philadelphia amongst the bustle and hubbub of the Reading Terminal Market.
The heart of Philadelphia is not massive. Most places are within a walking distance. And so while the Windsor Suites are not slap-bang next to the historic sites of Independence National Park they are an easy ten-fifteen minute walk away. They are very convenient for those new to the city however, being located roughly midway between the Greyhound bus terminal (where we arrived from New York) and Amtrak’s 30th Street station (from where we departed for Washington). Each must be only a mile away. They are on a corner of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway between JFK Plaza and Logan Square. The Parkway is lined with the flags of different nations; the UK’s union flag fluttered welcomingly outside.The Windsor Suites is a hotel comprised of self-contained apartments. Our flat had a large main room with bed, TV, desk and table, plus an en suite bathroom and small kitchen. Perfect for those staying in Philadelphia for a good period – for business perhaps. But we found it totally acceptable for our needs, with good security (you cannot use the lift without a room swipecard), friendly and helpful desk staff (they stored our luggage on our last morning and arranged a taxi to the station when we were running late), and an attached Irish bar and Chinese restaurant. There was also a pool up on the roof, but it was locked when we tried to visit. That has to be my only complaint about the place.This cost $127.88 per night (excluding the $19.44 tax). Considering that we had paid $122.50 per night (excluding tax) for a room that was little more than a grey box in New York this struck us as being wonderful value. In many ways it was a shame that we were only in Philly for two nights – I would not have had any grumbles about staying here longer.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is a venerable institution of high culture – when we visited Philadelphia there was a major Renoir exhibition on. I, however, paid it a visit for very low cultural reasons…I am not ashamed to admit that I garner a certain joy from visiting cinematic icons. I have followed Indiana Jones’s last crusade from Venice’s ‘Library’ to the ‘Canyon of the Crescent Moon’ at Petra. I have seen where Sean Connery’s James Bond spied on the Soviets in Istanbul, where Roger Moore’s threw an assailant from a roof in Cairo and where Daniel Craig’s had a rooftop chase in Siena. In Tunisia I poked around Luke Skywalker’s farmstead and climbed the tower from which Monty Python’s Brian fell (before being rescued by a flying saucer). While in New York I ‘accidentally’ happened to drag Rebecca and Marie past the Ghostbusters’ station house. It was inevitable that I would want to see the Rocky Steps.The ‘Rocky Steps’ are simply the 72 stone steps that lead up from Eakins Oval to the main entrance of the Museum of Art. The film Rocky was released in 1977, the year of my birth. In it (and its sequels) Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa finishes his training montage by running up the steps to the Rocky theme Gonna Fly Now and then stands like a champion, arms aloft, gazing down the Parkway in triumph. It has in many ways become a meme.And so on our last morning in Philly we left our hotel at the far end of the Parkway and schlepped up to the Museum of Art. We stopped at the bottom of the steps. I passed Rebecca my camera and sent her ahead. I checked there weren’t too many people around… and then I sprinted up the steps.Thankfully, there are a huge amount of steps and they are quite shallow. While I’m not the fittest person in the world – particularly not after a week of US-sized dinner portions – I was able to reach the main landing in good order, and still had plenty of breath left to jump up and down, fists punching the sky, whilst bellowing "Adriaaaaan!" for good measure. I shouldn’t have worried about other people. No sooner had I finished than another man ran up, turned, and saluted the view down over the mounted statue of George Washington, and along the Parkway and out to the needle-tipped cupola of Philadelphia’s city hall. And then another did the same over to my right. So there were three of us, in a line, arms extended skywards. And we looked less like Rocky, more like three-fifths of the Village People mid-YMCA…At the base of the steps, just to the left as one descends, there is a nook in the foliage. Hidden away here by the Museum of Art (who would clearly much rather one came to pay homage to Renoir than Rocky) is a ten-foot tall bronze statue of Rocky himself, in full boxing regalia. A couple of hawkers stood by ready to sell fans t-shirts with images of Rocky on them. Stallone donated this statue to the city, though the city rather sniffily shunted it off to a sports venue after deciding that it did not class as art, but rather just as a movie prop. Regardless, it has now stood in its new location at the base of the steps since 2006 and the films have immortalised the steps up to the Museum in popular culture forever.
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