Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Philadelphia "Guide" Post

Welcome to my blog, and welcome to Philadelphia if you are visiting. With this "guide" post I hope to give you some links to my Philadelphia-themed posts so that you don't have to slog through the blog to find them efficiently. I write about places mostly, so please explore my blog for my take on the places I visit. I try to tell the story of my experience in each, with lots of pictures and some history.

If you haven't been to Philadelphia before, you MUST visit some historical spots! There are so many you might not know where to start, but I suggest you start by reading my blog on the topic for ideas. Ben Franklin must be Philadelphia's all-time favorite son so you might want to focus on his life. Check out his legacy here.

One of the most fascinating places I've even been in Philadelphia is Eastern State Penitentiary. It's about four blocks north of the Art Museum and easily within walking distance from the Convention Center.

For a quiet, meditative space, visit Washington Square, just east of Center City and south of the Convention Center.

For something completely unique, head to South Street (tons of restaurants and bars) where you'll find Philadelphia's Magic Gardens. Bring thy camera.

The Convention Center blooms every year with the famous Philadelphia Flower Show. I blogged about it in 2010 and in 2009 (part one and part two). The famous flowers will be blooming while the Innovations 2012 conference is going on...just in case you haven't heard.

You may have heard of the Mummers' Parade on New Year's Day. I'll take you there on a warm day in 2012, and a very cold day in 2009.

Here is my take on the ships of Philadelphia's waterfront, Penn's Landing.

I lived in and explored this city in the 1980s as a graduate student in Music. One day, 25 or so years later, I set out to retrace my steps and visit my old haunts.

You may be interested in accompanying me to Bucks County:

Washington's Crossing (actually I'm standing on the New Jersey side),
Ringing Rocks Park,
Moravian Tile Works, and,
Pearl S. Buck's House,

or Longwood Gardens in Chester County.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Smash Books: Got a Notebook? Try It!

Have you heard of Smash books? Most people I talk to have not. I hadn't until I saw them at a craft store displayed with all of their snazzy accessories. At first I wrote them off as a trend that would soon evaporate, meant for teens and 'tweens. I continued to consider the concept. The official Smash books (that's a brand-name with a capital 'S') are spiral-bound books similar to a scrapbook . Most of the pages are already decorated with colors, patterns, or drawings on a theme such as flowers, doodles, travels, etc. The Smash book creator is encouraged to add notes and drawings of their own with the pen that comes with the book, and to glue-in photos and other memorabilia with the glue stick at the opposite side of the pen. The Smash book creator is also encouraged to be messy and just get the ideas into the book any old way.

It was this last sentence that stuck in my mind, and I came to see the smash book idea (that's the concept with a small 's') as a great way to organize thoughts. So, low on cash, I decided to make my own smash book with a hard-cover spiral notebook. Evening after evening, I sat with my smash-notebook and jotted down notes about places I would like to go or return to. I clipped photos from old travel catalogs, and maps (some showing tours like the Christmas cruise on the Danube below), and I raided my scrapbooking supplies for stickers and papers.

Wouldn't you love to cruise the Danube at Christmastime, stopping at Christmas markets in Europe's great cities?
I was determined not to make my smash book fussy and fancy like my scrapbooks are supposed to be--those showcase my photos of places I've been. This smash book is supposed to be messy, capturing the dreams and imaginations I hold in my head about these places. The pages came out looking like a teen or 'tween had created them, but that's what I wanted. How often do we adults exercise our unbridled imagination in such a way? I may never visit all of these places, but if the opportunity arises, I will be ready. I included some pages on desired travel gear, too. As I explored the popular site Pinterest, I found more ideas for Smash or smash books. I created my own Pinterest smash book idea board .

My smash book no longer closes, but it's going to get thicker.

