We pulled into the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia where our AirBnB accommodations were located and were a bit alarmed at first. Many of the once stately Georgian town homes in this part of the city’s northwest end were in varying states of decay and disrepair, with graffiti, peeling paint, broken or boarded-up windows, and weeds out front. Our AirBnB host was out of town for the weekend, but we met her neighbor, who assured us that the area was safe even though the vibe was a little rough around the edges. Our next order of business was finding Philly cheese steak sandwiches, so we stopped in at Jimmy G’s. The marginally healthier version, with provolone instead of Cheese Whiz, was absolutely delicious.
Continuing on into downtown, we stopped next at the Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site. The noted American poet, a native of Baltimore, lived in Philly for six years and penned some of his most well-known works here, among them “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders of the Rue Morgue,” and “The Gold Bug.” He shared this home — the only one of his rented residences in the city that still stands — with his wife and mother-in-law in 1843 and 1844.
Other than the reading room (patterned after Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture” essay), the National Park Service has kept the home largely unfurnished to add to the sense of mystery and encourage visitors to use their imaginations about what his life here might have been like, similar to what Poe expected of his readers. The spider webs left in the cellar were a particularly fitting touch. Even though I have read quite a few of Poe’s works over the years, being at this national park left me wanting to read those I haven’t read yet and revisit the ones I do know.
Of course, the highlight of any tourist’s visit is Independence National Historical Park downtown. We started first thing the next morning with a ranger-led tour of Independence Hall, the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. The adjacent Congress Hall housed the senators and representatives during the time when Philadelphia served as the nation’s temporary capital from 1790 to 1800 before moving to Washington, D.C. (New York City was the first capital).
We also went to the Liberty Bell, housed in a building with exhibits about the crack that worsened when officials tried to repair it in 1846 as well as discussions about liberty. I found it ironic our founding fathers who fought for freedom from British rule concerned themselves mostly with liberty for white men. (George Washington, for example, himself had 200+ slaves.) Women, African-Americans and Native Americans would have to wait many more years for their full and equal rights to independence. Nonetheless, the exhibits provided a refresher course on the roles played by Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and other prominent figures from America’s independence movement in Philadelphia. We also learned more about how English and Welsh Quakers settled the City of Brotherly Love and how the city flourished as a cosmopolitan hub of financial and cultural activity.
We walked down Arch Street to have lunch in Chinatown, then continued west along Ben Franklin Boulevard to see the Benjamin Franklin Memorial inside the Franklin Institute Science Museum. Born in Boston but having run away to Philadelphia at age 17, Franklin is one of the most iconic Philadelphia historical figures. The broad avenue, lined with flags from around the world, led to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Although the museum and its landmark buildings are world class, many people simply admire the palatial structure from the outside, along with stairs recognized by fans of the “Rocky” movie, where the inner-city boxing hero ran up and down in his grey sweatsuit for training. I, on the other hand, missed the Rocky statue entirely and only noticed the AMOR sculpture, the Spanish take on the “LOVE” sculpture by Robert Indiana. What can I say? I’m a lover, not a fighter.
Heading back east, we came to Philadelphia City Hall. This incredibly ornate building was completed in 1901 as the world’s tallest load-bearing structure made of masonry. City Hall is like Philadelphia itself — multi-layered, multifaceted, and full of zing. With each step we took, we liked the city more and more. Its history, beautiful old buildings and rundown yet funky neighborhoods invite further exploration. While running errands in the area adjacent to our Germantown accommodations, we drove through the upscale Mt. Airy neighborhood — full of beautiful homes old and new on large plots of land — and the lovely, wooded Fairmount Park. Philadelphia seemed to us simultaneously down on its luck and charmingly genteel, a complex city that can hold its own among the nation’s most important places. And after all, cheesy as it sounds, what could be more important than liberty?