Thursday, 12 August 2010
#28 Brotherly LOVE.
Oh we do like Philly, very much. I was clueless before I arrived. It's a bit of a non-entity to non-Americans (at least to me): after New York, LA and DC, I jump straight to 'Other'. I can report that it is both lovely and important, like Michelle Obama.
Philadelphia used to be the capital of the US, did you know that? Well now you do. 1790-1800, which puts it in that Lady Jane Grey category of important-for-pub-quizzes-if-nothing-else. (What the Philly tourist literature doesn't tell you is that this was just because it took a little while to build DC.)
But wait; there's more. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were both written and signed in Philly. That puts it alongside Runnymede as probably the most important place in Western law and politics.
Let's not forget the oldest continuously inhabited street in America, Elfreth's Alley, or a truly spectacular Museum of Art that ticks three of my four art museum boxes - well-lit, lots to read, and few children. (#4 is donation only/free, and almost always adversely affects the other three.)
More, you say? Mais oui! Philly has the largest city park in America - Fairmount Park. Which is, truth be told, a little flat and boring (Prospect Park - now there's a park!) And it houses the Liberty Bell, an international symbol of freedom that is a total con (it was silent during the signing and public reading of the Declaration of Independence, fact fans). Oh, and it is the home of a mediocre steak sandwich - the Philly Cheese Steak. And a series of mediocre Sylvester Stallone films. I could go on.
If in that last paragraph you thought I sounded a little down on Philly, you misunderstood - I'm down on what people like about Philly. It's a city of peerless charm - fascinating history, wide open spaces, sleepy streets. The perfect antidote to New York. Its artistic haunts are full not of posers and hipsters but of artists and observers. It is unpretentious about its historical import, the majesty of its attractions. It has some beautiful architecture - especially the Victorian revival architecture of UPenn. (Another mention should go out to UPenn's daunting Archaeology and Anthropology Museum, actually.)
But the best bit of all is the downtown layout. Seriously. It is an exercise in pleasing geometry - four equal quarters, divided by two huge boulevards originating from City Hall. Two subway lines each run along one of these boulevards. Streets are numbered away from the centre. Precise, simple, beautiful. It is where Da Vinci would have lived, if he was born a little later. The Vitruvian city.