Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Destination: Philadelphia


Many of you may know that I've been traveling for work a lot lately, almost weekly. I've been to several places now all across the country. It's been a unique, neat, and eye opening experience thus far. Well, prompted by the suggestion of a friend and fellow writer, Mikey Stephenson, I've decided to keep a sort of travelogue of all of my destinations, a journal of sorts of each city; the feel, look, and a few detailed places that I can refer back to in my writing for stories that may be set within these cities or just to give my fabricated cities a little more life and realism. I will post these travelogues here for any of you to read, learn from, and perhaps refer to in your own writing and I hope that you will use them.

The City of Brotherly Love
Philly is the most recent city visited in my professional travel. I will start here as it is most fresh in my memory. I will add posts later for cities past such as Boston, San Francisco, and Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

Philadelphia is known as the "City of Brotherly Love." I used to view that statement with no small amount of cynicism. I have visited Philly once before in my life when I was about 16. I don't remember much from that trip other than a few tourist spots and the prevailing feeling that everyone wanted to kill me. I'm believe now that there may have been a bit of youthful naivety influencing my judgment at the time as I was just a kid fresh out of my Utah suburb and wandering in a city the likes of which I had never before experienced.

This trip changed that view almost entirely. My hotel was about a twenty minute walk from the convention center where the event I was teleprompting for was being held. I spent six days there and walked to and from the convention center twice daily, to and from, plus the occasional tourist wanderings in my free time. I found the city itself, the overall atmosphere, to be, not exactly friendly, but welcoming; comfortable. The people on the streets didn't quite stop and engage in conversation, or even so much as look up and smile, but they didn't seem uninviting, annoyed, or mistrusting of the outsider either. It was simply a matter of having better things to do. But I did feel a sense of acceptance among the mass denizens of the city. It truly felt like a brotherhood, everyone accepting of everyone else.

There was the usual compliment of homeless people, beggars sitting on the sidewalk with cardboard signs and cups asking for handouts, but they weren't pushy. They carried more of a humble air to them, a sadness even. Alas, my own personal disdain for beggars kept me from offering them any aid, financially or otherwise. Part of that may have stemmed from the abundant collection of street performers that also lined the sidewalks. Here, people still asked for handouts of change, but they worked for it to some degree by sharing with everyone around some musical talent. Be it singing, guitar, accordion, drums, or even flute, each of these performers filled their little niche of street corner with melodic songs, most of which were very well played. These people have real talent in their instruments. I found myself enjoying their music as I walked along, and even stopped to listen to a few. Unlike the standard beggar, here I can appreciate the work that these people put into learning their craft and sharing it.

One Penn Plaza 
The streets of Philadelphia are narrow. Most of them are one-way streets just wide enough for a bank of parked cars on each side of the street and a single lane down the center for one-way traffic. My hotel was in the heart of downtown Philly and the streets tended to feel a bit claustrophobic. With such narrow travel ways, banked by lines of parked cars, and towered over by skyscrapers of fifty stories or more, you can't help but feel a little boxed in. Here and there the walls open up for a park or historical location. I visited a few of these parks, including Rittenhouse Square, Washington Square (which houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of Washington's revolutionary war army), and of course Independence National Historic Park. Almost every park hosts at least one bronze statue of some historical figure or another from our nation's history. Every park is filled with people sitting on benches, sitting on fountains, laying on the grass, talking, laughing, eating lunch, taking pictures, many of them reading or napping in the sunlight. The parks were never at a loss for population.

George Washington's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The Liberty Bell is housed in its own museum across the street from Independence Hall within Independence National Historic Park. It is a long museum in which you walk from one end to the other reading about the history and significance of the bell as a symbol of freedom and liberty. There are banks of photos and historical memorabilia about the bell all leading up to the Liberty Bell itself at the far end of the museum. The bell sits on a two-pronged pedestal in an open room large enough for several people to be able to walk entirely around it. It rests before a large glass wall looking across the street to Independence Hall where the bell was originally designed to hang and ring. Alas, I did not get a chance to tour Independence Hall, but did take a few photos for reference.

Independence Hall as seen from the Liberty Bell Center
The Liberty Bell

Philadelphia City Hall

Taxis are abundant in Philly, but the sidewalks are never at a loss for people either. Many of the cities denizens walk about the city during their daily business. Due to the lack of space, there are many car park garages where people leave their car in the morning and it is crammed into a garage so tightly that you can only get them out again one at a time in reverse order. Cars are parked in the morning, then the people walk everywhere else for the day, and pick up the car at night.

The last place I want to talk about as part of my Philadelphia travelogue is the Reading Terminal Market. Situated next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where I was working, the Reading Terminal Market is an enclosed "open air" market of sorts. Once a train shed for the Reading Railroad, (Yes, the same one as in Monopoly), the terminal was converted to a market sometime in he 1890's. The market is filled with grid-layout rows of restaurants and a variety of meat, produce, and bakery markets. I ate here for lunch almost every day of the convention. There is a huge variety of restaurants to choose from, from delis boasting famous Philly Cheesesteaks to Italian bistros and Dutch markets, a salad buffet, and even a sushi bar. The food was fantastic, and I can now attest that even an original cheesesteak, straight from the heart of Philly, is made better with bacon.

The thing I loved about the Reading Terminal Market was the throng of people. From open to close every moment of the day the aisles were packed with people shopping, out to lunch, or just sight seeing. In the center of the market is a wide section of tables like a food court, but crammed together to accommodate as many as possible; and it was never enough. People stalk the tables the same way they stall stalk people at the supermarket, watching, waiting, following anyone who even looks like they are walking toward a car to leave. In the Terminal Market, the moment you stand up from your table, taking care not to jostle the people at the table immediately next to you, someone is already moving to take your seat while motioning to the other members of their party that they have a place.

Food Court at Reader Terminal Market
Reading Terminal Market

I loved the market for its atmosphere and think it would be a great setting for a chase, a clandestine meeting, or even a comedic scene of chaos. The variety of ethnic markets and restaurants makes for a vast array of culture that can be mixed into any story for color and realism. Details such as open fruit stands and raw meat markets can add elements of everyday life into your scenes.

In all, Philadelphia was a wonderful experience rich with history, cultural variety, and everyday human life. If you get a chance to visit, take it. If you plan to set a story in Philly, or a similarly large city, take these few details and mix them in to add some spice and believability to your tale.

Philadelphia; The City of Brotherly Love.

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