After just two days in Philly, I have rediscovered that joy of exploring a new city with the open-mouthed naivety of a stranger. Fifth in size among US cities, it is a place I had managed never to visit in my 15 years living among our US cousins. It has much in common with its sister cities—from the multi-terminal sprawling airport to the lacework of freeways framing the rectangular grid of streets, it boasts the usual soaring bridges (this time across the broad Delaware River) named for their heroes: politician and scientist Ben Franklin, flag-sewer Betsy Ross and poet of tributes to a great land in the throes of seeking its destiny, Walt Whitman.
My first great discovery was the Reading Terminal. Originally a train station, the basement has become one the best market and exotic food emporia I have seen. It compares to Faneuil Hall in Boston but it’s less tasteful, more lively and easily more exotic. We plumped for Beck’s Cajun Cafe and tried to deal with a Train Wreck sandwich that had andouille sausage, carmelised onions, peppers and could have choked a horse. Billed as “what a Philly Steak sandwich wants to be when it grows up”, it defeated me after a half hour of plucky effort.
All of the multiracial bustle you expect in the States surges through the narrow streets around City Hall, whose pinnacle statue of William Penn has long been dwarfed by huge skyscrapers nearby and making mockery of a city ordinance against any such thing ever happening. As magnificent a building as it is, City Hall seems to be under unending construction and yet the corridors are dingy, poorly lit and completely free of any helpful signs to tell you what’s where.
Nearby, the Love sculpture has a group of blacks offering to take pictures of couples beside it but, from their touchy response to a ‘no’ and the fisticuffs between a Buick driver and the taxi he cut off on Arch Street below shows the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ to be a little short on supplies just now. Downtown streets show signs of the recession—several major department stores closed and too many loan stores and other down-market signs. But cars are new, traffic heavy and, if horn-honks were dollars, a lucrative source of income.
From the city centre, the spacious Ben Franklin Boulevard stretches Northwest through top-notch hotels and a cathedral into a cultural district that would grace any European capital. The Philadelphia Museum, Academy of Natural Sciences and several major libraries all clustered around Logan Square (which is actually a circle). Top for me was the Rodin Museum which has displays a fine representation of his sculpture in a tasteful garden and gallery set back from the noisy traffic of the boulevard.
You are greeted by one of his versions of the Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais were missing from their plinth in the garden but The Kiss has pride of place, although I found either of their versions of The Embrace in marble and bronze to be at least as good and even more racy.
Biggest disappointment came from the museum that should have knocked my socks off. Never particularly highbrow and always preferring the representational in my art, I have been a fan of the colours and subtleties of the Impressionists since an early girlfriend dragged me out of my comfort zone to see an exhibit. The Barnes collection is generally accepted as the most comprehensive in the world and has recently moved from the mansion where the philanthropist displayed them to this heartland site.
Unfortunately, the great and the good have got their pretentious hands on them. By becoming an annual member at $250 you may enter when you like. Otherwise, the plebs must book ahead to be drip-fed in at $18 per ticket, bookable only days in advance. I don’t know the stipulations of Barnes’ original bequest but I believe it was for the public to have free access to good art. My impression is that his philanthropy fell on hard times and a similar penguin-suit-and-tiara mafia to that which fund-raised themselves into the nomenklatura of the San Jose Symphony have done the same thing here—but with even less grace towards those outside their socially-circled wagons.
But past there and over the Shuykill River, things get funky again as you come into the university district. Not just one but the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and several colleges, strung along Walnut and Chestnut streets. The usual mix of jumbled tower architecture mixed in with wooded squares and eclectic food outlets make for a kind of universal atmosphere of college culture. What was noticeable, though was that, whereas in downtown you could see the racial mix of this city on display (38% white; 38% black; 24% mixed, mostly latino and chinese), over here you see mostly white and many asian students. But the blacks seem almost all to be both in menial jobs (e.g. porters) and badly overweight, especially the women. That and they don’t seem to frequent the stores or food outlets.
You can’t get a proper feel for a city the size of Philly after only a couple of days—and I apologise to anyone who knows it well if the sketch above doesn’t seem to do it justice. But I also saw, however briefly, an Aegis cruiser under maintenance in the huge sprawling US Navy Yard in South Philly, the disconnected half-attempt at public transport between SEPTA, PATCO and Metrobus that didn’t seem to make sense, the bizarre costume party underway at Finnegan’s Wake on Spring Garden Street and the European scale of too-much-traffic for the width of street.
But it’s a city I’m glad I got to know, however minimally and however belatedly. There is a similar endearingly OTT boisterousness in Philly that you might associate with New York. It’s a city with chutzpah, a sense of itself and, sitting outside at Mace Landing over a cool one (it may be late October but it’s still short-sleeve weather), you can watch a world go by that behaves like it knows where its going.