Thursday, March 05, 2009

Amateur Psychogeographical Observation #417

Posted by Theodore Varno on 03/05 at 12:50 PM

It’s really cold today in Philadelphia.  There’s still snow on the ground from the Nor’easter that passed this way earlier in the week.  The sidewalks are interrupted here and there by slick patches of ice.  By and large, the streets are barren, peopled only by those passing as quickly as possible from one warm indoor spot to another.

Winter is a poor time to observe the city of Philadelphia.  When I arrived here in August to spend the year as a PACHS Dissertation Fellow, the scene was much livelier.  The trees were green with leaves, the tourists were about, and pedestrians sauntered, lingered.  I rented a place down in Queen Village, a neighborhood south of South Street, a little under a mile south of PACHS headquarters on Chestnut Street, and when I’d walk to and from the office I enjoyed taking different routes, trying out new streets and alleyways to better learn the city.

One of the first things that struck me about Philadelphia, having just moved from San Francisco and having grown up in the sprawl outside Atlanta, was how old the city feels.  The oldest architecture in San Francisco, survivors of the Big One in 1906, is late-Victorian; here, a structure isn’t likely to stand out unless it predates the Revolution.  There are so many buildings of historical note that it’s easy to forget how unique they are compared to what’s in most American cities; they’re just a daily backdrop, worked in, lived in, unnoticed.

There are many homes in my neighborhood, Queen Village, that date back to the 18th century, but most (like mine, a narrow row house that went up in the 1840s) are products of the 19th century or later.  As I’d walk north to PACHS, though, I would experience a curious sensation that the city was aging.  South Street is noisy, flashy, commercial (like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, as a friend once put it, with fewer runaway kids), but after you cross it, and especially as you pass St. Peter’s with its churchyard of weathered headstones, the cobblestone streets appear, all the homes become red brick, federal shutters abound.  It’s possible now to dodge the main traffic arteries by taking pleasant brick alleys that run north-south, rimmed by flower gardens and faux-gaslights.  Some residences even sport Betsy Ross’s American flag of thirteen stars in a circle.  This all culminates in Independence Square, under the aegis of the National Park Service, today a beacon to Philadelphia’s visitors.

To an outsider arriving in the city for the first time, it is very easy to fall under the nostalgic spell cast by the neighborhood.  I know it worked for me.  This feels like the Colonial America we’ve imagined in our textbooks and docudramas, minus the slave trade and the sailors drunk on rum and the noxious poisonous fumes in the creek from the shipbuilders and the yellow fever and all those other elements most tourists probably would not want to experience first-hand.  When I was a little kid and I watched an Audio-Animatronic William H. Harrison sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom, I didn’t fall for it.  I was young and impressionable, and I thought Disney World was the bee’s knees, but I could still separate the real from its representation.  That’s not so easy in Old City, Philadelphia.  The authentic artifact has collapsed into its representation; the stage play is presented as though it is the still-living primitive, and the actors today are wearing the same clothes as the historical principals they’re depicting.

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