Philadelphia is a city best appreciated on foot. With the exception of Edinburgh, in fact, it is the city in which I most love to walk. Its street life is vibrant, varied, and cosmopolitan, and it is obvious that Philadelphians appreciate the pedestrian-friendly nature of their city. It is a place which, with its many walking tours, sponsored walks, and “Walk! Philadelphia” (the largest pedestrian wayfinding system in the US) celebrates and encourages the peripatetic. This is in stark contrast to some other US cities in which I have spent time. In Los Angeles, for example, I would often set off for a walk, only to be stopped by a colleague from one research institution or another — or in a couple of instances, by complete strangers — who would either insist on giving me a lift, or tell me that I Really Shouldn’t Be Walking There. My landlady, who finally figured out that my strange habit of getting about on foot was serious and ingrained, told me that if If I would insist on walking, that I should at least try to look inconspicuous when doing so. “Don’t wear a suit,” she suggested, “try sweats instead.” What underwrote her remarks, and indeed the actions of the lift-offerers — who were all like me white and middle class, was the assumption that a woman like me should not be walking about the city. This deeply offended me on two scores: as someone who feels it is her right to move about the street on foot as and when she wishes, and on behalf of the street, which was assumed to inevitably pose some sort of a threat to someone like me. After a few of these encounters, I became a militant Los Angeles pedestrian. I walked everywhere I could, and when I couldn’t, insisted on taking public transport (an act which similarly baffled my car-bound colleagues). For a while, I commuted between West Adams and San Marino, a long journey I accomplished every day partly by foot, partly by bus. I can’t say that walking beside eight lanes of traffic on a tiny, dusty strip of pavement is always pleasant, but I can say that I never had any sort of problem, and that I met and chatted to some really lovely people on my daily rides and walks. And I never wore sweats.
I lived and worked in Philadelphia for much of 2006, and one of my greatest pleasures during that year was walking about the city. I particularly enjoyed, after an evening seminar at U Penn or Temple, returning to center city on foot, alone with my thoughts, admiring the flickering lights at a distance, seeing them draw closer, then walking among them at close quarters. The streets of Philly are full of life at all times of the day and night, and the idea that I shouldn’t walk about them did not really occur to me. Yes, of course there are crack weasels on street corners, but I have no business with them, nor they with me. And frankly I’d rather walk on a street with people on it (for whatever purpose) than one that seems desolate or empty. I agree with Rebecca Solnit* about most things, but not with her view that a woman walking at night is inevitably disenfranchised by her sex, her sexuality. In fact, I sometimes think its much worse being a bloke walking about after dark: speaking purely from my own experience, it seems that men are certainly more likely to be set upon on the street for no reason at all. And while men rarely express their legitimate fear of the street for fear of appearing unmanly, women routinely express a fear of attack: a fear that itself perpetuates the cultural assumption that women should not walk about at night. All of the women I know (and there have sadly been a few) who have endured anything of this appalling nature have not suffered at the hands of a nameless attacker but at those of someone who was, in one capacity or another, known to them.
That said, as an Englishwoman, I think I may well have an odd sort of advantage walking about an American city: indeed, in a weird way I carry my foreign-ness self-consciously about me as a means of feeling safe. In several instances I have opened my mouth on an American street to ask for directions or whatever, only to be greeted with “honey, your accent is SO CUTE,” or similar. And, perhaps even more oddly, I also feel safer being wee and nippy: this isn’t just because I think I can run away or something — in one instance, a homeless chap on a Philadelphia corner actually stopped me simply in order to pat me on the head. Here, two things I normally wouldn’t be too happy to associate myself with — viz, being rather short, and being very English — make for a street identity I am actually happy to embrace. (I don’t feel the same way about the Englishness in Scotland, or indeed elsewhere in Europe, as one might imagine).
