It’s always sunny, in theory.
One might consider it a minor tragedy to hear of an elderly gardener passing away before his sunflowers are fully grown; leaving the stunted, unimpressive plants to wither away the rest of their brief lives.It would be rather like the tragic state Philadelphia was left in by its town planners. Approaching from the east, across Benjamin Franklin Bridge, I first notice the city of brotherly love rising awkwardly out of the suburbs. The few buildings that can even be considered tall still appear squat and stumpy as they cluster together for warmth. Some are clad in such vibrant blue glass they look almost cartoony – I’m certain they were conceived in a Disney animation studio. Others are crowned with ridiculous, over-designed pyramids, desperately trying to blag their city into the club of America’s greatest. However, I did not come here just to critique the skyline.
My travel companion-cum-hostess, a local lass, suggests that we begin our weekend of cultural immersion at Reading Terminal market. While the size and layout has been inspired by the classic covered markets of Europe, the stalls that offer a taste of local culinary tradition are by far the busiest. Think doughnuts, milkshakes and Philly-Cheesesteaks…and then more doughnuts. A. A. Gill famously said America was Europe’s finest invention and ultimate aspiration, but I’m not sure where the cheesesteak fits into either of these. If it isn’t the unhealthiest product of American imagination, it’s definitely the most notorious. To my companion’s horror and disappointment, I refuse to try one, afraid that it might induce a lifetime of bulimia. I pray Philadelphia hasn’t enshrined the keystone of its identity in this heaving mass of greasy pulp.
What I find most interesting about the market was that the stalls are run predominantly by Amish people. My hostess informs me that very few of them live within the city. They tend to commute from the surrounding regions such as Lancaster County (the kinds of places that helped Trump secure Pennsylvania for the Republicans for the first time in thirty years; leaving Philadelphia and the state capital Pittsburgh as lonely blue dots in a sea of blood red).While I can’t help but question these pious Pennsyltucky dwellers’ presidential choices, I dare not question their baking methods – for their doughnuts alone make Philadelphia worth travelling to. Yet Amish traditions aren’t the core of the city any more than the cheesesteak. So, I continue my search for Philly’s identity elsewhere.
I hold my hands up; guilty as charged. I hate myself for succumbing to the hype and frenzy that surrounds it…but yes, I visit the Liberty Bell. And immediately regret it. The moment we join the queue for the visitor centre we are swept up in a torrent of Chinese tourists. Charging past the information stands with the selfie-stick brandishing army is admittedly quite thrilling, but the rush is short lived. We arrive at the bell, only to find it surrounded by more of our selfie snapping comrades, pivoting and pirouetting with their weapons of mass tourism hoping their shutters might close on that one perfect photograph. They will take it home and show their friends, proving that they made it across the pond to bask in the presence of this bronze god of new world mythology. The story is the same for many of the city’s other top attractions, like Independence Hall and Benjamin Franklin’s house. This is not the Philadelphia I am searching for.
I try looking at the city from a local’s perspective. Unlike London or New York City, the most desirable areas to live in Philly are nowhere near the centre. People can get their hands on just about anything they might need in the suburbs, so many tend to avoid the city centre entirely. This sort of inverted function has resulted in Philadelphia taking on a completely different form, with the centre primarily serving a few large firms and the tourism industry.
My first experience of suburban America is not what I was expecting. Yes, the roads are so wide that it would be faster to drive than to walk to your neighbour; and yes, many of the houses are disconcertingly similar, but we must overlook these things as groundwork for the utopian ideal. I particularly appreciate the lack of walls and fences between the houses – it’s as if their inhabitants are above the petty act of marking out territory. The tree lined avenues are pleasant to drive along in the afternoon and some houses are visually very interesting. After all, these are the neighbourhoods that inspired the work of architectural greats such as Frank Lloyd Wright.
What about the people? I can’t picture any strong cliché of a person from Philadelphia. The liberal undertones so common in the cities on the Pacific Coast are definitely in the air, but here they are mangled by strong religious ideals that stem from the state’s Quaker origins. People here don’t have that southern way about them and they certainly don’t share the carnal drive for personal success with their neighbours directly to the north and south. I suppose they are just typical Americans, if such a thing exists. It’s no secret that Yanks often get a bad reputation internationally. While one can’t deny the fact that the Atlantic separates nations with significant social and cultural differences, I don’t know if any derision or condescension as a result of these differences is warranted. I believe that what Americans value and strive for is straight talking, plain saying. They rarely opt for ambiguity or dissembling; the skills of the socially polite liar, the etiquette of hiding meaning. We should probably give them a break.
I’m tempted to say I have found the Philadelphia I am looking for at Spruce Street Harbour Park. In the evenings, this place transforms into the most magical spot in the city. Hundreds of brightly coloured lights hang from the trees, lending the park the atmosphere of a country music festival. The promenade is lined with food trucks and people munch their tacos and crab fries while suspended over the Delaware River in large, rope hammocks. Think somewhere between hippy and hipster – this place is a whole other kind of cool. It’s the first place I visit that is tailored more toward the local yuppies than the tourists. One can’t help but note other signs of hipsterism, especially around the edges of the inner city. Wood-fired oven pizza, acai berry flavoured everything and cold brew made from beans originating in twenty different countries I’ve never heard of…it’s suddenly all becoming rather contrived.
My companions and I walk from the park to a nearby road bridge hoping to catch a glimpse of the sunset. It’s the same one I crossed back when I first spotted the skyline, but now it is unrecognisable. The perfect silhouette of a stumpy tower skewers the sun as it slides downwards, appearing denser and more vibrant in colour. Now everything is glowing. Standing on this bridge looking over the city is the emotional climax of my weekend. Nobody has branded this enormous, rusting, steel vestige of industrialism and we don’t need to pay entrance. It doesn’t come with a side of over-salted curly fries and it’s not drenched in the yellow gloop they call cheese. There is no option to add organic avocado and it certainly doesn’t offer almond milk. This is the Philadelphia I wanted to find. This is something real and beautiful. Philadelphia isn’t so different from anywhere else; but it also isn’t the same as everywhere else. It’s not really the best or the worst, not quite like this or rather like that – it just is. And that’s great.