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.


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