walking in Philadelphia: 2

(William Birch, Views of Philadelphia, 1800).

This is an account of a walk covering eight miles over one day in Philadelphia. Warning! This post is long, and chock-full of personal nostalgia and eighteenth-century references!

I started by strolling up Broad Street, past City Hall, and turned East on Arch, where I stopped at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, which I had not previously visited. In their ‘New American Voices’ exhibition, I was singularly underwhelmed by the work of Robert Chambers (large egg, swirling ribbons, John Deere Tractor) but enjoyed Bill Smith’s pieces a little more — felt that he evidently had a scientist’s feel for the aesthetic, and thought that his work had a sort of internal mobility to it which rendered its interactive bells and whistles a bit superfluous — not to mention potentially self-destructive (while I was there, one of his “metamorphic complex interaction models” threatened to set fire to itself.) In the museum shop, I bought myself one of these brooches, left, and continued along Arch Street.


Further along Arch, I was completely baffled to see the focus of the new exhibition at the National Constitution Centre: Diana, A Celebration. Di’s giant, winsome phizog smiled down from every lampost on a three block radius. The irony of celebrating an icon of British aristocratic privilege in the birthplace of American democracy had clearly been lost on the show’s curators. I did not go inside.


I went to visit some old friends in Christ Church burial ground. The worn grave of Francis Hopkinson is deeply moving. Those of Deborah Reed and Ben Franklin are close to the churchyard entrance, and the street. Passers-by throw coins through the churchyard railings at Franklin’s grave, in the manner of a wishing well.


This act of coin-throwing (for luck?) seems to me symptomatic of the almost universal warmth with which Franklin is popularly regarded. It is noticeable that, while the plaques one sees about Philadelphia of Franklin’s face are worn smooth and shiny by the weight of many children’s hands, those of William Penn are not.


In an eighteenth-century mood, I continued to the Friends meeting house at Fourth and Arch . This is the home of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and the largest Quaker meeting house in the world. It is an early nineteenth-century building, and Charles Brockden Brown is buried in its grounds. Now, I am a person of no faith at all, but the space which once held the separate women’s meeting draws from me profound affection and respect. Among these bare boards and benches, with the good smell of wood and the sunlight flickering in through the windows, sat many wonderful Quaker women writers, intellectuals, philanthropists.


I like the graffiti, too.


While I was sitting there having my moment, a woman came in looking for Franklin’s pew. The mild octogenarian at the entrance reminded her of Ben’s religious affiliations. Discovering that she had mistakenly wandered into a Quaker meeting house, the woman started up a rabid harangue about the death penalty, that “turn the other cheek crap” and how America had “gone too soft.” I rose to leave and, on my way out, couldn’t resist saying that I found her comments rather disrespectful, “I can say what I like where I like,” she shouted after me, “this is America. We’re free here . . unlike other countries.”


A Union Jack flew proudly from one of the houses on Elfreth’s Alley. This amused me, but not as much as the lone coat hanger I found swinging from a holly bush. Had someone hung something there to air? In the past, I’ve found Elfreth’s Alley a discomfiting kind of place — a tiny, tourist-packed thoroughfare sandwiched stoically between the Delaware Expressway and several parking garages — but today it seemed a haven. There was no one about but me, and I spent a happy half hour examining the brickwork and the fire-insurance marks.


On Second Street, I stopped at a picket line to chat to some carpenters who were protesting about their contracts which had been summarily cancelled. Then, with some excitement, I turned onto Market Street, and walked West for a block: to the location of Hannah Griffitts’ apocalyptic dream (which formed the focus of my lecture at PSU). Appropriately, at the intersection, I found a man in eighteenth-century costume. He seemed a little lost.


But he could count himself lucky he wasn’t a figure in Hannah Griffitt’s subconscious on 18th April, 1775. “There appear’d a most extraordinary phenomenon—a ball of fire in ye air, ye houses all ready to take fire in flames, & ye people fainting & dying in ye streets. . . ” No fireball today, thankfully. In fact, the only thing vaguely apocalyptic about the intersection of Third and Market was SUIT CORNER at its South and East.

(compare the south / east corner of third and market to William Birch’s depiction of 1800, at the top left of this post).

Thinking about Hannah Griffitts, I continued down Second to the place where her small house had once stood. It was Norris Alley then. Now it is Sansom Street. Her house was located where the blue car is parked.


By now I was thirsty and a little overwrought, so I popped into the famous revolutionary drinking hole on Second — the city tavern. There were no radicals there now, however: indeed in the tavern foyer, I spotted a framed copy of the Princess Diana commemorative issue of Hello! magazine. Had Di somehow taken possession of the soul of Philadelphia?


Against my better judgment (and certainly my eighteenth-century political inclinations) I tried a glass of Alexander Hamilton’s federalist ale. The chap in breeches behind the bar insisted that I also have a small taste of the George Washington Porter (very good) and Ben Franklin’s Spruce Ale (not so good. I like my hops). I didn’t realise quite how strong these ales were (over 8%, apparently), and confess that they left me feeling a little worse for wear. I departed swiftly when a bloke of Irish extraction joined me at the bar, and, upon hearing my accent, seemed desperate to establish some sort of connection with the old country. As I left, I may have also stolen a beer mat bearing the (to me) appealing slogan: “Ales of the Revolution.” On leaving the tavern, I had a sudden desire to see the face of Elbridge Gerry (perhaps as a corrective to the federalist ale) so I popped up to the Second Bank of the United States to say hello.


This impressive building now houses some great eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits. But like Susan Stabile, when I see the Bank, I think of the childhood home of Deborah Norris Logan that once stood here. South, on Walnut Street, there is a small “eighteenth-century garden”. I am fond of box, but confess my my taste in eighteenth-century gardening is a little wilder than this.


I bought a bottle of water, walked past Washington Square, and turned South on Ninth Street, West on South Street, then North on eleventh, and loitered around Spruce and Pine. This was my old neighborhood.


I recalled a lovely evening, eating supper with a friend in the garden room at Effies, with the snow falling quietly outside. By now I was hungry. I walked up Quince, turned West on Locust, North on Broad, and West again on Walnut Street. I popped into a bakery off Rittenhouse square to buy myself a couple of snacks. Then I walked past Anthropologie, and up Nineteenth Street (no, I did not enter the hallowed mammon-temple of Anthropologie. Rather, I muttered darkly as I passed its open door, holding my breath to avoid the migraine-inducing fug of scented candles. That’s right, ladies: I do not like Anthropologie. One day I may elaborate further . . . ).

Moving at my top walking pace, I strode up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway (bah), heading for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By this point I was on a personal pilgrimage: to see Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam. The first time I stood before the Achilles canvases, I felt faint and had to sit down. It is a work I often think about. I wanted to see it again.


I sat with the Fifty Days for a while, and then some ten year olds appeared in the antechamber, in which is displayed the Shield of Achilles (which prefaces the nine giant canvases of the Fifty Days). I listened in on their class discussion and they were truly brilliant — not only did they seem to know an awful lot about the Trojan War, but they got the rage, energy, intellect, and emotion of Twombly right away. I left them to it. Outside, it was Autumn.


. . . and it was time to go home.