If I had stopped right there, this still would have been a fun exercise, but I began to think of people who had visited these places already. Why not ask them what they remember most fondly and keep those memories with my notes? So I asked friends about Italy and India, and included notes from a colleague's talk about a trip to Greece and Turkey. My smash book pages were getting full, so I had to insert these on folded bits of paper like a pop-up book.
My Greece spread with sites to see, notes, pictures, stickers, movie titles, and impressions from another traveler on a yellow pop-up

This is a great way to organize ideas. I finally sprung for a brand-name Smash book and decided to devote 2-page spreads to ideas for future articles. I already have recorded possible sources, drawings, ideas for interviews, quotes, and possible angles and organization strategies for the actual writing. This little 'tween/teen activity has become a great visual organizing tool! Got a notebook? Try it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Franklin Tour: Ben There, Done That

James Peniston's nine-foot bronze Franklin (2007)

 Ben Franklin's legacy saturates the city of Philadelphia. There's the bridge, the institute, the court, the square, and the stove that bear his name, plus other inventions and institutions for which he gets less credit. Did you know he invented bifocals? Swim fins? A musical instrument called the glass armonica? This man had a lot of interests, the time to pursue them, and the patience to write about them. I have the patience to write about my favorite BF sites and facts, but for a thorough study I recommend his famous autobiography. This slender tome is well worth the time--he describes his interesting life and shares his thoughts.

Franklin was a character, and my favorite story is when he talks about the virtues. He organized this group in Philadelphia called the Junto, and identified thirteen virtues that they would work on individually and then report back to the group on their progress. During one of Franklin's reports, a member pointed out that he forgot humility. Franklin retorted that humility was not a virtue he could boast about. Slippery stuff, that humility; if you claim you have it, you probably don't.

Franklin Court
Ben Franklin wasn't born in Philadelphia. He came from Boston as a young man, seeking refuge from a really bad printer's apprentice situation with his brother. He learned the trade, though, and started his own shop in Philadelphia. Franklin Court, on Market Street between 3rd and 4th Streets, is open every day and shows what Franklin's shop looked like along with his post office (which still functions as a U.S. Post Office). Behind the shops is a white steel-frame of what historians think Franklin's house was shaped like, and underground there is a museum showing Franklins's multifaceted life as a printer, inventor, writer, and diplomat. (At this writing, the museum is closed for renovation.)

Pennsylvania Hospital
Franklin created, planned, or helped organize many of the Philadelphia institutions of his time: Pennsylvania Hospital, the Library Company, the American Philosophical Company, Philadelphia Union Fire Company, and he spearheaded fundraising efforts for the Christ Church steeple. He spent 1757 to 1775 in England as a diplomat representing Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Massachusetts, but left when he got fed up with corruption there. From 1776 through 1783, he lived in Paris where he was involved in working out the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Paris. On top of all this, he was an elder statesman immersed in planning for our new country back home in Philadelphia.

So many things are named for him in this region that those of us from here don't always notice!  Philadelphia's tree- and museum-lined boulevard modeled after Paris's Champs-Elysées and leading up to the Museum of Art's Rocky steps is called the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. One of Philadelphia's five original squares, the northeast one, is named for Franklin and has a great view of the iconic Lightning Bolt statue (1984) commemorating Franklin's famous electricity experiment with a key, a kite, and a lightning bolt. Just beyond is the two-mile-long Benjamin Franklin Bridge connecting Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey.
The Lightning Bolt (Isamu Noguchi) with the Ben Franklin Bridge behind

The Franklin Institute at Logan Circle is a premier science museum with awesome interactive exhibits and an IMAX theater. Kids around the region still talk about the Giant Heart exhibit that people can walk through, and it opened in 1954!
A common sight: school buses parked in front of the Franklin Institute.
Franklin, his wife Deborah, and his son Francis, are buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch Streets. Theirs are the graves with the pennies on them, tossed for good luck by visitors.

