Last March I took a weekend solo trip to Philadelphia. I’d never been there before, it’s a great trip on the train (I have a rule to take the train everywhere closer than DC — no weather delays, security checks, leg cramps or ear popping!), and I felt like having a little time to myself. So off I went to Philly, with the John Adams miniseries from HBO downloaded to my laptop, and spent my weekend wandering.
What a great city! I could write a whole post abot the Reading Terminal Market and its incredible Amish pickles and pancake counters (and the joys of scrapple!), but today I am going to try — try — to focus on historic preservation.
So we all know that Philadelphia was where the Declaration of Independence was signed, was the nation’s capital before Washington DC, and is the home of the Liberty Bell. When I went to the city, I was so focused on culinary travel that I didn’t really plan to visit the Independence National Historical Area. But, as fate would have it, there was a massive snowstorm that weekend and I had to find somewhere that would be entertaining and mostly inside, so I figured that I might as well spend a little time walking in John Adams’s footsteps, and not just imagining them. What I found was an incredible district of historic tourism development, from the didactic and packaged to the serendipitous and unremarkable. I sent a postcard to my little brother (who was 4) from Benjamin Franklin’s Post Office, wandered down the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the United States, visited the room where the Declaration was signed, and, yes, saw the Liberty Bell in its new home at the Liberty Bell Center. The exhibition is small and compelling, tracing the history of the Bell and its image throughout the development of our nation. Did you know it went on a whistle-stop tour of the country in 1915?
The Colonial center of the city is incredible. Historic sites are accessible and well interpreted, and the National Park Service’s new visitor center is attractive and inviting. The contemporary interventions are thoughtful, though the area directly around Independence Hall does little to give you the flavor of Revolutionary Era life. The walking tour of the area, designated on an easy-to-follow map, remedies this problem, and is perfect for a day of wandering through one of the oldest neighborhoods in the country. Even on this frigid, blustery weekend there were many families visiting the sites, taking tours of Independence Hall (it’s the only way to see the inside of the building). Other neighborhoods retain their own historic character, such as the gorgeous City Hall designed in the late 19th century that creates a somewhat French feel in the center of the city. Colonial-era neighborhoods are present throughout the city. The city’s new bridge between the city and the waterfront makes encountering the city by foot even more enticing, and with the thoughtful design of Independence Park history is alive throughout the journey.
I’ll revisit Philly at some point in the future to talk about other issues, but I think this city is a great example of using history to define a tourist market and city identity, and is certainly a wonderful part of our National Parks.