Sunday, January 18, 2009


In which we visit the City of Brotherly Love, yo?

Christ Church spire alight amid the gloaming

Took a short time-out and headed East to visit a friend in Philadelphia, cradle of American Liberty. Among our first stops was my friend's church, Christ Church, in the Old City. Founded in 1695 and built between 1727 and 1744, Christ Church was attended by William Penn -- who was baptized in the church's historic font, which had been brought over from England, where it had already served baptismal duty for some two centuries -- Benjamin Franklin (buried in the churchyard), Betsy Ross, George Washington and 15 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The evening light casts elegant tracery upon Christ Church's ceiling

An Episcopal church, Christ Church represented the Church of England in America, and its plain, brick-and-white, lightly neoclassical design -- a perfect example of the early Georgian -- shows it. It is a hallowed place the evokes a kind of reverence in even the most skeptical heart, as well as a swell of patriotism and a feeling of continuity: the gift of generations.

We strolled through the Old City, down the little Georgian side streets past 18th century row houses like the one above, whose crooked door and window attests to the passage of time and the simple beauty of traditional architecture. In fact, I'd like to have a little chat with the city fathers about their decision to allow skyscrapers taller that William Penn's hat, atop Philly's Victorian City Hall. It was a bad decision, one that may have give the city a modern "skyline," but also overshadowed and diminished this old town's glorious architectural and historic heritage.

Betsy Ross's house is now a quaint little museum

San Franciscans, used to ornate, brightly-trimmed, gingerbread-laden, timber-built Victorians, my be disappointed at first with Philadelphia's seemingly endless rows of red brick houses. They also may find that the city, surrounded as it is by a rather vast industrial wasteland of power plants, oil refineries and shipping, lacks vistas or much of the kind of natural drama that we are used to. But then we are lucky enough to be surrounded by water -- two sides by bay, with picturesque Pacific to the West. Our industrial wasteland has been ghettoized to the Southeastern corner of the City. But Philly's history nevertheless peeks through almost everywhere, from the old stone horse trough on the sidewalk in the Old City to the Indian place names of the surrounding towns, like "Conshohocken," and colonial names, such as "King of Prussia," which took its name in the 18th century from a local tavern named "The King of Prussia Inn," which may in turn have been named for Benjamin Franklin's patriotic political satire, "An Edict by the King of Prussia." (Sadly, the tavern, which has been relocated from its original spot, no longer serves hooch but is now the offices of the King of Prussia Chamber of Commerce.)

The USS New Jersey's 16-inch guns could hurl a high explosive shell weighing more than a Volkswagen a dozen miles

Speaking of history, there's a really nice bit of it moored on the Camden, New Jersey, side of the Schuylkill River from downtown Philadelphia. (That's "skookle," my Californios, not "shoe-kill" or "shool-kill." ) The USS New Jersey, the brochure tells us, is the most decorated battleship in U.S. history. First launched from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard exactly one year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the New Jersey fought in most the the Pacific campaigns, was active in both the Korean and Vietnam wars and served off the shore of Lebanon, where she shelled Syrian positions after the Beirut Marine Barracks suicide bombing there killed some 400 U.S. Marines on peacekeeping duty, including one member of the New Jersey's ship's company.

One of he USS New Jersey's 5-inch guns takes a bead on some of the ugly glass towers of downtown Philly. If only.

During her service, only one crewman died while aboard. She was finally decommissioned for the last time in 1991. She's now a fascinating floating museum. I highly recommend the self-guided audio tour. Be sure to go into one of the 16-inch gun turrets and peer through one of the still operative sighting lenses.

In the 1980s, San Francisco had the chance to "home port" the USS Missouri, the "Mighty Mo," the historic battleship aboard which representatives from the Empire of Japan formally signed the "instruments of surrender," ending the Second World War. The City's so-called "progressives" balked, however, not wanting to have anything more to do with the "military-industrial complex" and noting that the then-still active Missouri was "nuclear capable." (Never mind that it never actually carried nukes.) Because home porting the Missouri would have meant more Bay Area jobs, and eventually the possibility that the ship might become a new San Francisco museum after its decommissioning, I was strongly in favor of home porting. But the City's far left, blindly anti-military establishment would have none of it. I've never forgiven them.

Today, the USS Iowa, around whose design the New Jersey and Missouri were built, sits in mothballs in Suisun Bay, north of San Francisco. There were plans afoot to bring the Iowa to the City as a museum ship, like the New Jersey and the Missouri (now a museum in Hawaii). But, once again, citing resistance to the Iraq war, the San Francisco Board of Stupervisors voted in 2005 against maintaining the Iowa in the City. Fools.

One of my favorite neighborhoods that we visited in Philadelphia is called the Italian Market. A few blocks square, the Italian Market is chock full of Italian food and produce stalls, little, old fashioned Italian restaurants, bakeries and coffee houses. But among the area's finer attractions is a mural of the... er... celebrated Italian-American, Frank Rizzo, mayor of Philadelphia from 1972 to 1980. Rizzo is perhaps best remembered, by non-Philadelphians at least, for the line, "I'm gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot."

Yo! Why don' choo take a pitcha a dis?

We arrived in the Italian Market during the first snow. It was the first time I had ever seen guys standing around a burning trash can to keep themselves warm. As I raised my camera, one of the local gentry saw me and shouted, "Yo! Why don' choo take a pitcha a dis?" accompanied with a gesture I will only describe as a "Philly Salute." (This is, after all, a family blog.) Well, you can take the goombah out of Philly...