BTW, thanks to Brian Johnstone for this post's clever subtitle!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Historic Philadelphia: Retracing the Footsteps of our Country's Parents

Christ Church
Growing up a short schoolbus ride from Philadelphia, we visited the important historical sites to reinforce the American history we learned in school. It was fourth grade if I'm not mistaken, that we took a class trip to the city to visit Independence Hall, Elfreth's Alley, and the Betsy Ross House. We saw the Liberty Bell, too, and we were even allowed to put our little-kid fingers into the famous crack. These days there's no touching the Bell, as I suppose we are more aware of how the oils and God-knows-what left behind by our fingers damage the relic. The Bell is in its second new home since I touched it many moons ago, but the rest of the sites have remained the same. The historic area and Old City are delightful, at the same time park-like and populated.

That's Independence Hall on the left, and the Liberty Bell's building to the right. Check out the line to see the Bell!

Elfreth's Alley
Elfreth's Alley best illustrates my point. I remember visiting this little in fourth grade, and the teachers explained that it is the longest continuously inhabited residential street in the country. That is to say that the buildings date back to the 1730s, but older homes now gone were built in 1713. There are a total of 33 homes there now, and aside from the museum and gift shop occupying two, they are lived-in. Imagine living in one of those old houses with throngs of tourists walking up and down the cobblestone street which is probably too narrow for even the smallest car. (How do you unload your groceries? How do you get furniture delivered? Do you have to wear a costume when you go outside?) This is living history, isn't it? It's easy to imagine what this street was like when the country was born because it is essentially the same now. Elfreth's Alley is between Arch and Race Streets, connecting 2nd to Front Street.

Organ Pipes and 1740 Chandelier of Christ Church
I don't remember visiting Christ Church in fourth grade, so I made a special point of visiting it on my recent Old City photo tour. This church, at 2nd and Market Streets, is where George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, Benjamin Rush and other big names of the time worshiped. It's a beautifully preserved Georgian building and open every day with historians on-hand to answer questions. It was started in 1727, and the famous white steeple made the church the tallest building in the colonies for decades. Benjamin Franklin actually led the fundraising to build the steeple! The baptismal font dates from 14th-century London, and it the very one in which a baby William Penn was baptized in London. The Christ Church burial Ground is a couple blocks away at 5th and Arch Streets--its most famous resident is Benjamin Franklin.

The Betsy Ross House
The Betsy Ross House is in this Old City neighborhood, too, at 239 Arch Street. Ms. Ross was an upholsterer who also made flags, and her husband's uncle George Ross, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, hooked her up with the famous flagmaking gig we've all heard about. Historians aren't entirely sure she made THE first flag, or that she lived in this very house, but even the spurious parts of her tale are not unlikely. The thrice-widowed Betsy is buried in the adjacent Atwater Kent Park with her third husband John Claypoole.

The brightest star of a visitor's tour of Philadelphia would have to be Independence Hall on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Streets. It was built between 1732 and 1756 and intended to be the State House of the Province of Pennsylvania. This is where the colonial delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the federal Constitution. Did you know Abraham Lincoln lied here in state after his 1865 assassination? Tours are available every day, but they are very popular (VERY popular) and must be picked up at the spiffy Visitor Center between Independence Hall and the Constitution Center. The Liberty Bell Center is there, too, and the modern National Constitution Center. Connecting these buildings is an expansive lawn, necessary to accommodate the energetic kids, photo-snappers, dog walkers, and everyone drawn to this historic place. The clock tower looks shiny and new after its recent makeover, doesn't it? On the day this photo was taken, the National Park Service was preparing for an event to celebrate the unveiling of the recently restored tower--that's the yellowish green bit in the center of the photo.

Independence Hall

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

Isaiah Zagar works with tile. Isaiah Zagar works with mirrors, glass, terracotta, found objects, doilies, folk art, and tile. We visited his spectacular Magic Garden on South Street this weekend and marveled at the amazing mosaics he creates. As I walked down South Street in the bitter cold, I spotted more than one building with a mirrory-mosaic facade that I hoped would be the destination and save me from the icy February winds. But no, Isaiah Zagar has applied his magic mosaics to many buildings in the South Street area. (Come to think of it, I have noticed these distinctive mosaics for years in this area. Now I know where they came from!)

