In 1842, Henry ‘Box’ Brown had himself nailed into a box and mailed from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia. So awful was his experience of slavery, particularly the fact that his wife and children had been sold to another state, that he could take it no more. With the help of anti-slavery activists, he undertook the illegal journey in his crate, travelling by wagon, railroad and steamboat. Twenty-seven hours later, safe and well, he arrived in Philadelphia, a haven in Pennsylvania, one of the Free States.
This story has many messages and morals about liberty, strength of character, and collaboration, although it also says something about progress. Twenty-seven hours! One hundred and seventy-five years later, a piece of paper with my debit card PIN on it has taken twenty-one days to reach me in New York… from New York.
I learnt the story of Henry Brown on a fascinating walking tour of Philadelphia, where I spent two days recently. Before my visit, I knew embarrassingly little about this amazing city. I’d heard of a bell and some slightly sniggering comments about ‘brotherly love’. After a brief visit, it might now be my favorite city.
On a walk around Philadelphia, a couple of things caught my notice. First, it is much more peaceful and airy than New York. For a number of reasons, not least a superstition about no buildings being higher than the statue of William Penn on City Hall, the town is not dominated by skyscrapers. In addition, the major roads and sidewalks are spacious. These two facts combined mean you can see a lot more sky than in most large US cities. The city feels leafier, with many lovely parks, and its famous arts scene is in evidence in the fantastic public installations and murals. The design of the street layout is also effective, with four major arteries leading to City Hall which is cleverly arranged with a central courtyard accessed by four archways from the main roads. This means that in the center of the courtyard you can look to all four compass points from one place. It’s very effective.
Philadelphia also has a reputation for liberalism and acceptance. The history of the city’s gay district is interesting. It is, as far as I know, the only place in the world to have a district officially called ‘Gayborhood’. This area, within Washington Square West, proudly promotes its history as a gay-friendly neighborhood by hosting many events, and also by decorating the street signs and crosswalks with rainbow flags.
The main tourist attractions in the city are those related to the founding of the USA. Independence Hall, Pennsylvania’s former State House, is where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed. The free tour, though brief, is informative and well presented. You need a timed ticket to attend, which also means there isn’t a lot of queuing. The Liberty Bell is less interesting (also free) although is probably more significant to Americans who have been absorbing its image as a cultural icon for decades.
A less-obvious draw of the city is Edgar Allan Poe’s house. He lived in the city for a number of years, although only in this house for one. While there, he is believed to have published The Black Cat, which may have been inspired by the very dingy cellar in the house. The house is starkly preserved without furniture, and with minimal interpretation or explanation. The adjoining house is also part of the site and is dedicated to a small museum and shop as well as a reading room, decorated in the lavish style that Poe satirized in one of his essays. This is a superb place to spend an hour, enjoying Poe’s stories, exploring the house, and learning about his fascinating life. Like lots of the brilliant stuff in Philadelphia, this is also free as it is run by the National Park Service.
Other highlights of the city include the Magic Gardens, Isaiah Zagar’s gigantic mosaic complex dedicated to the arts, and Penn’s Landing, which I think was a bit of a joke in the past, but which was playing home to temporary food and drink huts and had tables set up under the trees, which were decorated with delicate colored lights. It was quite beautiful.
Our visit was rounded off with a trip to Jim’s on South Street, apparently the best place to get a Philly Cheese Steak (actually a type of sandwich). The food was delicious and the service was very quick (if slightly rude). We also made a quick stop at the ‘Rocky Steps’ (at the Museum of Art) although it was far too hot to attempt a recreation of the famous scene.
Philadelphia was founded by William Penn, who became the world’s largest private landowner when he was given what is now Pennsylvania by Charles II as repayment of a debt owed to Penn’s father. Penn clearly loved a bit of classical etymology. ‘Sylvania’ is Latin for ‘forest’, and the ‘Penn’ part is in memory of his father. ‘Philadelphia’ is Greek for ‘brotherly love’, which was inspired by Penn’s search for tolerance for fellow Quakers and people of all religions. In a country that has some way to go in achieving that aim, Philadelphia at least appears to be on the right track. It is calm, clean, fun, welcoming and bright. I can’t wait to return for a second visit.