Like Memphis, Philadelphia made me think of song lyrics and film scenes. It made me think gritty, urban, impoverished, high crime (though in fairness crime rates have fallen significantly in the past decade). Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t think it was going to be exactly glamorous.
Two films that sprung to mind were Rocky (1976), and all its sequels, starring Sylvester Stallone, and Philadelphia (1993), starring Tom Hanks. One is about a small-time, down on his luck boxer enjoying one last shot at the big time, the other about a big-time lawyer losing everything after being diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. Both are about personal struggles and standing up for yourself against the odds, set against an unromantic, somewhat bleak, urban landscape.
While the films have thematic similarities, the songs associated with them are quite opposite in mood. The Rocky theme (aka Gonna Fly Now) is a fist-pumping singalong and jog-a-long classic. Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia is a heart-wrenching ode to physical deterioration due to AIDS and to the stigma sufferers faced in the 1980s. Both videos (see links) show a city in decline, and as the only basis of my understanding of this place – both songs were on a loop in my head as I walked around Philly’s historic streets.
In the 1960s, Philadelphia lost its manufacturing base and unemployment rose steeply over the following years. Over 40 years the city lost a quarter of its population. By the 1980s it was almost bankrupt. A city which had been Number 1 in America had been completely eclipsed by others, and it was struggling. But, like Rocky, Philly has experienced redemption. The city cleaned up its act, turned neighbourhoods around and fought on, pursuing a brighter and better future.
Now there are many reasons to visit: it is America’s only World Heritage City; Fairmount Park is the largest urban park in the world; it has the first Capitol (1777) as well as the first library and school; it has more murals than any other city in America – and the list goes on.
I didn’t get to stay here as long as I would have liked, but I managed to tick off three things that should be on everyone’s Philly bucket list:
1.Liberty Bell – this is one of the most iconic symbols of American Independence, rung out when the Declaration of Independence was signed by Congress. Some say America doesn’t have much history compared to Europe, but this is a key part of what there is. Across the road is Independence Hall, also part of the World Heritage Site and where the Declaration was signed.
2. Eat a Philly Cheesesteak – a sub topped with beefsteak and melted cheese…what could be better?! This is fast food so the best place to get it would be in a fast moving historic food market – look no further than Reading Terminal Market and Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks – worth queuing at lunchtime, these are made on-demand, fresh and juicy, just how the locals like them!
3. Rocky Steps – maybe one to try before lunch…but of course the 72 steps leading up to the Museum of Art must be run, and photos taken at the top must include a clenched fist above your head. 72 steps are more strenuous than you might expect but this is a great place to people watch, and at the top, there are panoramic views of the city. At the bottom of the steps is the Rocky statue, providing yet more photo opportunities.
So it is possible to read Philadelphia’s story in the plot of some of the films set in this great city. Philly is gritty, the accent can be grating, and it has been through tough times in recent history. But it has come out fighting, come back strong and has achieved renewal and redemption. Philly is a city that did its time, took its chances/ went the distance, and is now back on its feet, and who doesn’t warm to a plucky underdog who beats the odds to win big?