A volunteer staff member at the Spanish Harlem Youth Center was also teaching U.S. history to public-school eighth-graders. We'd had frequent conversations about his students failing due to lack of interest and effectiveness in the classroom. Coordinating a day off, plans were to meet at Penn Station, with his only details being to come prepared to spend the day walking.
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.