Inside the Magic Garden gallery

Finally inside 1020 South Street, we pay our five dollar admission and set out to explore. We were lucky enough to catch a tour that took us around the building, into the basement, and outside into the mosaic labyrinth. It's mesmerizing to look at this art and listen to our guide telling the story. Zagar is a trained artist (the Pratt Institute in NYC), and he and his wife Julia spent some years in Peru volunteering with the Peace Corps. This explains the South American folk art influence. After the Peace Corps stint, the couple returned to Philadelphia where Julia has run the Eye's Gallery on South Street for over three decades. (I think I bought earrings there in college.) Talk about following your dreams!

Zagar sees himself as a four-armed man and commissions other artists to envision him this way. 

Even on a cloudy day, the mirrors seem to catch any available sunlight and make the building exteriors shimmer. Inside, floors, walls, and ceilings are covered with three-dimensional mosaics which include plates, bottles, and folk art imported by Julia that was damaged in transit. The colors are bold, the mirrors reflect, and as your eyes take it all in, you recognize bigger forms (people and animals) and words.

These outside stairs were very slippery Sunday, so we did not go down them.

Outside we had to be careful because of ice. The tiles on the ground can't be salted or shoveled because they might be damaged, so we carefully found our way through the mosaic wonderland. If it hadn't been so cold I could have sat there for hours on a mosaic bench just looking. And shooting photos!
Can you see me?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Eastern State Penitentiary

Al Capone's cell
Al Capone's digs are not representative of the typical cell in Eastern State Penitentiary. Rumor has it he was hiding out in the Philadelphia prison because some serious gang wars were going on in his Chicagoland home. This high-profile inmate enjoyed a comfy bed, secretary desk, phonograph, and a homey rug in his domain on cellblock 9. Today's visitors get to see a representation of this cushy cell when they tour Eastern StatePenitentiary at 22nd and Fairmount Streets.

We spent a fascinating afternoon exploring the grounds, first with an audio tour narrated by Boardwalk Empire's own "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi), and then on our own punching numbers into the audio gadget player. The nine cellblocks radiate out from the center administration area like spokes on a wheel. We got to see where the hospital, kitchen, baseball diamond, and barbershop were, along with typical cells. Actual voices of inmates and guards makes this tour even more fascinating and realistic. The penitentiary opened in 1829, taking over for the Walnut Street Prison mentioned in my earlier blog about Washington Square. The penitentiary wasn't closed until 1971, so some of the young guys from then are able to offer reminiscences now.

Cellblock 7 was the first double-decker cellblock.
When the prison first opened in 1829, it was serious about the root of the word penitentiary. Inmates were expected not only to live in silence, but they rarely even saw another person. They were fed through a small door on the main hall and let out to "exercise" in a small private yard attached to their cell, and even smaller than their living space. They were expected to meditate on their crimes and come out better people. The one skylight in their cell was nicknamed "The Eye of God." The austere exterior of the thirty-foot prison wall was designed to look like a Gothic-style church with turrets and thin, pointed windows that didn't actually go through to the other side. (How could they--the wall is twelve feet thick!) Get the idea? The was a place to repent.

A typical cell, now in ruins.
Charles Dickens visited the famous penitentiary in 1842 and wrote about it in his American Notes. The two places he wanted to visit in the U.S. were Niagara Falls and Eastern State, but he was disappointed by the penitentiary. He thought the treatment prisoners were subjected to was harsh: "The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong."

Eventually, these strict rules were relaxed when prison experts realized this was not the best way to reform criminals. (Although, I expect it would have worked on me.) Rules were relaxed and criminals were eventually given jobs to do together, taught trades, and given the opportunity to participate in sports.
The more recent resident of this cell was taught how to be a shoemaker.

Just before we were sprung, we were treated to a few surprises: a short movie about the famous jailbreak of 1945 and an artist's installation featuring a collection of bugs found inside the walls of the penitentiary. We didn't know what to expect from "ESP" but we found it to be a fascinating, photogenic ruin rich with stories and maybe a few ghosts.