What to do in Philadelphia

In a little deviation from bread, I just have to take a moment and tell you that I love Philly.  Philadelphia is simply a great town.  There is a ton of culture (galleries, live music venues, theatres, concert halls, art in public buildings), are wonderful restaurants (and plenty of room for more), plenty of history, a thriving craft culture, and good coffee (plenty of room for more coffee shops too).  If you want an owner-operated barbershop, corner shop, beauty parlour, bakery or boutique you have come to the right place.

One of many little theatres in Philly.

In the 80s and 90s, Philadelphia was a violent, lifeless place, boarded up, full of crack dens, dangerous in many places during the day, and everywhere at night.  It was the broken result of the mass movement of people out to the suburbs that took place in the 50s, 60s and 70s and the malaise the sets in when a city becomes post industrial.  Today’s wonderful Philadelphia is the result of an excellent urban regeneration strategy – and is proof that anywhere can be brought back to life with a long term, thoughtful renewal strategy.  Philly makes you see that even Salford and other sad towns in post industrial Britain can be reborn.  In fact, their council members should schedule a series of meetings by skype (they are free – you don’t have to travel anywhere) with Philadelphia’s planners to find out their winning formula.

Lovely flats build on an old dry dock on the Delaware River.

Today, the entire city centre is clean, walkable, and safe.  Playgrounds are packed and and sidewalks are littered with push chairs – proof that families have moved back down town into gorgeous 18th and 19th century town houses that line the historic district and that were totally broken down just a decade ago.  South Street was the no man’s land.  North of South Street and you would just about survive walking around (not at night) but South of South Street and you were taking your life into your own hands.  Boarded up buildings, addicts in doorways, heavily and aggressively graffitied, South Street felt a bit like a war zone.  When I was in Philly in the late 80s and early 90s, South Street was a no go area after dark, female students at Philly’s excellent universities had the option to call a free service any time of day or night to walk them home, and a friend of mine was robbed with a gun pointed to his head (the only time anything close to that has ever happened to him, and he is from the North of Mexico which is infamously violent).  In 1996 South Street was scheduled to be demolished so the city could build a cross town highway and, ironically, this was the turning point for the city as the residents rallied around and saved it, defeating the motion for another highway and causing the city to think differently about itself as a place to stay, as opposed to a place to drive through at high speed with the doors locked.

Detail of an Isaiah Zagar mural gracing one of South Street's buildings.

The South Street Renaissance has given birth to an eclectic city with an urban centre communal vegetable garden, smart cafes and bars, edgy clothing shops, live music venues and – that tribute to somewhere having arrived – a Whole Foods.  Except for Whole Foods (and don’t get me wrong, I love a good Whole Foods from time to time) and the global phenomenon that is Starbucks, Philly is remarkably free of global or even national chain stores.  Unlike the dreary high streets of the UK which all look alike and boast a predictable range of goods that are available everywhere, Philly has lots of independent businesses.  We went into a beautiful restaurant called Supper that specialised in grains, serving up gorgeous dishes of quinoa, barley, millet, and buckwheat; had coffee in a shop that had home made cookies and smoothies made of real fruit (not bottled fruit syrup or puree), spent a bomb on original and delightful kitchen “stuff” in a wonderful place called Kitchen Kapers that boasted one of the most helpful and knowledgeable assistants I have ever met, and browsed in some of the most lovely little boutiques full of original and well designed treats from groovy reading spectacles to funky lighting to hand made clothes.  These delights are over and on top of the two good bagel bakeries here – Spread Bagelry and the South Street Bagel bakery about which I wrote earlier and an excellent bakery called the Metropolitan Bakery, where I had excellent whole wheat with millet toast with home made jam, and a bottomless cup of delicious coffee for breakfast.

Yummy bread (and Lex likes the dog biscuits too)

Look around and even on the ground, and you will see art in Philadelphia EVERYWHERE.

Don't forget to look down!

An extraordinary amount of art has been declared “public” which means the public must have access to it for free.  The Comcast building is a case in point.  Itself the tallest and most impressive building in the city (100% of it was build with recycled material and it is the most environmentally friendly building on the East Coast), anybody can walk into the huge foyer to enjoy the show.  Look up and you see life size sculptures of people walking on tight ropes.  Look at the wall behind reception and you see a huge HD LED screen on which are projected a series of short films – comedy sketches, dance routines, nature films and much more.  You could spend hours just in the lobby drinking in impressions for free.

We are all enjoying the show in the Comcast building.

The historian Henry Steele Commager said, “In Franklin could be merged the virtues of Puritanism without its defects, the illumination of the Enlightenment without its heat.”  With some commitment and a little bit of luck,  Philadelphia could perfectly reflect the character of it’s most famous resident.  Of course Philly is not perfect (neither was BF), but what place is?  It has gentrifying, feel-good neighbourhoods, and a gritty, post-industrial 1930s feel (but I kind of like that).  There are a lot of slightly mentally ill people wandering around chatting to themselves.  There are also plenty of beggars and other unfortunate souls that sleep in doorways.  Of course there are more social problems than one visit can unearth, and clearly social problems need to be tackled to the extent that they can be, but the important thing is that Philly is not only charming and beautiful – as any museum can be – it is also bursting with creativity. If the city councellors are smart they will do everything they can to continue to attract entrepreneurs, artists and craftspeople who can create job opportunities and attract residents and visitors alike to enjoy the city, spend their money, contribute to the city coffers, and make it an even better place for all.

Entrepreneurs working to build or rebuild their local communities?  Governments helping them out?  We wish and hope and certainly, through the course to help people set up micro bakeries, we do try.  Come and join us and meanwhile, visit Philly.  It’s a great place.


2 thoughts on “What to do in Philadelphia”

  1. I do think the Americans are very good at this sort of thing (admittedly they must also have been good at the thing that got them into a mess in the first place, but anyway). I am slightly obsessed with the High Line project in NYC – such an amazing regeneration from the grassroots. It must be the pioneer thing, I think. Can-do. We could learn so much from that.

    1. I agree. If anybody can be president, anybody can be anything. The North Americans don’t self limit and are, of course, ever hopeful and fundamentally interested in traveling to hostile lands to brave the natives to set up their new life. Going from the sub urbs to the inner city is not exactly like sailing across the ocean, but kind of…

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