There are so many distinctive things to love about Philadelphia that can only really be appreciated as a pedestrian. Top of the list has to be the art of the street: the city’s remarkable Mural Arts Programme celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
The city’s signage interpolates the pedestrian at every turn, and enhances the art of the street. Through every season, Philadelphia’s lamposts are festooned with civic banners advertising community projects, Kimmel center concerts, the nation’s first liver transplant at Jefferson Hospital in 1984, the AIDS walk on October 19th, and so on. Creative commercial signage adds yet another dimension. I love Reading Terminal’s relentless neon; the self-conscious kitsch of Eddie’s Chinatown Tattoos; the dry take of the cut-price kitchen supply store on 2nd on its neighborhood’s historic associations. . .
If you are driving around the city, you are really missing out, because it is only on foot that you can appreciate the quiet beauty of its neighbourhoods. Parts of Philadelphia seem, to me, quite utopian in their pleasing combination of the private and the public. People live right at the heart of the city, whose red-brick row-houses incorporate an interesting mix of the domestic and the commercial. There are fabulous public parks in which to promenade, run, or listen to impromptu concerts. There are trees everywhere; spaces for kids of all ages to play; thriving community gardens. There’s a deserved sense of pride in the spaces of these neighbourhoods, and this is evident in the way the public and the private seem to speak to one other, to interact. Rather than the hideous gated communities of some American and British cities (a determined method of keeping the outside out), in Philadelphia the inside spills over to the outside in the seasonal decoration of private homes, and the adornment of the street.
Architecturally, Philadelphia is incredibly eclectic, and affords lots of interest to the eye through its own brand of the urban picturesque. It is not a great Modernist city like Chicago, nor a Post-Modernist one, as Los Angeles is sometimes assumed to be (though personally I could never really get what Frederick Jameson meant about the Bonaventure Hotel*: it seemed to me dull, prosaic, entirely navigable). There is little architectural unity in Philadelphia, but to me this is symptomatic of its general lack of pretension and its industrial past. In both these things it reminds me of my favourite British cities (Sheffield, Newcastle), and like them, Philadelphia also possesses some truly fabulous eighteenth-century buildings. As you can imagine, I have a deep fondness for the red-bricked colonial and federalist buildings of the old city, but I also love the ludicrous excesses of the Wannamaker interior; the glorious glass arch of the Kimmel center; the 1930 facade of Suburban station. And even those buildings of which I am not fond look spectacular to me when set off by a sky of the kind of blue one doesn’t see much in Scotland.
But lest you think I view the pedestrian experience of Philadelphia through ridiculously rose-tinted spectacles, here are a couple of things I really do not like about walking in the city:
number 1: Parking Garages.
Despite Philadelphia’s celebration of the walker, and thoughtful accommodation of those who like to get about on foot, in certain places it does feel as if the city is merely a series of interconnected parking garages. Unbelievable amounts of the center city footprint are given over to parking . . . which suggests just how many cars pound the streets each day. Central Philadelphia is flat, compact, and incredibly easy to walk around. Just imagine if the city’s pride in its public spaces extended to a true prioritisation of the pedestrian and the exclusion of the car! I dream of congestion charging, and park & ride schemes, but know that it will never happen.
number 2: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
This Haussman-esque attrocity was designed by a Champs-Élysées loving Frenchman in 1917, to enhance Philadelphia’s sense of public space. But in fact, what it has done is render the agora entirely sterile by effectively excluding those on foot. Picture Ben Franklin himself, fresh off the boat with his three great puffy bread rolls, wandering down the parkway that bears his name. Ben would be very unlikely to meet or greet another jolly pedestrian, and all he would be able to hear is the rumble of the parkway traffic and a dull roar suggesting the disturbing proximity of Interstate 676. Flags of the world and a hideously Napoleonic incarnation of George Washington in equestrian mode further confuse Ben’s sense of place. Then, attempting to traverse the road for respite, Ben finds that the pedestrian crossing mysteriously disappears in the middle of six lanes of traffic, leaving him stranded in an unwelcome island of moving cars. The only good thing about this hideous boulevard, Ben thinks, (and I would definitely agree with him), is that one of Philadelphia’s many great cultural institutions — the Museum of Art — is to be found at its end. Oh, and the Rocky Steps, of course.
*Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000)
** Frederick Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)