Unexpected Philadelphia

The town has the decency and sentimental warmth of a provincial city.

Let’s not complain. The Independence National Historical Park project rose together with the reconstruction of Old Philadelphia that was the work of civic-minded Philadelphians themselves, beginning in the early 1950s, in what popularly, though confusingly, is known as Society Hill. (The word Society has nothing to do with society but with the old building-grounds of the Free Society of Traders; and the reconstruction has extended well beyond the Society Hill area.) Beyond the Historic Square Mile, stretching east to the muddy banks of the Delaware, south to the solid brick row houses of working-class neighborhoods named after some of the river parishes of seventeenth-century London, and now creeping agreeably westward, came the rebuilding and the repeopling of a long-decayed and abandoned portion of Philadelphia that now is not only teeming with tourists but pulsating with everyday life.

It is true that, compared with the middle-class flow from the city, this return to Old Philadelphia has been not much more than a trickle. But the life of a city cannot be measured merely by quantities, and the quality of these refurbished houses and streets has been, by and large, very good. I like to drive my non-Philadelphian friends to this old-fashioned and newly inhabited portion of Philadelphia in the autumn, when the yellow lights bathe the streets and housefronts with an almost palpable film of coziness and comfort. We park wherever we can and start walking up and down the cobblestones and Belgian blocks of the pavements (pavements in Philadelphia are what sidewalks are in New York, and what are blocks there are squares in Philadelphia), either beginning or ending with Elfreth’s Alley. Oddly north of Market, it is the oldest continuously inhabited street, where the small, closely built houses with their tiny back gardens are both tangible evidences from a past still alive and also reminiscent of what William Penn and his successors hoped and imagined their City of Brotherly Love to be: not only a “greene Country Towne” but a city with a country heart.

A city with a country heart; and a private, rather than public, city. Its public parades and ceremonies could be impressive; but more often than not they have been merely raucous and noisy, shunned by many of the citizens. Until about one hundred years ago the better Philadelphia families would remove themselves from the city during the Fourth of July celebrations. I have yet to meet an Old Philadelphian who ventures downtown on New Year’s Day for the annual Mummers Parade, a Philadelphia custom started by a newspaperman in 1901. The 1876 Centennial began on a day of darkest downpour and continued through one of the hottest and dampest of summers. The Sesquicentennial, in 1926, was nearly a total failure: many of the exhibits and pavilions were not ready for the opening, and visitors left unimpressed. There is a long tradition of such public failures. On the way to his presidential inauguration, Washington arrived in Philadelphia beneath triumphal arches that had been erected in his honor on both banks of the Schuylkill, at Gray’s Ferry. Atop one was a large laurel wreath with which Washington was to be crowned as he passed beneath. But when the moment came, it descended with alarming abruptness over his head.


Yet George Washington liked Philadelphia. The ten years from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the capital city of the nation, were altogether a success, hardly dimmed by the sometimes vicious battles of the political factions and only briefly affected by the awful yellow fever epidemic in 1793 (when for a few weeks the seat of the President of the United States was, properly speaking, not in Philadelphia but in Germantown, part of the city now but not then). The city was vibrant, cosmopolitan, urbane—the political and diplomatic, the national and international, the economic and financial capital of the young Republic. In spite of the earlier decision to establish a new capital in a federal district between Virginia and Maryland, there was a strong possibility of keeping the government in Philadelphia; but these politic attempts were made halfheartedly, mostly because many Philadelphians themselves were not very interested.

And so in 1800 the capital of the nation moved away, to Washington; the year before, the capital of the state had moved away too; by the 1820s New York had replaced Philadelphia as the largest city and the principal port of the country; and by 1835 Philadelphia ceased to be the financial capital, after Jackson’s destruction of the Bank of the United States, which had been governed by Nicholas Biddle, an excellent Philadelphian. In that year Chicago did not yet exist; but by the end of the nineteenth century, it too surpassed Philadelphia in size.