Part One: The City
Trip Start Aug 30, 2012
16Trip End Oct 19, 2012
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As I mentioned in my last post, Philadelphia is a city that grows on you. Your first visit will probably take you to Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross house… maybe some of the Ben Franklin historical sights. You’ll grab a cheese steak. You might swing by Reading Terminal Market, the Art Museum (the ‘Rocky’ steps) and Elfreth’s Alley before stopping down by Penn’s landing at the Franklin Fountain for ice cream.
It’s not super stunning and it might feel like there’s not much more to see than that. But every time I come here I discover something new. A neighbourhood I didn’t know existed. An experience I wouldn‘t have expected. And... here are a couple of city sights I discovered this visit and fell deeply in love with:
1. The Italian Market.
The Italian market is way down 9th street, starting below Christian. I’ve never been this far south before, and the walk takes me down through what I’ve dubbed the ‘hospital district’. Passing hospital after hospital, it’s lunch time and everyone is walking around the streets in coats and scrubs. Reaching the market, the streets are lined with vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. The smells from the many delis I pass are intoxicating and while there are many Italian restaurants, the area is also slowly becoming a hotspot for Mexican fare.
I manage to walk so far south that I end up at Passyunk, where the famous rivals - Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks - sit across the intersection from each other. I’m tempted to try flashy Geno’s (neon and colours galore) as I’ve had Pat’s before… but Geno’s a fairly solid racist and the stories I’ve heard and the content of some of the signs and stickers definitely steer me toward the more demure Pat’s.
I’m not disappointed. I often try a different cheese in my cheesesteak (American, Provolone) as I feel like eating Wiz is a cop out… but you know what? I am in America after all. I’m just gonna own that I like my cheese steak “wit’out - wit wiz” (no onions, with cheese whiz) and enjoy the goopy hot cheezy goodness. Bliss.
2. Mutter Museum.
I don’t quite remember how I came across this place, but the Mutter museum is “America’s finest medical history museum“. Located at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, it’s named for Dr Thomas Dent Mutter who donated the original collection. The museum houses medical oddities, anatomical specimens and old medical instruments and my taxi driver is baffled why I’d want to visit it if I’m not a med student so I have to pull the old “I was pre-med in university” line.
Some of the stuff is pretty gross, and the fetuses in jars get me quite sad. Some of them show the stages of development… some just poor kids who didn’t develop properly (without a brain, head, various body parts outside the body etc). An exhibit that I do like is one where they’ve taken the Grimm fairy tales and accompanied them with medical specimens that tie into the stories (a dried foot that had been ‘bound’ in the Chinese style to accompany the part of ‘Cinderella’ where they’re trying to find the glass slipper’s owner… an amputated toe for the part where the ugly stepsister hacks hers off to try and fit into the shoe… a hairball that they found in somebody’s stomach to accompany ‘Rapunzel’…) It’s disturbing and cool all at once, but an interesting way to spend an afternoon in Philly!
3. South Street and the Magic Garden.
I’ve been ON South Street before but I haven’t really explored it in all that much detail until this visit. I do really like it. There are lots of neat little stores and great places to eat, and it’s also home to the Magic Garden. Isaiah Zagar is a local artist who’s done some of the murals (like the ones I mentioned last post) on the walls throughout the city. The Magic Garden is a large outdoor mural that you can walk through… and it’s probably better explained in pictures than words:
4. Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State Penitentiary is a very old prison from the Pennsylvania system of incarceration. Called a penitentiary for a reason, the focus of the Pennsylvania system was on penitence, feeling sorry for the crime you committed. Because of this focus, in the Pennsylvania system the inmates were kept in complete isolation from each other. Walked from place to place with hoods over their heads, they lived and worked in isolation. The prisoners never saw or heard another prisoner during their time there. The guards also wore covers over their shoes to muffle the noise as they walked the corridor. The contrasting system was the New York system, where prisoners worked and ate together (although in silence).
Later as the system was considered unusually cruel, as well as incredibly expensive to run, the prison changed to more closely resemble prison systems today. During the years it has housed a few infamous inmates, including Al Capone (in a lavish cell) and even an inmate dog. Eventually with the advent of electronic gates and security systems, which couldn’t really be used at Eastern State, it was cheaper to use other facilities and the prison was closed, falling into ruin.
Rather than restore the facility, it has been turned into a ‘stabilized ruin’, which makes it a haven for artists (there are a few installations in the building), photographers and film makers. There is fantastic beauty in the peeling paint, crumbling walls and the haunting quiet, dark spaces. I love that they’ve chosen to do this with the space rather than restore it. It’s stunning.
America being America though, they can’t be COMPLETELY cool about it… they DO also run a giant haunted house here during October and they’re setting it up for the season when I’m there (they do use the outdoor and private spaces so the building isn’t ruined), and the attraction last year drew 100,000 people (the regular admission that year drew 150,000) which supports the upkeep of the building… a good thing I suppose. You have to walk through the attraction though and I tell you there’s no way I’d do it. The place is spooky enough!
Again, I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves, but hopefully you’ll see why I fell in love with this place…
So there you have it. Not ‘typical’ Philly things this time but gorgeous new places I’m glad I explored. Pay the city a little visit. Look past the grime and the many things ‘Ben Franklin’ and there’s so much more to discover!! Unusual, spooky, beautiful and arty. I love Philadelphia to pieces.