Picking an NHL team between the Flyers and Capitals
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07-05-2013, 10:21 PM
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: Exiled in NoVA
Having grown up in Philadelphia but lived in or near Washington for 4 of the last 5 years, I think I can offer some insight. First, I'm hopeless biased, being from Philly but just another transient here in DC. That said:
The biggest difference between the cities is the same as between D.C. and anywhere else, which is that D.C. lacks a strong identity or sense of place. I think this is not just a reflection of the current economy, where you have the Feds and K St and lots of young rich people from out of town, but fundamental to the nature of the place. D.C. was built 200 years ago to be a showpiece, and very few people lived there year-round until the last century. People visiting and looking at monuments might be confused by this, but D.C. lacks history. Its history is the nation's history, whitewashed and reimagined in marble.
That's not to say D.C. isn't a great place. Tons of culture of the arts and museum sort, lots of young people, really good food. Great parks and public places. (Though I do hate diagonal streets because they waste space and are anti-pedestrian.) I enjoy it, just not nearly as much as Philly.
When you leave the D.C. bubble, there are lots of other sorts of places you can go. Philadelphia is, imo, totally unique. It does have a lot of the working class grit and pride that is representative of any "second city" - Boston, Chicago, etc. As in, not New York or D.C. and both proud of that but also a little touchy about it.
In the case of Philly, however, it's much more complex. It's not just a place that the New York's of the world passed by, it's one they *overtook.* Lots of cities are good cities, or great cities: Philadelphia is a GREAT CITY. At one time, it was the second-largest English speaking city in the entire world, after only London. As William Penn's Holy Experiment, Philadelphia was the first (or second) place in the country where there true religious freedom, as in freedom to practice any religion, rather than freedom to escape and practice your religion. (RI justly claims to be the first place with a principle of religious freedom, but given anti-Catholicism there some people say Philadelphia was more free, albeit 40 years later.) Penn's treaty with the Indians was described by Voltaire as the only Indian treaty "never sworn to and never broken."
Boston is proud of their tea party and New York of their money, but as a geographic, political, and economic center of the colonies Philadelphia was the glue that held the nation together. Pennsylvania was also tremendously important in generating wealth for the young nation, with rich farmland and vast deposits of iron and coal. (Later oil, but that was long after the Erie canal and in western PA.) By 1900, when New York and other cities had surpassed Philadelphia, it was still the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest company in the world. The post-industrial economic decline that is associated with the "rust belt" in the 1970s started in Philadelphia in the 1900's. Between 1900 and 1910 the textile industry, the city's largest employer, shed 100,000 jobs. Other industries followed in degrees, and the city's population eventually shrank from a high of 2,000,000 to between 1,400,000 and 1,500,000.
So there's a lot to have a chip on one's shoulder about. But all the same, something of the spirit of the GREAT CITY survived. As one writer put it, "you have a sense that Philadelphia could be great again, if it just set its mind to it." (The same author noted that "Philadelphians routinely patronize the worst teams in all of professional sports," FWIW.)
This brings us, finally, to your actual question about the city today. The city has really rebounded from its historic low and once again has a population over 1,500,000. This is particularly evident in the downtown districts, which are increasingly full of younger and wealthier people, very much like New York or D.C. The biggest difference in the sense of history. The only North American cities I've been to that feel more historic are Montreal and Quebec. You can be walking home from a restaurant and happen past a 300-year old brick home, or a sign noting the favorite tavern of a colonial figure you learned about in grade school.
In terms of what to do, I most recommend things that are historic but also part of the life of the city. In other words, not the **** liberty bell. It's a bell in a glass enclosure. Skip it and visit Christ Church instead, and then stop into the Friends Meetinghouse on Arch Street just two blocks away.
Then follow Arch west to the historic Reading Terminal Market (which is actually our most visited tourist site, and justly so.) If you get a chance, poke your head into the Convention Center and see if you can see the beautifully restored train shed. Head up the Ben Franklin Parkway (another diagonal, darn you Le Corbusier) and stop into one of the museums. But consider skipping the famous ones like PMA and the Barnes (unless those are what you're interested in, they are fantastic!) and consider the often overlooked Rodin Museum or Waterworks.
From the Waterworks and/or Art Museum, look north at the main section(s) of Fairmount Park, one of the largest city parks in the world and certainly one of the most interesting. If you have time to drive in it or bike in it you can look at Laurel Hill, one of the first cemeteries in the nation open to the public (Mark Twain wrote about it), the Wissahickon Valley (a mill stream and water-powered industrial center to rival any in new England), and the site of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, as well as much else.
Circle back down to the south towards Rittenhouse Square, a trendy outdoor park surrounded by expensive condos and great restaurants, which has a long history as a high-class address. Near City Hall step into Wannamaker's (now Macy's) and be awed by the grandeur of the spaces and the pipe organ - the world's largest. Stay for an organ concert if you can, or do a little shopping in the finest late Victorian style.
Everywhere you go, keep an eye out for the amazing work of the city's mural arts program, which is a world leader in beautification of public spaces.
If you're looking for more out of the way museums consider the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians, a museum of medical curiosities sure to disgust and amaze.
I'll stop there, for now at least. Obviously what I've described is more than a one-day itinerary, and I've barely scratched the surface. Most of all, my favorite activity in the months before leaving town was just to walk the streets and look around. Tidbits of forgotten history pop up constantly, as do interesting people and beautiful sights. I always would get a little thrill, knowing I was walking the same streets as 300 years worth of the the political, economic, religious, and social leaders of the nation, and knowing that far, far too few people were sharing in it because most people don't bother to get off the train between New York and D.C. It's good to be the biggest, or the most powerful, but I've always thought that Philadelphia was the best.
Thanks for reading all that.
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