I went to Philly for a job interview and just days before the Pope arrived, so it was anything but a normal visit. I was there for less than a day, waking up at 4:30a.m. to catch a 7:15 train out of Penn Station and then grabbing a 6:30p.m. bus back to New York. In the approximately nine hours I spent in Philadelphia about four of them were spent in a crowded Starbucks doing last minute prep for my interview and another hour was spent actually in the interview itself. So really, when you think about it, I had about 4.5 hours to enjoy the sights and sounds of Philly.
I’ve been to Philadelphia before. My grandmother lives a sticks throw away in Wilmington, Delaware and growing up we would occasionally spend the day in the City when we visited. But, the last time I remember spending any really time in Philly I was about 6. So it’s been awhile and I don’t remember much other than looking at the Liberty Bell and walking through Independence Hall—both of which thanks to Pope Francis were not an option during my little excursion.
Having spent the better part of the past 8 years in Washington, DC and New York I’ve become use to living in cities that appropriately know how to deal with large scale events and a massive influx of tourists. Philly is not one of those cities. I arrived three days before the Pope, but already the streets were lined with barricades and porta-potties. Major streets were already closed. And, groups of devout Catholics in matching t-shirts had already arrived. The picture I got was not a normal picture of Philly.
What struck me as I walked around—mostly along Market Street and down into Old City—were random things. The fact that even with tourists pushing in, Philly is a pleasantly calmer, quieter, smaller city than New York. I was surprised by the lack of crossing signs at many intersections, including more than a few that seemed rather busy. I was thrilled to see so many planters and beautiful streetscaping. I was puzzled by some poorly designed public spaces. And, in love with the perfectly designed wayfinding system. There was a lot to take in, in a short time.
The City has some exquisite architecture. City Hall alone is worth goggling at as you pass. And, the further you head into the older neighborhoods the more you’re met with some stunning old American architecture, back from when Benjamin Franklin and John Adams strolled through the City calling for independence from Britain. It’s not just Independence Hall, there are other cool old buildings, like the Quaker Meeting House.
Philadelphia has some interesting streets too, because there are streets—labeled as such—that I walked down which honestly looked and felt more like alleys. But, along these spindly streets you find front doors and businesses. It’s amazing to me that the City has functioned so well with such narrow streets. In fact the oldest street in the City, Elfreth’s Alley, is so narrow the typical 21st Century car can barely get through.
It’s also amazing to me, coming from New York, how much surface level parking there is. You get the feeling right away, as you pass large parking lots and garages, that Philadelphia is a much bigger car City than New York, but then again that’s true of almost anywhere. It’s not that there weren’t people walking around, because as a city I found it incredibly easy to get around on foot—minus the occasional missing crossing sign. It’s not a big City, which helps, but there are signs everywhere indicating where you are and what lies to your right and left. At no point in time did I ever feel lost.
I think I should try Philly again, for a longer visit so that I can get a real sense of the place as a city, rather than a Catholic Convention. Because, there were things I really liked about it during my small adventure. The moral of the story here is: don’t try and spend only one day in a City you haven’t been to before (or were too little to remember) and don’t go when the Pope is town. Every city deserves to be explored and appreciated thoroughly.