Why visit Philly?
Like Boston, Philly has played an important role in American political history.
The Dutch and the Swedish had been skirmishing around the area for a while when Charles II gifted a tract of North American land to Englishman William Penn in 1681. His claim to ownership of the land was iffy, so Penn also bought the land from the Lenape tribe (the same people who inhabited Manhattan island) and made a treaty with one of their chiefs. Penn established Philadelphia in 1701, and in the following decades it grew to be the largest city in British-occupied America (over Boston). It was the capital of the US while Washington DC was being built, and the Declaration of Independence from Britain was signed there.
So far, so thrilling. Reading up on the history, one can’t help but admire the spirit of these adventurers rocking up on foreign shores and building a new civilisation from scratch. The pioneers must have felt that this was an amazing country with untapped resources and incredible landscapes on which they could inscribe a utopic vision.
Independence National Historical Park
But wandering around this collection of historical sites and reading the signage, you get a different story …
William Penn’s grandson’s mother-in-law built a brick mansion, ‘President’s House‘, in 1767, which eventually became President George Washington’s residence from 1790. The Bill of Rights was ratified under his leadership, while he lived in this house. Other members of his household included some slaves. Penn was a slaveowner too. The first contradiction.
The famous Liberty Bell is another attraction in the park. It used to hang in Independence Hall, not far from the President’s House, where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and which was rung to call the Philadelphians to hear it read:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Did that apply to all literally all humans under the jurisdiction of the signatories? No! Many of them (not all) were slaveowners! Slavery was only abolished in 1865, nearly 100 years later!!!
Commented a wise man at the time,
If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves – source
The wording of the Declaration was later used to justify abolition, but, walking around the park, it’s hard not to feel a nasty paradox at the heart of the original ‘American dream’.
City Hall, completed in 1901, was the world’s tallest building at the time (later eclipsed by the Eiffel Tower) and the first tallest building that wasn’t a church. It has an extremely fancy schmancy facade (reminding me of the Palais du Louvre or Hotel de Ville in Paris) and is topped by an 11-metre high statue of our main man William Penn.
At the right of the cover picture above you can spot One Liberty Place poking out over the Hall. Looks a little like the Chrysler Building, no?
Jules Mastbaum was a cinema real estate magnate who donated his collection of Rodin works to the city on his death in 1926. The museum houses 140 works including the famous ‘Thinker’ statue, a copy of ‘The Kiss’ and bronze doors ‘The Gates of Hell’, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy. This is the largest collection of Rodin works outside Paris, and what better year to visit than during the centenary of the artist’s death?
I didn’t end up visiting these, because I was feeling sorry for myself after trekking around in the rain and being splashed by two cars, but I would definitely stop by if I visit Philly again. Artist Isaiah Zagar began tiling the gardens in 1960s, and the space is now covered with grotesque Gaudí-style recycled bicycle spokes, bottles and ceramic tiles:
Next stop on my American travels: Chicago!