Philly and general reflections

Philadelphia

When I first started planning a trip around the world, I was in my early teens and made a list of destinations with my then best friend, Andy.

She added Philadelphia to the list.

“Why Philadelphia?” I asked.

“Because that’s where the cheese comes from.”

As you can see, we were very well educated.

Then, when I was in Egypt, I told the others I would be going to New York City and Washington DC, at which Richard, another student, said I should check out Philly if I had the time. “Philly’s great.”

The former capital of the US (well, for ten years), despite being a city of 1.5 million, I thought Philadelphia had the charm of a small town.

The people had an old-world friendliness and politeness – they acknowledged me on the street with a nod or hat-tip. Customer service people always asked “how are you today?”, “how can I help you?” and always finished with “you have a good day.” It’s strange – meeting men who behaved like complete gentlemen made me feel more like a lady.

Elfreth's Alley

Independence National Historical Park

I stayed at Apple Hostels (which was awesome – they give you free earplugs and nasal strips. Brilliant! Why don’t all hostels do that?) in the historic district, not far from Society Hill. Society Hill is the wealthy part of town – a collection of beautiful tree-lined streets of red-brick buildings with shiny wooden doors and shutters coloured in black, dove-grey, cream, eggshell, wine and green.

Small square parks surround black statues of American notables, bordered by cherry blossoms and 18th and 19th century buildings.

Sights include the Eastern State Penitentiary, South Street and the Independence National Historical Park.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Following the 1787 establishment of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons Eastern State Penitentiary was opened in 1829 as part of a movement to change the behaviour of criminals through “confinement in solitude with labor”. With a wheel-and-spokes floor-plan (the central guard-post being the hub and each of the cellblocks forming the spokes), it quickly became one of the most copied buildings in the US, with an estimated 300 buildings worldwide based on its floor-plan. Originally each prisoner had his/her own cell with a private walled exercise yard behind the cell (about eight by ten feet, I think) and a trap-door in the cell for food to come through. The theory was that solitude would make the inmates regretful and penitent (hence ‘Penitentiary’) and the entire design limits the inmates’ contact with the guards and other prisoners. However, soon this became very expensive and the prison started bunking inmates together, and officially abandoned confinement in solitude in 1913.

Eastern State Penitentiary was abandoned in 1971 and is now a museum with an audio-guide voiced by Steve Buscemi (I love that there are celebrity voices in the museums here – Meryl Streep narrated a video on vertebrates at the Natural History Museum). It’s really something to see – long-arched cellblocks with peeling paint are lit in white, with door after door leading to the individual cells. You can almost feel the ghosts there.

South Street is a street that lines the south of the city with vintage shops and the Magic Garden (more on that next entry). Several of the buildings are decorated in mosaics, including mirror fragments, and the entire street has a relaxed, bohemian atmosphere.

Independence National Historical Park, in the historic district, is where you’ll see most of Philadelphia’s sights associated with the American Revolution, and comprises Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, the Mint, Franklin Court and several other historic buildings.

Independence Hall

National Constitution Center

Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and is also where the Liberty Bell originally hung. It was a lot of fun – after getting a free ticket from the visitors’ centre you get a free 45-minute tour about the history of the building and the Declaration. Our tour guide broke the ice by asking, “who here is from the original thirteen states?”

No one raised their hand.

“Okay, where are you from?” he pointed to a young boy.

“New South Wales?” the kid said uncertainly.

“Okay, you’re not one of us yet.” The guide looked for someone else. “What about you?”

“France.”

“You?”

“Germany.”

“Okay, you,” he pointed to another boy who was wriggling around in his chair, trying to get his hand higher in the air.

“California!”

“Okay,” the guide shook his head, “not one of the original thirteen, but let’s say you’re from New Jersey . . .”

Afterwards we got to see the rooms where the Declaration and the Constitution were drafted and signed.

The entire area is a celebration of American history. The last thing I visited was the National Constitution Center, which is a museum with information about the US Constitution. They have a 17-minute multimedia and theatre presentation called Freedom Rising, in which the actress/presenter discusses the Constitution and talks about the definition of “We the People”, its first three words. As the presentation drew to a close, the music swelled and the actress’s voice rose in pride, and my eyes started to water.

I can’t think of anything like this in Oz (admittedly, I haven’t done these sorts of touristy things there), and I felt sorry about it. I’m incredibly proud of my country, yet there don’t seem to be these displays of patriotism there. I couldn’t imagine the average Aussie family with their hands over their hearts watching the flag rise on Australia Day (why would they do that? The sausages might burn!). There aren’t an abundance of Australian flags in suburbia, most people don’t know the second verse of the Australian anthem, and images of Paul Hogan and Akubras with dangling corks are more likely to cause cringing than flushes of nationalism.

Maybe it’s because the United States had to fight so hard to gain their independence. Maybe it’s because they had to fight so hard to define and defend it once it was won. Whatever the reason, the nation and its government are celebrated in museums, music, art, television and film.

Because of this, most Australians can name more American Presidents than Australian Prime Ministers. There are no popular dramas (that I know of) about Australian politics. There are some songs that instil pride in their listeners, We Are Australian and I Still Call Australia Home, but the celebration of Australia and her history is a fraction of that of the US.

I think many Aussies are proud of where they come from, so maybe we’re too laid-back (read: lazy) to go in for all those theatrics.

Yes we’re a young country, but not that much younger than the US. However, unlike the US we haven’t had a revolution or a civil war. We are a constitutional monarchy, so never claimed our independence and broke free from Great Britain. When we formed a federation in 1901 it was done peacefully.

This raises another question – isn’t creating a united nation through peaceful means something worth celebrating? Or is our nation’s value less because nothing worth having should come easily?

3 thoughts on “Philly and general reflections

  1. What a thoughtful commentary! I’ve never been to Australia, so I can’t compare it to the U.S. in the way you can. As an American I often wonder at our unique (I think? At least compared to countries I’ve visited) brand of patriotism. The first conclusion I drew was that I would never fully understand it, however American I may be and however patriotic I may be (it waxes and wanes) . Sometimes I think that we Americans really don’t understand ourselves very well, and that our flag waving derives in part from a desire to assert some kind of clear identity that we can’t quite quantify and explain, to pretend that we know who we are, what we stand for, and why we’re special (as we love to think) in the world, when in fact we contradict ourselves routinely on all of these points. So I *think* that insecurity plays some role in our loud vocalizations of national pride and “identity”.

    OK, I have to do it: I would like to recommend that if you pass through Texas you make Austin one of your stops. I grew up there. It’s another large city that retains a sense of community. It is also a city of contradictions (in lifestyles, ideologies, etc.) that coexist pretty harmoniously. You won’t find the deep American history you found in Philly, but I think you would enjoy yourself.

    OK, that’s the end of my plug. :) Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>