The West Coast and the East Coast of the United States are distinctly different animals and a five and a half hour plane ride is all that separates the two. Last week my husband Bob and I boarded a silver bird and flew from San Francisco to Philadelphia. In seven days we saw a great deal and reeled with the historical lessons we absorbed at every turn. Philadelphia is an energetic city with an edge that is brimming with creativity and tensions. You can find the trendiest, the oldest and the scariest in Philadelphia and the surrounding countryside.
The nickname “Philly” says a lot about the attitude of residents to their hometown — affectionate and familiar. I mean, do they call Dallas “Dally” or Boston “Bossy”?
Attending a family wedding in East Falls on a street of tiny three story rowhouses with two small rooms on each floor gave us an entry to urban living. These houses originally housed factory workers in this very industrial town. Only five houses on the street and the wedding was a block party with all attending along with family and friends. The wedding feast included the famous cheese steak sandwiches and pretzel buns and a beautiful wedding cake made by the bride.
Looking up from the ceremony which took place outside on the street I was surprised to see a real train stopping at the corner as the bride and groom stood at their outdoor altar — they live about five houses up from above a real train stop. Not exactly an everyday Anderson Valley occurrence.
There is a lot of protected green space in the city and much of downtown is very pretty. Also the city is on two rivers, the Schuylkill and the Delaware, so there are lots of river views.
As culture vultures we visited three major museums in the Philadelphia area all world class. My favorite was the very eccentric Mercer Museum in Doylestown. Henry Mercer founded the museum on behalf of the Bucks County Historical Society in 1904. It is one of the first poured-in-place concrete buildings in America. The thrust of the collection was to assemble as many pre-industrial revolution implements of everyday life as possible before they all disappeared forever. His thought was that the history of a people is imbedded in their tools. I strongly recommend a visit to anyone interested in how people lived. The building is six stories, very gothic looking and crammed with artifacts many quite beautiful and all useful in their way.
We went to the famous Philadelphia Art Museum where “Rocky” climbed their steps in the movie. It is filled with treasures and vast awe-inspiring architecture. The day we visited museum employees were picketing for higher wages and they definitely yelled at us for entering (but it was our one chance to see the collection…). A huge blow-up “fat-cat” strangling a skinny worker shown with a construction hat on was with the strikers on the steps — an effective visual aide. A large Matisse exhibit was soon to open and we read that the staff has come to terms with the museum since we were there.
We also went to the Barnes Museum where fans of impressionist painting could go to die of happiness. They have 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes and significant works by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani and Van Gogh. It is a startling cache of riches rather casually watched over. The museum has lots of little rooms many of which didn’t even have guards and you could get scarily close to the pictures with no one objecting. A must for art lovers.
We went to the Italian Market, which is something like combining North Beach with Chinatown and then putting the whole thing on steroids. A very lively mix of nationalities, foods, street stalls. You can buy 40 pounds of chicken legs fresh for $34.95 or frozen for $29.95. Soft shell crabs are sold labeled girl $20 per dozen and boy $15. (Boys have no prized eggs.). A sign in one specialty store read in rough lettering: “Shoplifting can get you killed.” I bought a white plastic tiger beer tankard for my brother on the street that reads “The Greatest Show on Earth” for $5.
We also visited the Betsy Ross House where she raised four children in about 750 square feet of space. Elfred’s Alley is the oldest continuously lived on street in American not far from Betsy’s place. Christ Church where the founding Father’s worshiped is also close by.
Two books I bought while I was there were helpful, “100 Things to See in Philadelphia Before you Die” and “Secret Philadelphia; a Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure.” I could have easily spent three weeks exploring the Philadelphia area.
Offered the chance to see a coal-mining town originally called Mauch Chunk (what an intriguing name) but now called Jim Thorpe, we went. My Welsh great grandmother’s people were immigrant coal miners in Pittston PA, an anthracite coal region which is the kind of coal that Jim Thorpe is famous for. Now a tourist destination but the history is there to see if you dig for it (no pun intended). The people at the little museum there told me some hair-raising tales of the miners’ lives. Anyone waxing eloquent about “the good old days” was not working in a coal mine that is for sure.
The east coast is so filled with stories that are as fascinating as they are horrifying. And it wasn’t that long ago. My own great grandfather died because of the flooding in a mine.
Spending time with family was the best. My husband’s niece and her husband who kindly drove us many places on his days off live in a house built in 1810; after renovating they left a piece of the original wall open where you can see the stones roughly stacked with split lumber — mind boggling me, a Southern California west coaster where so many houses were built after 1950! The same niece showed us her brand new coffee cart (a vintage Scotty trailer) named The Blue Wren and renovated by her husband, which is just now beginning its career making espresso and coffee all over Pennsylvania. My sister-in-law drove us everywhere from her home in Bucks County, which is an hour and a half from downtown Philadelphia. She was so good to us it was embarrassing. The Groom and his bride made the time to spend a day with the family just days after their wedding.
The younger generation joined us at the art museum and for dinner in a wonderful Italian restaurant, a treat from a generous uncle. Family is very big back east and my husband’s family definitely made our trip what it was, a magic carpet ride.
I strongly recommend a trip to Philly if you like cities and history. The surrounding countryside is just lush green and beautiful. Get this: they don’t even have to water their lawns and they are gorgeous. My eyeballs could not get enough of that soothing green grass, and lots of the lawns are as big as pastures in Bucks County, so restful. If you decide to go do some research ahead of time as there are lots of hidden gems in Pennsylvania.
ELFRETH’S Alley in Philadelphia is the oldest continuously occupied residential street in the US.