The new Constitution Center is also well worth looking into. Before going into the museum, you're treated to a part-live, part-interactive multimedia show, in which an actor takes you through the early constitutional process and the issues of the day, including slavery. The program struck just the right balance between patriotic zeal and reality, and, I have to admit, it left me fighting back the mist once or twice.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


In which we visit the site of the battle that turned the tide

Winter is, I think, the best time to visit the site of the great Battle of Gettysburg. Though the battle took place on a hot summer's day, the Pennsylvania wintertime, with its slanted light that gleams through the spidery branches of the slumbering trees, offers the hallowed feel of the inside of a great cathedral. One cannot help but feel reverence here, especially at this time of year.
Of the 165,620 men who fought at Gettysburg, on both the Union and Confederate sides, between July 1 and July 4, 1863, 7,863 were killed outright, 27,224 were wounded (many to die of their wounds later) and 11,199 went missing or were captured. The National Park Service's Gettysburg National Military Park is a fitting memorial to their sacrifice.

You enter the park through the spiffy new Visitor's Center, where helpful park volunteers show you the various tours and educational offerings available. Be sure and see the multimedia film presentation and by all means don't miss the Gettysburg Cyclorama. This is a massive, 540-foot long circular canvas painted by the French artist, Paul Philippoteaux, in the 1880s. It depicts the battle at the time of Pickett's Charge and includes more than 20,000 painted characters. A brief but moving presentation of changing light and sound takes viewers through the battle and the painting, highlighting many of its details. Apparently, cycloramas like these were a popular form of entertainment in the 1800s -- the iMax of the Victorian age, if you will. It was said that when veteran survivors of the battle first viewed the Cyclorama, many broke down and wept. I can see why.

After the Cyclorama presentation, visitors are ushered into the museum, which takes you through the political issues at stake, traces the saga of the war and then goes into detail about the battle and the lives of some of its key participants. Both the multimedia presentation at the beginning and the opening exhibits in the museum stress, rightly, the centrality of the slavery issue as the lead cause of the war. It's very fashionable today among some to say that the Civil War was not really about slavery; that there were other issues more pertinent, such as tariffs. But, as I once heard historian and documentary film maker, Ken Burns, say during a radio interview in which he was asked this question (and I paraphrase): "The Civil War was absolutely about slavery. It was the central issue of the time and the thing that tore the Union apart. In order to preserve the Union, slavery had to end."

But one can only see so many Sharp's Carbines, cavalry sabres and sets of epaulets before one grows weary, so we sped through the latter half of the museum and headed out to the battlefield, recently restored "as closely as possible" to its 1863 appearance. The Battlefield at Gettysburg is huge, stretching for miles. You would need days, a backpack, a tent and a good pair of hiking boots to see it all on foot. The self-guided auto tour is best. This snakes around some 14 miles of road to all the various points of interest -- Little Round Top, Devil's Den, Culp's Hill, the Bloody Wheatfield and so on.

Be sure to stop at the Lee statue. There, you can you can look directly across to where General Mead sat his horse -- and see the depression in the ground across which Lee flung his men in the gambit that would one day come to be known as Pickett's Charge, Lee's last, desperate -- and ultimately futile -- attempt to win the day for Old Dix. You can see what a horrible cauldron of death this shallow little depression in the ground must have become that day as Pickett's doomed men trudged slowly through the smoke and heat into the withering fire of Union rifle and canon. Food for powder.

Along the route, each unit, Blue and Gray alike, has its own monument, a tribute to the honor, courage and sacrifice of the men who fought and fell.

So moving in the eerie winter's twilight.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Frisco 1, Philly 0

In which we claim bragging rights

Took a brief sojourn back east over the New Year to visit the City of Brotherly Love: Philadelphia, PA (of which more anon). While gallivanting around the Old City I got to thinking that I should find and visit Philly's oldest tavern. Philadelphia being as old as it is -- and the very cradle of American liberty itself -- I reckoned that the city's oldest tavern must be venerable indeed, perhaps dating back to the 18th, or even the late 17th, century.

So I stopped in at the first bar I came to and asked the question, "What's the oldest bar in Philadelphia and were may I find it?" The universal response from this pleasant, working class dive's patronage was "McGillin's Old Ale House on Drury Street."

A couple days later we found the joint on the corner of Drury and 13th, between Sansom and Chestnut. Over the bar hangs the original signpost, dating back to 1860, when the bar was named "The Bell in Hand." Indeed, the signpost was in the form of a carved wooden arm and hand swinging a bell.

I was surprised, though, that in a city that dates back to the 1680s -- when William Penn first chartered the nascent town -- that oldest bar dates from just 1860. My own San Francisco, a comparatively new city, the original Presidio of which dates back only to 1776, boasts watering holes dating back to the Miner 49er days.

So we've got you beat on that one, Philly.

Though of venerable provenance, McGillin's today caters largely to a college "binge drinking" crowd. When we were there awaiting our dinner and enjoying our pre-prandial drinks, for example, a fellow at a raucous table near ours leaned back in his chair and promptly fell over like a drunken buffoon. (I may love drinking, but I do despise drunks.) The jukebox was too loud, making the overall noise level all but intolerable. But the pub fare wasn't bad for what it is (we had the cheese steaks, natch).

McGillin's Old Ale House
Philadelphia, PA

Pluses: It's the oldest bar in Philly
Minuses: College crowd; obnoxiously loud music and patrons; drunks requiring oversized bouncers to keep them in check

Overall Rating: ♠ ♠ 1/2