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A Walk through Philadelphia's Historic District
by Jim McGee

The X-Games took place in Philadelphia's First Union Center.  A modern stadium with it's own Cigar Bar and Brew Pub.  But head north from the stadium up Broad Street and you enter the areas known as "Center City" and "Olde City".  In these areas we found a rich mix of modern energy, skyrocketing property values, restored residences, and trendy restaurants coexisting with a wealth of history.

The Pennsylvania colony was founded in 1682 by William Penn.  When he sailed up the Delaware river aboard the Welcome, his vision was to found a Quaker colony based on religious tolerance and self governance, that he referred to as a "holy experiment".  At that time the area that is today Philadelphia was at the edge of a vast forest that stretched unbroken across Pennsylvania.  The state's name comes from Penn's second proposal for a name for his new colony, "Sylvania", meaning woodlands.  His first choice, New Wales, had been rejected by the English Privy Council.  When the king signed the colony's charter he added Penn's name to Sylvania to honor Penn's father Admiral William Penn. The new governor, William Penn, assumed control of the colony, all it's lands, and the 500 or so European settlers and uncounted Native Americans already in the colony.

William Penn planned the layout of the city himself.  It was based on a logical grid pattern and based around four town squares and would lie between the Delaware and Schulykill (pr. skoo kill) rivers .  While a grid pattern sounds like no big deal today, it was a departure in the 17th century when cities grew up around crossroads and cow paths.  It's name, Philadelphia, is Greek and means City of Brotherly Love.   

An old city by American standards and young one by world standards, Philadelphia's personality is still heavily influenced by its Quaker beginnings.  Even after three centuries unwritten rules, like the one that forbade any building from rising higher than William Penn's statue atop city hall, dominated the city's political and social landscape.  It was only in the 1990's that the first building was allowed to rise higher than "Billy Penn's hat".  Former Mayor Ed Rendell led a renaissance that has made Philadelphia a top tourist destination and a growing, thriving city.  It has shaken off it's many of it's old constraints and has grown into the gem that many Philadelphians have always known it to be.

Walk around Olde City and you begin to wonder if the City of Brotherly Love should have been named the City of Firsts.  Philadelphia was home to the nation's first fire department, it's first Library, first hospital, first art museum, first zoo, it's oldest botanical garden, and it's oldest occupied neighborhood.  The list of firsts goes on and on.

The obvious first stop on any historic tour is Independence Hall, the centerpiece of Independence National Historic Park, called "The most historic square mile in America."  In the mid-1700s Philadelphia was a bustling and cosmopolitan city that was very much at the center of colonial life.  It was here the debates were waged, often loudly, about how far the colonists should assert themselves concerning what they perceived as the injustices of the crown.  You can hear echoes of William Penn's ideal of self governance as an essential human right in both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution written one hundred years after the founding of his "holy experiment."  Removed as we are in the 21st century, it is almost impossible for us to realize how radical these ideas were.  Belief in the "divine right of kings" was still commonplace.  If you get a chance, see the movie Independence at the visitors center at 3rd and Chestnut Sts.  This award winning film by John Huston helps put the time period into perspective.  And to get a feeling for just how hotly debated these issues were look closely at the copies of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution on display.  All include numerous handwritten notes and corrections - the result of raised voices and pounding fists.

Across from Independence Hall is the Liberty Bell.  It's housed in its own glass enclosure and is protected by park guards.  Amazingly, a mentally disturbed man was able to get into the pavilion last year and attack the Liberty Bell with a hammer.  Luckily he did no real damage before being subdued.

A stroll away from the Liberty Bell takes you past Congress Hall, the first home of the U.S. Congress, Old City Hall, the home of the first Supreme Court, the Second Bank of the United States which contains a gallery of paintings that make up a who's who late 18th century colonial notables, and Carpenter's Hall, where the First Continental Congress met in 1774.

Along this stretch you'll find costumed colonial reenactors.  These reenactors make great photo subjects.  They pose for hundreds of photos every day so you'll find them to be relaxed and at ease in front of the camera.  But do take the time to put your camera down and listen to these folks for a while.  The stories they tell about everyday colonial life are nothing short of incredible  - some of which will have you wondering how these folks ever lived long enough to worry about things like revolution.

Colonial Philadelphia was very much Ben Franklin's town.  The man was an amazing thinker, inventor, businessman, statesman, and scholar. He started many American institutions and traditions  - including scandals involving a young French Woman while he was ambassador to France during the Revolution.  While we celebrate Franklin's many achievements, were he a politico today the press would have a field day with his indiscretions and trysts which are rumored to have continued into his 70's.  C'est la vie.  No matter your opinions of the man's private life, he contributed more to improving the day-to-day lives of average Americans than any of the founding fathers.  Pay tribute to the old boy by walking down to the graveyard at Christ's Church.  Local legend says that throwing a penny on Franklin's grave will bring you luck.

After all that walking, treat yourself to a bite at City Tavern at 2nd and Walnut Sts.  City Tavern is a reconstruction of the tavern where many of the "unofficial" debates that helped form the direction of the First and Second Continental Congresses as well as the form of the Constitution took place over pints of ale.  Today the food and atmosphere are grand if a little pricey.

The National Park Service cares for a number of restored colonial homes and even a colonial garden in this area.  A stop at the visitor center (mentioned above) can get you a map of the area that will point them out for you.  Many of these old neighborhoods are picturesque and it's easy to forget the bustle of modern life.  

When photographing interiors be cautious about balancing interior light with outdoor features visible through windows.  This outdoor light will be several stops brighter than the interior light.  A good flash with a diffuser is a great tool to balance room light with exterior light without creating hot spots from the flash in reflective surfaces.  

At the end of the day take a carriage ride to ease your sore feet and hear stories about America's founders.  There are numerous fine restaurants in the Olde City area where you can relax with a glass of wine and a good meal, or hop a cab to Philadelphia's restaurant row on Chestnut Street between Broad Street and Rittenhouse Square.  There are numerous hosts for the discriminating palette whether your taste runs to French, Asian, or Italian cuisines.  After dinner, walk the steps up to the Mahogany Cigar Bar's wood paneled rooms for a night cap and a fine cigar while nestled in a leather wing back chair in front of the fireplace.  Take a sip, pat your camera bag, and you'll agree that in Philadelphia, life can be very good indeed.

 

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