I went for the cheesesteaks. That's the part of Philadelphia I'd remembered fondly from my repeated visits as a college student, decades ago. By the end of my recent visit there...
PHILADELPHIA I went for the cheesesteaks.
That’s the part of Philadelphia I’d remembered fondly from my repeated visits as a college student, decades ago.
By the end of my recent visit there, however, I was thinking that I’d either forgotten a lot, or Philadelphia had come into its own during my long absence. It must be a bit of both.
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Certainly the world-class art and science museums were there during my former visits. The Reading Terminal Market hasn’t changed since my visits in the 1970s. Philadelphia was a great walking city then, and now.
But the city that once served as the U.S. capital feels a lot more cosmopolitan, spiffy and energetic these days. And sometime during my absence, someone realized that the city’s history was worthy of a bigger, better showcase.
Philadelphia has erected a $314 million monument to its past by totally making over Independence Mall, a historic square-mile swath that includes in its grassy spaces a new home for the Liberty Bell, a visitors center and a new museum.
The high-tech exhibits and theaters in the new National Constitution Center were good enough to make me laugh and to the amazement of the two children I brought along cry.
When you tire of history you can simply roam Philly’s streets, lined with stores, fine architecture and great restaurants, without getting lost: When William Penn designed this city between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, he laid out a nice straight grid of streets that are numbered north to south. East to west, streets named for trees flow in parallel lines.
We got a driving tour from an old friend. We breezed by some of the 8,900 acres of Fairmount Park. The largest urban park in the United States, it dwarfs New York’s puny 843-acre Central Park.
With my 11-year-old daughter and her friend, we meandered pass Elfreth’s Alley, one of the oldest residential streets in America; Betsy Ross’ house; the U.S. Mint, where coins are made; a historic church and synagogue; and Benjamin Franklin’s grave.
Across the street from Franklin’s grave sits the 45-acre Independence National Historical Park, with its wide grassy strip bordered by buildings, and the new National Constitution Center.
From the constitution center we walked a few blocks to the new Liberty Bell Center, visited by about a million people from around the world each year. The historic bell was moved from its old cramped home to this gleaming $12.9 million showcase of granite and marble in October.
The high walls inside are lined with reminders of those who adopted the Liberty Bell as a symbol of their longing for justice and freedom: abolitionists, suffragettes, U.S. civil-rights leaders.
The first Liberty Bell, we learned, cracked the first time it was rung, and was melted down and recast in 1753. In 1846, when rung to commemorate George Washington’s birthday, a crack grew and made the bell unringable. But its sound was broadcast to the nation on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed in France.
When you finally get to the Liberty Bell, it’s a relatively tiny thing: only three feet from lip to crown. It seems not much bigger than the bell used to call ranch hands to breakfast. And yet it’s not a disappointment. Somehow, it seems appropriate that the bell is battered, modest and fragile.
A local clued us in to another treat just down the street: the Curtis Center, an office building that once housed the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal. Inside were two hidden treasures: a two-story fountain of water cascading over patterns of pink, blue, gray, black and white marble. Behind the fountain was a wall covered with a giant mosaic by Louis Comfort Tiffany. He used thousands of pieces of glass in 160 colors to make the impressionistic garden scene. A one-time owner of the building once entertained an offer to sell the mosaic to a Las Vegas casino operator, but the city stepped in to save it.
We finished with a trip to the Reading Market Terminal, where Philadelphians have shopped for generations at stalls selling fresh produce, meat, flowers and prepared foods. We gorged on hot pretzels twisted before our eyes by Mennonite women, and stocked up on chocolate-covered potato chips from Mueller’s.
Then came the highlight of my day: a Philly cheesesteak. Overstuffed, bread crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, onions grilled just so. Just like in the old days.