Buses roll down streets, blowing leaves and dust onto the sidewalks. Students hurry past, pulling their coats around themselves. A SEPTA train rumbles under the street, tracing its way through the city, announcing its destination: “Eastbound train to Frankford, making all stops.”
When people ask me how I find Philadelphia, I usually say, “Hmm, I find it interesting,” before grumbling about its grittiness, crime, and public transportation. However, taking an English class on Philadelphia literature this semester has prompted me to reconsider my relationship with this city. So out of curiosity one day, I found a company on the Internet offering walking tours in Philadelphia on a pay-what-you-want basis, and signed up for a two-hour tour of Old City.
When I go on vacations, I really enjoy learning about a city’s history. Knowing its history gives depth to one’s perception of the place. There is a sense of where the place has been. No longer do I see cathedrals, sculptures, murals, street names, pebble paths, and fountains as benign architectural structures, but instead as active mediators between the past and the present. I thought it would be really interesting to go on a tour of Philadelphia, a city that isn’t just a place I am visiting on vacation, but somewhere I actually live and study in.
As we arrive and assimilate into Penn, we must also make an effort to learn more about and embed ourselves within the city that we live in. The city can widen our horizons, teach us lessons, and help us develop a healthier view on life, society, and our goals. Penn is a place full of wonderful opportunities and learning, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just eight blocks in University City.
One need only walk through the dusty, leaf-strewn sidewalks of Old City, to get a glimpse of Philadelphia’s storied past and the echoes of the giants of United States history who have walked on the ground beneath our feet. In fact, Philadelphia is the only city in North America that is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage City.
During the tour, we walked through Elfreth’s Alley, just off 2nd Street, where we learned that it is widely considered to be the oldest continuously-occupied residential street in the country. Some of the houses have been around since the early 1700s. It is a charming row of brick houses, with flags hanging from windows and fluttering freely in the wind. Plaques marking the street’s significance and history adorn many houses, and a pebbled path runs the length of the street.
To be in Elfreth’s Alley is to contemplate continuity — walls stand as silent witnesses to the families, generations, and lives which have passed in and out of this hallowed street for centuries. In Elfreth’s Alley, the past invades the present, in its quaint brick walls, dainty windows, and grand trees with gilded leaves and roots stretching deep into the soil, feeding off nutrients and history.
Through investigating the city’s past, one also glimpses into the character of one of its historic figures. Philadelphia is home to the first (volunteer) fire-fighting organization, first public hospital, first public lending library, and the first university in America (yes, that’s us). The founding of these establishments can almost all be traced in some manner to Benjamin Franklin. The city is testament to his innovation, initiative, and relentless pursuit for social progress. In his imprints on this city, present residents can find inspiration and motivation to do more and do better for the city today.
Upon arriving at the Liberty Bell Center, one comes face-to-face with an icon of national history, and a symbol for many movements. Inscribed on the bell are the words, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,” and it rang in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed. It has since been used as a symbol by abolitionists as well as those who fought for women’s suffrage. The crack symbolizes the fractures in freedom across society and broken ideals, and ignites people to continue to fight and heal the fissures and inequalities present today.
Embarking on the walking tour of Old City helped me see Philadelphia in a new light. We are not just Penn students, but also residents of Philadelphia and should also therefore take greater interest in the city. Venturing outside Penn and into the city for the occasional BYO or Restaurant Week is not enough. Take the bus downtown, explore a different neighborhood, visit some museums, go to some of the upcoming festive events, or, perhaps, even join a walking tour.
SARA MERICAN is a College sophomore from Singapore, studying English and cinema studies. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Merican in America” usually appears every other Monday.
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