It’s still Monday here (just) and I’ve spent the day walking the streets of Philly. Originally a stop ‘on the way’ rather than a destination I had planned to visit, a number of friends encouraged me to take time here and I’m glad they did. There’s a lot of history in Philly, some great food and culture, and some interesting parallels to my hometown.
What have I loved about Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love?
The US celebrates its history really well and Philadelphia is a great example. From Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were drafted and signed, to the Liberty Bell which was adopted as a symbol by abolitionists and later suffragettes and civil rights advocates, noteworthy places are celebrated well and the significance of their stories preserved for the future.
From the story of Christ Church’s baptismal font which is a few hundred years older than the nation in which it stands, to the saga surrounding City Hall which was finally completed at the dawn of the twentieth century, there’s much to appreciate.
William Penn was primarily responsible for the city of Philadelphia’s design: a grid with a central square and four other squares in each corner, an idea which inspired William Light in his plan for Adelaide.
Like Adelaide, Philadelphia also celebrates its public art, ranging from the beautiful to the quirky. As it’s December, Love Square also has a Christmas Village with pop up shops selling both seasonal gifts and food.
Speaking of food, you can’t come here and not have a cheese steak! Other local delicacies I’ve seen include chocolate and peanut butter dipped pretzels, holiday themed hot drinks (pumpkin, cider) and oddly, bacon jam.
Philadelphia’s most famous son would have to be Benjamin Franklin and with his name on a museum, a science institute, a parkway, a football field and a bridge, it’s hard to escape his presence. The Benjamin Franklin museum is really well done and honours his quite extraordinary life looking at his achievements in science, politics and society.
There are plenty of other people honoured around the city as well. One I was surprised to stumble upon was Thaddeus Kosciusko who Australia’s highest mountain is also named after. And of course there is the Rocky effect – despite the Art Museum being closed today, there were a few people braving the cold to run up its steps as he famously did in the movie.
What did I learn here in Philly?
I am reminded why I love history. Really it is just the story of ordinary people like me who were responding to the circumstances they found themselves in. It’s good to reflect on how we got to where we are today and what has shaped who we are.
I also find it fascinating to reflect on how the different histories of the US and Australia continue to influence our cultures today. The civil war figures prominently in many stories here, along with (obviously) the War of Independence. The role of the military, weapons and violence in this country’s history is something I do not fully understand the ongoing impact of. The ideals and rhetoric of freedom are also conspicuous. Sometimes my more laid-back Aussie self recoils at the strength of patriotism and nationalism (for example when the staff at the National Constitution Center claimed that democracy was invented here, something I think the ancient Greeks might have a word or two to say about).
I’m also challenged by the role the church has and can play in shaping society and culture. William Penn was a Quaker and it was his faith in Jesus that influenced his goals for the community. The history of South Australia with its early Baptists like George Angas Fife is somewhat similar.
Despite the fact that the colony here was established for those who were escaping religious persecution in England, one of the city’s earliest churches was Anglican (now Episcopalian), a reminder that they wanted to extend the freedom to worship they sought even to those with whom they disagreed.
Philadelphia reminds me of those who have come before and have sought to apply their faith, their dreams and their hopes to bring about justice and peace. Perhaps the city’s ongoing challenge to all of us is to figure out what it means for us to do likewise in our own time and place.