It could be said that a city is a form of art. While most art is fundamentally purposeless–made to express and not to be used–a city is meant to provide a place of habitation. Humans can and have lived anywhere. Why shove all our homes together in one big clump, and why assign that clump a name and a personality? Why go visit that clump, and take pictures of that clump, and say, “I would like to live in that clump one day?” And why sit on a bench and listen to the clump, and learn what the clump has to offer, and offer something of yourself to the clump as well, by being there, by adding your story to the millions that make the clump more than a clump–that make it more than just a thing with a purpose.
I first set foot in Philadelphia at four in the morning on a Monday, and I think I loved it immediately. Outside the airport the air was soft and empty, with a cool wind. The sky was nearly white, and I could hear birds amid the concrete. I waited for a taxi alone, on a concrete platform at the edge of a wide road across from a parking garage.
A single yellow taxi came cruising toward me. It picked up its cargo and we drove off. Silhouetted smokestacks emitted plumes of dark vapor into the crisp sky. Their reaching spires shrunk into infinity as we traversed the industrial outskirts of the city. Through the poor suburbs we slid, the highway growing only a little more populous, in between blackened brick, ancient and crumbling, all deep red and grey. I was undeterred in my euphoria, and I was rewarded in my anticipation as we entered town.
All of Philadelphia, when not skyscrapers, large shops, town halls or condominiums is comprised of the same kind of house: the trinity. A trinity house has a brick face, or sometimes stucco. It is tall and narrow, with three floors and a basement. Most are adorned by colorful shutters, a back deck, accessible from the top floor, and a miniscule backyard, shaded and fenced, on ground level and usually fully occupied by a small set of lawn chairs. The one I stayed in was no exception. Temporarily obtained through Airbnb, it had all necessary conveniences: two bedrooms, and a jarringly steep set of stairs, which could only be descended slowly and in full illumination, as I had the pleasure of finding out during my first night. An older variety, it was built in the late 18th century. The basement and Franklin stove in the living room had both been apparently unrestored since that time, and were quite similar in appearance and in odor.
I slept only a little, then was awakened by the sound of a jackhammer directly outside the house. It would rattle my brain for ten to twenty seconds, then take a short break, and continue. After fifteen minutes I got out of bed.
Leaving the house I was confronted by what proved to be a captivating scene. My street, more of an alley in width, was occupied by a backhoe, two vans, and many large piles of rubble. I talked to the foreman. He explained cheerfully in his comfortable Philly accent that they were replacing the pipes connecting the houses to the water main. He would have to do a small amount of work inside each of the houses including mine, so I would have to call the owners about it later. I thanked him, and the man operating the jackhammer halted as I walked past. I do not sleep on planes, yet I was quite awake and remained so all day. I started by setting off East, heading away from South Street, the largest avenue close to my abode, crossing Pine Street to find a beautiful deli where I had my breakfast.
I continued into old town, passing the first hospital in the U.S. and a large square that had been a mass grave for American soldiers whilst the city was occupied by the British during its revolution. That day I saw the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, the oldest continuously inhabited street in the country, and a plethora of historic sites, including the office of the Philadelphia Tribune, the first African-American operated paper is the country. “It was not until later, however, when I went to South Street for dinner that I began to understand the city.
Philadelphia’s greatest value may easily be overlooked while focusing on its architecture, its history, its landmarks and notable colleges. It’s is a very working-class city. It has always been so, and now that is evident in its accomplishments, in its beauty. Plumbers, carpenters, construction workers, factory workers, and the like have always been respected there. The working class in turn are cordial to even the most high-headed student, or artist, or whatever the hip may be. This I have observed through watching everyone in Philadelphia, but especially two groups: the workers outside my house, and the taxi drivers I met. Both always made some attempt at affability.
I left Philadelphia much as I had arrived. It was early and grey, and we went through the same streets and the same smokestacks. As we did my excitement that I had held ever since I arrived faded away, and so did my new favorite place in America.
When you see a painting that really strikes you, whether you feel its darkness and drear, or maybe its message, or its visual ode to something the painter once held dear–whatever it is you see and remember, that is what you have brought into yourself. And whatever happens, wherever you go, you will always have been there, with that painting. So it is with myself and the city of Philadelphia.
Jackson (16) writes to entertain himself, to examine himself, to criticize or examine ideas and phenomenon, and to share his ideas.