PHOTO : A view of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Eakins Oval—the stairs might look familiar since a scene in the cult hit Rocky shows Sylvester Stallone jogging up its 72 steps.
Philadelphia and its rivalries
Where many of America’s firsts can be found. ‘The city that loves you back.’
WORDS DIANE CLAIRE J. JIAO
Much of Philadelphia’s identity is defined by what it has lost to New York City. The two megacities of the East Coast are too similar to avoid comparison. They are both highly urbanized, they both claim to have the best pretzels and hoagies, and they both share a disdain for New Jersey.
Philadelphia prides itself as the birthplace of America—one of the capitals during the revolution, it was where the Founding Fathers convened, the Constitution drawn up, and independence declared two and a half centuries ago.
Since then, however, New York City has grown in prominence. It became one of the first capitals of the new United States, while its ports invited trade and immigration, making it a hub of business and a melting pot of cultures. New York City boomed into the largest, if not the most important city in the country, easily overtaking Philadelphia.
Philadelphia did not take kindly to being left behind, especially as it was suffering a decline of its own. Manufacturers packed up their operations and headed to other states, such as New York, closing businesses and leaving scores jobless. Poverty rose and so did crime.
An 1852 editorial in The New York Times depicts the fractious relationship of the two cities, as the government then proposed to move the National Mint from Philadelphia, where it was founded, to New York, the new center of commerce. Philadelphia, naturally, opposed the loss of yet another institution to its rival.
"That city," the editorial says snippily of Philadelphia, "has evinced a feeling bordering on positive malignity towards her sister of New York… Any New York scheme, anything that may tend to the benefit of New York, or to the general benefit of the country through New York, arouses the opposition of our Southern neighbor. She regards it as a question of self-preservation."
The New York Times urged Philadelphia to focus on its strengths—”checks, stockings and vermifuge”—and, maybe, just maybe, it would be able to compete with the quality and price of goods produced in New York City. “True, she does not enjoy so favorable a position is not so central and commanding as New York,” the editorial continued, “[but] that is her misfortune, not our fault.”
No matter what New York says, Philadelphia has not lost…
THE CRADLE OF LIBERTY
When in Philly, venture east and explore the beginnings of America, painstakingly preserved and proudly on show in the Old City. A 22-hectare national park features Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed, as well as the cracked Liberty Bell, rung during that fateful day on July 4, 1776. The National Constitution Center is a tribute to the law of the land, with the facade of the building featuring the famous words: “We the people…” You don’t need to be an American to admire their fight for freedom and their deep sense of connection to their history.
Further down is the Betsy Ross house, where the first American flag was sewn; Carpenters’ Hall, the home of the first banks in the US; and Christ Church, where the likes of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin heard mass. You can also walk through the narrow brick paths of Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest street in the country, and reimagine life in the 18th century.
Meanwhile, in the New City, life revolves around City Hall, a gorgeous blue and white building, topped with a bronze statue of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. It is the world’s tallest masonry building, built solely in granite and brick forming walls 22-feet thick. An observation deck right under the William Penn statue offers expansive views of Philadelphia.
All around City Hall are preserved buildings of old banks and brokerages harking back to Philadelphia’s heyday. They have since been converted to hotels, restaurants and boutique stores. The Ritz-Carlton, for example, occupies the former headquarters of Girard Bank, a low domed building built all the way back in 1908. Butcher and Singer, one of Philadelphia’s best steakhouses, is nestled in a building which used to be the headquarters of the National Bank in the 1930s. Diners are transported to a bygone era, with the restaurant’s high ceilings, leather booths lit by banker’s lamps, and the old marble clock mounted on the doorway.
BEN MEETS RODIN MEETS ROCKY
Across City Hall is the John F. Kennedy Park where Robert Indiana’s famous Love installation stands, paying homage to the City of Brotherly Love. The park is the beginning of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia’s tree-lined museum mile.
Start off with the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, America’s first Catholic church, reminiscent of its counterparts in Europe with its imposing brownstone pillars and copper dome.
Meanwhile, the Franklin Institute is a science museum in honor of the city’s favorite son Benjamin Franklin. (They name everything after him. Every hotel has a Benjamin Franklin function room.) Geared towards kids and families, it celebrates the scientist’s work with lightning and electricity, as well as popular exhibits on the human body—featuring a giant walk-in replica of a beating heart—sports science, airplanes and space exploration.
The Barnes Foundation, one of the few modern buildings in the parkway, is a sight to behold. The galleries form clean lines, while the gardens and fountains wrap closely around the museum, creating an air of intimacy to the visit. The collection of Albert C. Barnes—a chemist who amassed a fortune from developing, interestingly enough, an anti-gonorrhea drug—features post-Impressionist and modern art from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pierre-August Renoir and Maurice Prendergast.
Also worth a visit along the way are the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Rodin Museum, which displays Auguste Rodin’s sculptures like The Thinker and The Gates of Hell along a courtyard, much like the original museum in Paris.
At the end of the boulevard, atop a hill, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This last stop is almost always the most popular one simply because of the “Rocky steps,” where Rocky Balboa, a boxer portrayed by Sylvester Stallone in the cult hit Rocky, finished his run down Benjamin Franklin Parkway by jogging up the 72 steps of the museum. The day we visited the museum, we saw tourists, joggers, pets and an entire wedding entourage doing the Rocky run, complete with an iPhone playing the background music. Street vendors wait at the bottom of the steps with overpriced bottles of water.
A CITY WITH HEART
Still, many will ask why they should visit Philadelphia when New York City is only a highway and a dozen outlet stores away. The Big Apple has all of these sights and more.
There is no competition when it comes to scale or grandeur, but being smaller and lesser works to Philadelphia’s advantage. Philadelphia is a big city without the trappings of one. Journalist Mary Theresa Schmich once said: “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.” Philadelphia has a soft underbelly. It is a megacity and a tourist destination but, ultimately, it is a place you would be happy to live in earning it the nickname “the city that loves you back.”
Drivers follow stoplights and don’t honk at you for attempting to use the pedestrian crossing. People will not go up in arms if you stop on the sidewalk to take pictures or look at a map. The locals say hello and ask about your day, and you can ask for directions with ease. I took the wrong bus and found myself in the other end of the city in the middle of the night and the driver, who was already off-duty, brought me all the way back to my stop.
The buzz of the central business district tapers off the more you go west, and the city gives way to the sprawling grounds of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University. Further down are student apartments, fraternity houses, neighborhood pubs and suburbs with small eateries, groceries and pop-up shops.
Philadelphia feels like a city of your own. New York City, in contrast, saw a record 54 million tourists last year. It makes you wonder how much of the city is for you or for its transients. The Forever 21 in Times Square that stays open until 2 a.m., the naked cowboys playing guitar, the roaming mascots of Big Bird and Batman ready to pose for a photo for a dollar—though cute and novel, make you feel like you’re roaming an amusement park instead of a city.
New York City may be the city of lights, the city of dreams. It has taller buildings and grander shows, but Philadelphia is a city you can call home.