Philadelphia’s streets were famous long before Bruce Springsteen memorialized them, as the first in the United States laid out according to a grid system. Indeed, Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited in the United States, numbers among them. But it’s not the individual sights along them but the overall assemblage that makes them so special.
Unlike more recent American grid plans, Philadelphia’s is still evident wherever you go in Center City, as the area between the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers is known. The north-south axis of Broad Street (variously known as 14th Street and "The Avenue of the Arts") meets Market Street, which runs East-West, at the fin de siecle City Hall. City Hall is fittingly topped by a statue of William Penn, the city’s founder.
Like any great city, however, Philadelphia's founding myth is in a sense just that, as a Swedish settlement predated the city Penn founded to serve as the capital of his eponymous religiously tolerant colony, not to mention the innumberable native American villages which the Swedes encountered nearby. To explore the city it’s perhaps better to set the most famous aspects of Philadelphia's history aside in order to focus on the less famous, but no less significant, nature of its original design and layout, which are more readily apparent than in any other American city.
Considering that City Hall is appropriately located at the city’s very center, it offers the best view of this assemblage, which predates it by more than two centuries. From the building's construction in 1901 until One Penn Plaza was erected in 1987, it was the city's tallest building, and it remains the tallest publicly accessible one. Designed by John McArthur in 1871 and constructed over the course of three decades for the then-princely sum of $24.5 million, it lost its intended status of the world’s tallest before it was finished. Cynics have often pointed to this as the first of the many grandiose ambitions it failed to live up to.
It faces directly northwest along Benjamin Franklin Parkway (which cuts the grid diagonally) at its greatest rival as the city’s most famous building, the neo-classical Philadelphia Museum of Art. In between lies Logan Square, whose name belies its design - that of a circle surrounded by a square onto which face a pair of the city's most august institutions: the Free Library (the country's oldest) and the Franklin Institute, the city's science museum. The circle itself contains Swann Fountain, in which young Philadelphians are frequently to be seen swimming during the hot summer months, despite the practice being officially prohibited. Within the broader plan of the city, Logan Square serves as the northwest quadrant's public square, as well as dividing the museums of the so-called "Art Museum Area" from the city's business district.
Its counterpart in the Southwest quadrant, Rittenhouse Square, is considered the city’s most prestigious address. Assiduous real estate agents have managed to apply the Square's name to the surrounding district as whole - which David Rittenhouse, one of the country's first great scientists and public intellectuals, would probably have found quite humorous. Despite its eminent namesake, the area distinctly lacks specific points of interest, although this is a blessing in disguise as it compels you to focus on the sheer beauty of its eighteenth and nineteenth century streets, the most pleasant in the city for idle strolling. Many feature relics of past inhabitants, in the form of small historical signs, and (more subtly) hitching posts, that in some cases serve to separate trendy bistros from the streets. As young professionals have begun moving back into the city (a somewhat slower process than most civic boosters claim) many of the area’s nineteenth century dwellings have been turned into apartments.
South Street separates Center City from South Philadelphia, the predominantly Italian-American area that is home to the city’s stadium complex, the Italian Market, Pat’s Steaks and (in legend only) Rocky Balboa. East of City Hall, South Street itself forms the southern border of Philadelphia’s most touristed area and is studded with the sort of stores you might encounter in either New York or London’s SoHo, although some interesting street art has nevertheless endured. Going north through the city’s southeast quadrant, the streets turn more verdant, and the buildings more historic, a prelude to Independence Hall National Historic Park which straddles Market Street (the building itself is on the street’s south side.
The northeast quadrant includes the remainder of the Park (most famously, the Liberty Bell and its pavillion). Between the Park and City Hall are the city’s small Chinatown and Reading Terminal Market, both of which provide relatively inexpensive and generally tasty sustenance for any wander. Still further north is the aptly named Old City, which contains most of Philadelphia’s commercial galleries, as well as some of its most popular restaurants and nightclubs. Fittingly, its Square has come to be named after Philadelphia’s most famous citizen, Benjamin Franklin. The Square in the southeast quadrant is named after George Washington and forms the heart of Society Hill,/B>, long one of the city's most genteel neighborhoods, which is the best place to base yourself for a weekend visit.
If this overview has seemed vague, that's entirely deliberate on my part – while these neighborhoods’ famous sights are well-known, you can best appreciate their subtler ones by seeking them out yourself. My two favorites of this sort both honor foreign-born Revolutionary War heroes. The massive statue of Polish (and American) revolutionary hero Thaddeus Kosciusko (near my workplace and Logan Square) and the grave of Commodre John Barry, the Irish-born founder of the American Navy, at 4th and Spruce Streets. There are thousands of others, and like Philadelphia’s streets, to see them is in a sense to own them, as they belong to all who pass by.