I am having an affair with the City of Philadelphia.
Over the last four years, I have found that when homework, boys or real life cause me angst I can always count on Philly to put a smile on my face. But with graduation quickly approaching, it occurred to me that Philly will not be mine for much longer, so I decided it was time to be a tourist in my city.
Like most students, I cannot devote too much time or money to this endeavor. My solution? The Museum Without Walls, an audio tour accessible to anyone with a cellphone (a map printed from the Without Walls website is helpful, but not necessary). This Fairmont Park Art Association program includes 36 city-owned art works and features an array of times and styles. Numbered signs begin to appear near City Hall, move along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and then stretch past the Philadelphia Museum of Art along the Schuylkill River path.
In one hour and across just four blocks I was able to guide myself through seven examples of the city’s finest public art. Through these works I learned about astronomy, the Holocaust and Jesus. And all it cost me was two SEPTA tokens (approximately $4).
Here is some of what I saw during my windy hour of tourism. This, I hope, will not replace the need to explore on your own, but instead will give you a small taste of how much Philadelphia has to offer.
Although you can start and stop anywhere, the tour officially begins at JFK Plaza, more commonly called LOVE Park. In this square, I find a real tourist couple posing beneath Robert Indiana’s “LOVE.” Unlike its campus cousin, the Center City version of LOVE rests on a pedestal that is tall enough for a person to stand in. If you approach the statue at the proper angle, the PMA is visible through the silver posts.
When you call the given phone number and press one, Indiana himself comes on the line to talk about this familiar sculpture. “It would be my intention that everybody should have love,” he says, “and there are a lot of people in the world.”
Next, I visit Nathan Rapoport’s “Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs.” This large bronze sculpture features fist and daggers, along with a Torah and mother with her child. The objects swirl together into a form that resembles a flame. It was commissioned by the Association of Jewish New Americans and donated to the city by the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia in 1964.
As I circle Henry Moore’s “Three-Way Piece Number 1: Points,” the PMA’s curator of modern art explains that the 7 × 7 foot tall bronze blob was modeled after a 2 × 2 inch piece of stone.
Then, I gaze at Alexander Calder’s “Three Discs, One Lacking” through a few low and open trees. Sitting at the base of the tree is a purple-plastic Easter egg. It reminds me how nice it is to be a tourist once in a while because you get to slow down and notice the details. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the adorable egg if I was rushing to a class, meeting or meal.
It turns out that Calder was also playing with the details in this work. The audio guide instructs you to get down on your hands and knees, and look through a notch in the sculpture. In that position, City Hall’s William Penn is visible. That sculpture was designed by Calder’s grandfather. His father’s “Swann Memorial Fountain” sits just a few blocks away.
At the fountain — which is only filled with water in the spring — the Philadelphia wind blows water all over me. I soon realize how hard it is to take notes when you are shivering and have droplets on your sunglasses. It also occurs to me that I will not miss everything about Philadelphia.
These things aside, the Museum Without Walls is a wonderful way to pass five minutes, or an entire afternoon. But it is not the only cheap and easy way to access ideas in the city. The Institute of Contemporary Art is totally free and the Penn Museum is free for Penn students. And those are just the options around campus. Along with some fun facts, my hour of as a tourist reminded me that it is never too late to learn.