Running Down Philly’s Historical Streets Helped Me Fall in Love With the City

My evening jogs through Old City and Society Hill introduced me to the city I now call home.

running historical streets

When writer Samantha Spengler first moved to Philly, in April, she got to know the city by running down its historical streets. / Photograph by Cierra Williams

I am not a runner. Runs are reserved for the rare days when I don’t make it to the gym, for moments when I feel I might explode without some type of movement. Even then, I don’t lace up my sneakers unless it’s April, May, September, or October, when it’s cool enough to keep my temperature down even as my heart rate goes up.

April 1st, the day I moved to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., was in that perfect temperate window. Not knowing much about the fitness scene here yet, I felt compelled to explore my city on speedy foot. A few days after settling into a third-floor walk-up at 10th and Locust streets, I set out toward Society Hill for the first time.

In our nation’s capital, I’d enjoyed the jog from my rented room in a not-so-shiny part of the District to the sterile and stately steps of the Supreme Court. There’s a sense of smug perverseness one can only gain from running past the closest thing we have to a national temple in a sports bra and tiny shorts. And the stoic marble structures housing our government have, if nothing else, achieved a sort of timelessness. They convey an importance that, while supported by history, is firmly planted in the now. When I jogged up the steps of those monuments, I felt present and significant.

But what I found in Philadelphia was different. I discovered, under the yellow-orange glow of old streetlights, that roads here are literally paved in history. I could physically feel the significance of my place in time. My hand brushed 200-year-old brick while my iPhone played Nirvana. I tripped over cellar doors and metal loops I assume were used for tying horses. As my pink Nikes beat against cobblestones, not so nimbly hurtling cracks and bumps, I kept thinking about what Benjamin Franklin and William Penn would think of my teal Fabletics leggings.

Over time, my evening runs progressed, although my lack of familiarity kept me within the boundaries of Front, Broad, Market, and South streets. But the antiquated alleyways and painted cellar doors still enthralled me. With every step and haggard breath, I could feel the weight of time and of past mistakes, of old-world values and modern perception.

I wondered: Do all Philadelphians feel this way? Will I one day roll my eyes at yet another sign advertising a historical commission hearing? Will I only see giant dollar signs when glancing down Pine Street? Will there be a time when Independence Hall inspires not awe but annoyance?

It turns out that moment came more quickly than I anticipated. Thanks to oppressive heat, I haven’t ran outdoors in months. The weather that colonial Pennsylvanians braved in corsets and wigs has me racing home from work, ignoring the relics I pass, in pursuit of my air-conditioned apartment. Although I still admire shuttered Georgians and proudly maintained facades, I’ve stopped gawking.

Recently, on my way back from work, I ran into a visitor stalled on Pine near 4th. He stopped me and asked if I could take his picture, commenting on the cobblestone alley and tumbling ivy. “It’s so beautiful,” he remarked. As I snapped a few frames, taking care to get multiple angles, I laughed. “This stuff is all over the city,” I said. “You haven’t seen anything yet.” He took his phone back, still awed. I walked on, head buried in my phone, typing my grocery list the whole way home.