Heading Due North

After Washington DC we got back on the road and made our way upwards, en-route for New York City. Before we got there however there were a couple of important things to do. One of these was a historical curiosity to be found in Philadelphia. I had intended to get into the city and get out again as soon as possible, but despite an inauspicious beginning, I sorely regretted not having booked a longer stay in this wonderful city.

The Streets Of Philadelphia

We had a motel on the outskirts of Philly, and it took us a bit of driving around to find it. We seem to have developed a bit of a habit regarding this. I’m honestly not very good with directions (this may be the understatement of the century) and it happens that we’ll get at least a bit lost on average once a day. If we’re doing long distances it’ll be more like three or four times. Occasionally we’ll just be on one huge no-idea-where-we-could-possibly-be drive. But we get there in the end. The problem is that “getting there in the end” usually involves going through at least one ghetto.

I reflected on this is we drove through one of the lowest, meanest-looking, nastiest neighborhoods I ever saw in my life on the south part of Philly. The roads were mostly unpaved, or paved badly so we had to go slow, and in our new red Dodge Charger we stuck out like Prince at a country music festival. “Hey, you boys!” I heard a young guy shout at us. The tone  was aggressive and challenging. I put my foot down.

It’s always the same. We get lost, we go through ghettos. Normally I wouldn’t use the “G” word, but these really are sadly marginalized people living in dilapidated accommodation with surly young men hanging out on street corners, beers in their hands at three pm. It’s very sad, and also quite scary. I would like to overcome my fear of these places, but I need to get more information and find a way in. Ignorance will not be a useful tool in places with this high a crime rate. (We didn’t get any photos of this zone so as not to cause offence to the people living there.)

The center of Philadephia is something altogether different though. It showed a full range of ethnicity, and all the vibrant charm and energy of any large multicultural city. The streets were busy and happening, and despite it being quite run-down, people were doing things, being busy… I think I could have stayed there all week just watching people go by. We were on South Street which, with the university nearby, and shops, stalls and boutiques displaying items from all the world, feels like a little Soho. We needed haircuts so we went in an African-American hairdresser’s, and I got a great cut. The women in there were talking about how “nothing compares to North Philly” and if you want to eat, well, “Joe’s down near 7th Street does the best Philly cheesesteak in the whole city”. I think if you really want to get to know a place you should get your hair cut there. Ten times better than a guided tour.


The History Of Philadelphia

Everybody remembers Boston as the home of the revolution, but in fact the Declaration of Independence (see last post) was signed in Philly (which was the first capital of the USA, back in 1774) and this aspect of its history is one of the reasons so many visitors flock here every year. Probably the most recognizable symbol of the struggle for independence is the Liberty Bell. It’s cracked, it doesn’t ring, it’s been moved around the country tons of times, but like Johnny Cash’s Ragged Ol’ Flag, “she’s been through the fire before, and I believe she can take a whole lot more”. It’s a precious talisman that speaks to generations of oppressed and put-down; uniting, sanctifying and focusing the movements for change. It was all quite emotional really. It was ordered in 1745, and according to legend, last rang to call the townspeople of Philadelphia to hear the reading of the Independence Declaration on July, 8th 1776.


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Filed under Historical Connections, Places Visited, USA Trip

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