Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What We Saw in Philadelphia

Driving into the city - do we want to do this?

Philadelphia is notoriously inaccessible for RVing visitors. Some high-priced campgrounds serve the area but were not in our budget, and the ever-reliable Walmart option was too far away. But the visitor information center recommended the Callowhill Bus Center, just a few blocks from the heart of the city, where tour buses park.  Not for the delicate or faint of heart, the bus yard, although fenced, is literally sandwiched between two interstates in a seemingly unsafe neighborhood, graffiti-tagged with much-littered sidewalks. But heck, they allowed us to park for 24 hours for only $30. We figured out how to use the subway (old and grubby compared to the Metro in Washington DC)  (but free for those of us over 65,) so we left Lilypad with the buses and launched off to explore the historic district.

We remembered very little American history from our schooldays and found ourselves learning a great deal about the beginnings of American government here in Philadelphia. We took the tour through Independence National Historic Park including Independence Hall where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and signed. As always we were awed to see a place where history has actually taken place. Whether it is the bus station in Montgomery or the church in Birmingham or the house in Appomattox or the room in Independence Hall, there is an indescribable feeling throughout your body when you are standing there where it happened.

We also took in the American Jewish History Museum.  It was exciting to see the influence cultural historians have had over the years, now including the perspectives of women and other disenfranchised people as a part of the story. This museum included an exhibit called: “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American” about the assimilation of Jews and other minorities into the American mainstream and the role of baseball in that process. Thinking about baseball reminded us of our goal of visiting America’s Major League Baseball stadiums. So back on the grubby subway we went, following the crowd of Phillies fans to find the stadium. Following the advice of our visitor center advisor we called for a cab to take us “home” on the return trip. Even the cab driver seemed to be a little concerned about our neighborhood, but we were exhausted and the roaring freeways lulled us to sleep very fast. 

We decided not to spend another night in the bus lot, so the next morning we followed the route of the ubiquitous sight-seeing buses and drove through beautifully sunny historical Philadelphia. Passing the zoo, we noticed oversize vehicle parking in the “Giraffe Lot” so we parked Lilypad and jumped on the local transit to head back downtown. The ancient trolley reminded us of the bus in the Rosa Park Museum: it seemed to be of the same vintage. The trip was long, the bus was crowded; but the sometimes beautiful, often dilapidated places we passed and the humanity aboard were both quite interesting.

Back in historical downtown, our first stop was lunch at the Central Tavern. Touted as the favorite haunt of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers, it serves colonial period foods accompanied by costumed servers. One of us tried the tofu made from an actual recipe by Benjamin Franklin and the other went for the meat pie. Neither was a disappointment.  From there we walked up to see the Liberty Bell and learn about its history. It was smaller than we had imagined, but a powerful experience to stand next to it. 

Jefferson and slave names from Monticello
Next we ventured into the National Constitution Center which houses the imposing “We, the People” exhibit, all about the US Constitution. From an introductory live theater performance to interactive social media displays this museum goes all out to make the US Constitution a living document.  Discovering in ourselves a desire to actually study the constitution, we both would have liked to spend more time here and thoughts are germinating about a future “Road Scholar” visit. The Center also had a special exhibit: “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello.”  A huge amount of research was done to tell the moving  and powerful stories of six enslaved families who lived and worked at the Jefferson plantation, including the contributions their descendants have made to civil rights and other aspects of American history. 

After a tour of the Betsy Ross House, where we learned she had to sew flags in her bedroom, because the act was so seditious in the British-occupied city, we got back on the bus, back to Lilypad, and out of the city. And we made a quick stop at Valley Forge to learn what really went on the winter of 1777-1778.

In fact we could have spent a lot more time in Philadelphia in general and we find ourselves joking that this blog might be longer if we wrote “What We Didn’t See in Philly.” We regret that the grit, traffic and feelings of not being safe kept us from spending more than a couple of days there. The city is obviously home to many creative (and courageous) people and has many nooks and crannies that could be explored. There is much to learn and experience in Philadelphia.

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