Over the course of my brief existence, I’ve found that travel energizes me, makes me more aware, and – dare I say it – makes me a better human being. When I go too long without leaving my home base I become more bitter, cynical, and less appreciative of our world and the creatures that populate it. It’s easy to watch TV or read the news and throw out half-informed opinions or come to conclusions that are only partially educated. But nothing compares to getting out there in person. To put it more eloquently:

“Travel has a way of stretching the mind. The stretch comes not from travel’s immediate rewards, the inevitable myriad new sights, smells and sounds, but with experiencing firsthand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way” Ralph Crawshaw

Aside from travel, I’ve always wondered if I was more interested in the history of my favorite past times than the actual past times themselves. Take music, for example. Once I got to college I realized I was less interested in becoming a virtuoso than I was in the stories of the composers and the history of the art; hence my decision to take on the second most useless degree in existence: music history. And when it comes to gaming, I can guarantee I spend more time reading about games and discussing them than I do actually playing them.

I don’t have enough interest in American History to refer to myself as “buff”, so let’s just say I’m a casual fan. Yes, I’ve been known to spend entire days watching multi-part series on the History Channel detailing the presidents and the history of each individual state, but I don’t have the Declaration of Independence committed to memory, nor do I know the particulars of each major battle of the Civil War. That being said, I was excited to get the chance to spend a day in Philadelphia; to be able to see historical landmarks that I had been reading about since I was a kid, and to simply spend time in one of America’s great cities. I’ve been to many places around and outside of the United States and have always come back with valuable experiences, but I’m surprised by what I came away with during one solitary day in Philadelphia.

I spent much of the day wandering downtown by myself. My wife had to come to Philadelphia for a work-related conference, so I decided to tag along and see the sites on my own. Naturally, those sites included Independence Hall, Congress Hall, the Liberty Bell, and all the other Revolutionary War era tourist destinations. Our hotel was just blocks away from all of these spots, so I took to them on foot. The streets and sidewalks of Philadelphia are filled with people, hustling and bustling and sometimes just setting up shop on the corner. We don’t have much for street vendors in Minneapolis, so I was happy to see food hawkers, news stands, comic book stands, and even fruit salad stands lining the streets. My first stop was to the large, indoor market housed directly across the street from our hotel. The Reading Terminal Market is home to a variety of vendors selling everything from Chinese food to produce to sausage to crafts. Coffee shops, beer gardens, and cafes also populate the market and many are run by the Amish. It was odd to see Amish folk running cash registers and waiting tables in amongst the otherwise busy, modern setting, but I would soon discover that this diverse juxtaposition is one of the things that makes Philadelphia such an amazing town. I scarfed down a plate of sesame chicken, grabbed a fudge-dipped chocolate chip cookie, and went on my way.

Reading Terminal Market

Reading Terminal Market

I headed down to Independence Mall, about eight blocks away. After checking out the Liberty Bell (hey great, it’s a big bell with a crack in it), I crossed the street to the grounds containing Independence Hall and Congress Hall, among other buildings. Admission to all of these buildings are free, but timed tickets are needed to get into Independence Hall, available – for free – a block and a half away at the Visitor’s Center. Rather than make the hike over there right away, I opted to check out Congress Hall first.

Congress Hall - House of Representatives

Congress Hall - House of Representatives

Congress Hall is where the House of Representatives and the Senate were housed from the years 1790 to 1800, while the permanent buildings were being constructed in Washington DC. The House was located on the first floor while the Senate on the second floor. Beyond the obvious historical significance, this was also where John Adams was sworn in as the second president of the United States, the first time the U.S. attempted its peaceful transfer of power. Most of the building remained true to how it looked during that period, though in some cases the original furniture was replaced by period pieces that remained true to what would have been there.

Congress Hall - House of Representatives

Congress Hall - Senate

From there, it was on to try to nab some tickets to Independence Hall. The line for tickets was ridiculous, but I persevered and walked away with tickets for 1:15, three hours away. What to do? I began by hitting up one of the theaters in the Visitor’s Center to watch a short film called “Independence”, an elementary school quality depiction of the story of the creation of the United States of America. “Independence” wasn’t a bad film and certainly served the purpose of giving tourists the basic ins and outs, but for something far more in depth and high quality, I recommend HBO’s John Adams miniseries.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

So in the hall I went, with about fifty other people. After a brief introduction, it was onto the actual building. Our first stop took us to a large courtroom, built strictly in the Georgian style. Everything was completely symmetrical, whether or not it had purpose. For example, there was a door on the left side of the room leading to the judge’s chambers, and a door on the right side leading to…a brick wall.

