- Skyscrapers, history, and natural beauty: all components that make Philadelphia unique.
By Joel Hoover
I have been living in Philadelphia since August, attending MCPC for both semesters of this academic school year. It has been my first experience actually being a resident of a city for a time–in all my previous trips to some of the larger, more notable cities of the United States, I have only been in them for a day or two. Such a time frame is just enough to experience what it’s like to be in such a congested, busy place, but it doesn’t really give much of a chance to see everything. It’s more of a hodgepodge of running around than anything else!
Before I moved here, I had been to Philadelphia only a handful of times for day trips. Like most of the other city day trips I mentioned, these had been no different–taking in a couple of places in particular all within a span of a few hours, which seemed to go by like a blur. Because I had been in Philly for brief spurts, I didn’t really think of it as being much different from any other big city I had been to. There were lots of places to go, lots of shops, plenty of tall buildings, and of course a ton of people. Nothing out of the ordinary.
But after living in the city as long as I have, there is something I am discovering: Philadelphia is very unique and perhaps not as big as one might imagine.
I know what you’re thinking: it’s a city, of course it’s big! I’d imagine that if you have never lived in a city before or spent much time in them, that this is your first thought. Let me explain!
Last week, my roommate and I took a bus trip up to New York City for the afternoon and evening after we had finished our morning classes. We were planning to go see the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) men’s college basketball championship game at Madison Square Garden that evening, and also wanted to take the time to walk around NYC a little bit, especially since it was my roommate’s first trip to the Big Apple. It was a very enjoyable day: we got to see Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building (from the ground), saw many of the big TV network buildings, and went to Times Square after the game. MSG was the main event though, especially since we had never been to the Garden–often called the “World’s Most Famous Arena”. It was a great experience seeing the update building and all the history inside. The game was really great too!
Both coming into and departing from New York City, I was struck at just how massive and grandiose the city appears from a distance. The first thing that stood out was seeing the towering, 1,776 ft. tall One World Trade Center from a distance, even before being able to see the rest of New York’s iconic skyline. It is a marvelous building to see in person (even from far away), especially with all the history of 9/11 in mind. Once the rest of the skyline comes into view, it’s incredible to see just how many tall buildings there are throughout Manhattan, including the Empire State Building and so many others. It is an overall scale and size that few cities can rival.
Once you’re actually into the concrete jungle, the big thing that stands out is just how many people are. There are crowds of folks everywhere, no matter what street you are on! Crossing the street during a red light? Don’t even think about it. The taxis and rows upon rows of cars traversing the streets are in a hurry to go go go!
And the advertising. It is just RAMPANT. Electronic signs in motion, billboards on the sides of buildings themselves, multiple signs with the same message on them. Times Square is a huge conglomerate of media and industry and advertisement all blended into one cacophony of shops and signs. It’s quite unbelievable.
There is every kind of food you could imagine. There is every kind of store you could imagine. There are iconic places everywhere. I’m sure there are iconic people amidst the huge crowds and we just don’t even see them walking about.
So what does this have to do with Philadelphia? And my experience living there?
Philly is a vastly different kind of city. Sure, there are some skyscrapers down in Center City–the Comcast Building and One and Two Liberty Place are all pretty massive. And there are several other high-rising apartments, businesses, and hotels that range across those blocks surrounding City Hall.
But really, Philadelphia does not span with the incredible height of New York City, the architectural wonder of Chicago (which I have visited), or the glamorous apartment risers of Miami (which I have not visited–yet!). There are also no hordes of people on the sidewalks–getting around in Center City is fairly easy. In fact, there’s not as much to the downtown district compared to many other cities. Washington D.C. has its federal and historic wonder. New York City has its size and glitz.
In reality, having now lived here as long as I have, Philadelphia has become somewhat small–but not the small you would think. Between the north and south Broad Street Line and the east and west Market-Frankford Line, taking the subway is not too hard within the city limits. The shops are not a congested row-after-row kind, and are mostly quaint little places. The “suburbs” feel very close to the downtown area. The houses here are more row and townhouse types, instead of the rising apartments of Seinfeld and others in a place like New York City.
But the biggest thing I see through all of this? A city with character.
Where else in a different city would you see a place like Old City: where there are cobblestone streets, old shops and restaurants, a view of the Delaware River from Penn’s Landing, and the birthplace of America and some of its most iconic symbols sitting in Independence National Historic Park. City Hall itself stands dwarfed now by the size of all the skyscrapers surrounding it, but still majestic, ancient, and beautiful in the very heart of the City of Brotherly Love. LOVE is the park where one sign is the destination–and beyond it, there’s a view to behold. On down that view takes you into the Benjamin Franklin Parkway–a walk that takes you through a row of country flag after country flag and fountain after fountain.
At the end of it stands the remarkable Art Museum. Perhaps this would be stuck in the middle of a bunch of buildings and advertising in another, “larger” city, but in Philadelphia, it is almost revered. With room to breathe and plenty of green and blue around it, it stands as a patch of architectural wonder and relaxing serenity amidst all the hustle and bustle of the rest of the cityscape. The riverwalk, garden, and Fairmount Water Works around it serve as the sides to an incredible view–especially from across the river entering the city. And then there’s Boathouse Row: by day, something out of a nature novel that has been placed mere miles from downtown of a city, but by night set ablaze by light and wonder.
Even the nuances of the city make it unique. People freely chill in the middle of the street if they can cross half of it, unconcerned by the cars shooting by. You can walk the sidewalks and they will be pretty easy to navigate for the most part: not usually too much congestion. Traffic within the city is steady–though I cannot say the same for the Schuylkill Expressway! And you may happen to see a duck boat go cruising by from time to time.
There’s life to this city. The vast majority of people live right along the street, rather than above it looking down. The troubled areas of the city–and there are many–seem to stand out all the clearer when you enter them, but are opportunities. Opportunities to reach people on their level and make an impact. As with any city, there are problems–problems stick out so much because it’s a city more about the people than the size or grandeur of it all. There are problems all around where I live. But because there are so many neighborhoods and because everyone is right on street level, you see them. You feel them. And they challenge you to act.
Being a sports guy, it’s now become quite evident to me why Philadelphia sports fans like their teams to be hard-working ones with character–this is a hard-working city. It’s smaller. Everything here is earned. There is struggle and challenge on every street.
It’s a character I have come to admire. This is not your typical city–the character you see in its views, landmarks, skyline, and sprawling suburbs is unique to any other city I have been to thus far in my life. Philadelphia has become a home to me–big, but not big like many others. Cozy, but never comfortable. Enjoyable, and yet extremely challenging and revealing all at the same time. To think I will be leaving it in a month is still sad and hard to believe.
But it has taught me a lot. Just by being the city it is.