But people go to Independence Hall not to see an old courtroom, they go to see the Assembly Room, where the Declaration of Independence was revised and eventually signed.

Assembly Room

Assembly Room

Something happens when you enter the Assembly Room. I’m not sure if it’s the realization of great history, but there’s a definite mood to the room. As our tour guide discussed the various steps it took to get the Declaration signed, certain things began to occur to me. He mentioned how amazing a feat it was that thirteen very different states – then colonies – each with a very different populace, could come together under a united cause. And those words resonated with me as I continued my day.

I feel that “diversity” is an overused word. I don’t “celebrate” diversity. I don’t even know how that is done. Do I need balloons and streamers? I guess it’s just not something I even think about. But after leaving Independence Hall, several things happened immediately, in an almost spooky way. First up, I walked out the door, headed a block north, and ran smack into a gay pride parade.

Gay Pride Parade on Market Street

Gay Pride Parade on Market Street

I stood and watched as hundreds of men and women marched past, some with signs, some simply holding hands, mostly all celebrating in some fashion. Among them were family members and even the occasional clergymen with signs that said “We are with you.” I realized that even forty to fifty years ago, these people would have been beaten, outcast, and even arrested for their lifestyle. But just as those thoughts entered my brain, I heard a commotion directly across the street from me, just outside the Liberty Bell.

Gay Pride Parade on Market Street

The opposition appears.

Of course: the hardcore Christian protesters. I wandered over to read their signs and hear what they had to say. The signs were the typical “You’re going to hell” stuff, which I find completely predictable. I won’t go too far into my thoughts here out of – well, let’s call it “respect” just to placate the sensitive – but it occurs to me that warnings of fire and brimstone aren’t the best way to make your point.

I listened to the “speaker”, who was shouting into a microphone. He was attempting to make the point that depression, guilt, and suicide are all rampant among the gay community, therefore that is proof that they feel badly for what they are doing and realize it’s a sin. In my head, I countered with the reasoning that perhaps those facts exist because guys like him stand on street corners making them feel badly about their way of life. But first of all, I am not the type of guy who gets involved in that sort of nonsense. I learned long ago that there is just no convincing some people and that kind of heavy change does not come quickly or easily. But another part of my silence in favor of observation was the setting. There we were, directly outside of the Liberty Bell museum, on the grounds of Independence Hall where Thomas Jefferson declared that all men are created equal and all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And here we were, just feet from where those words were publicly spoken for the first time, experiencing their message first hand. Cheesy? Perhaps. But it had a remarkable effect on me.

I turned and began to walk back to my hotel with all these thoughts in my head. As I made my way, I passed people from all walks of life and all coexisting in this incredible town. And just as I got a block from my destination, I was hit with another example.

Gathered on a makeshift stage at the edge of the sidewalk were a group of young black men, standing straight and mostly expressionless, almost Black Panther style. Lining the stage were signs, each with a different anti-religious message from Islam to Christianity to Judaism. In the middle of the stage was a man with a microphone belting out his message, quite passionately. As I stopped to observe, he hit me with the words, “The Christian church needs to be burned to the ground!” When the building behind me was first built, this man would have been executed on the spot for even mumbling those words. That day, people just walked by trying to ignore him as they checked the email on their Blackberries.

The view from my room; demonstrators below.

The view from my room; demonstrators below.

I made my way back up to my corner room on the 11th floor, opened the shades and looked down. I could faintly hear the man speak below as I picked up my laptop and began to write this entry. It was a remarkable day in a remarkable town in a remarkable country in a remarkable world.

4 Responses to Travelogue: Philadelphia

  1. Ryker XL says:

    Thanks for sharing that story John, I travel so much that things like that have become almost old hat, and seeing from new eyes is a great thing! Too bad you didn’t accidentally almost run out of gas in North Philly and see the “colorful sights” in that part of town. I do have one question for you though…

    Did you get a chance to run the library steps like Rocky?

  2. John says:

    No, we didn’t make it over to that area, unfortunately. Christine really wanted to (because she’s a geek like that), but we were both too tired to make the trek.

  3. Ryker XL says:

    That’s too bad, it’s one of things in life you just HAVE to do :)

  4. Wraitheist says:

    Thanks for sharing, John. I live in Lancaster, only about 90 minutes from Philly. It really is a historically interesting place. I was surprised to hear that you ran into so many Amish. Lancaster county is like the amish capital of the east coast, but I didn’t realize that so many live in or visit Philly. If you ever get over this way again, I’ll buy you a beer (or three).

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