What’s So Wrong with Philadelphia?

Less than you think—if you look closely enough

She called me, a woman with wild red hair. Sarah was a long-time New Yorker, then lived in Hong Kong for 13 years; in September, she moved to Philadelphia, of her own volition. She’s 62 years old, been divorced for seven years, no kids. Sarah wanted to take me for a walk.

I get it, why suburban Philadelphians of a certain age move downtown, where they don’t have to drive, and can dine out to their heart’s content, go to the opera (although if I had a nickel for everybody who claimed they go to the opera … ). They’re people with stakes, a history, in the area. Sarah is a woman of the world. In Hong Kong, she wrote about ballet and ran a restaurant out of her home. She spent a quarter century working in publishing in New York. Then she picked our fair city.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Why?

For a long time, she would visit Philly from New York. She stayed at the Four Seasons all the way back when Bill Rouse was challenging the skyline, when the Four Seasons was sort of in no man’s land, but you could feel it, a city about to come alive.

I don’t think of it that way. I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s wrong with Philadelphia. About what was, and is no longer.

The city’s not all peaches and light for Sarah, either. Philadelphia is the dirtiest place she’s ever been in, though she’s got an interesting theory on this:

“It’s because it’s so low. There aren’t enough tall buildings to catch the dirt.”

She bemoans the lack of movie theaters downtown, and wonders why on earth you can’t get wine or a mattress delivered.

But these are quibbles, compared to the stuff to see here. We walk.

Sarah takes me to Anthropologie, at 18th and Walnut, and we marvel at the Tiffany stained glass, at the popes inlaid in a ceiling, their robed heads making them seem as shy as wayward uncles. This is good-news Philly, where a homegrown business has merged with the historic. We slip to St. James Place off of 22nd—which she discovered on another afternoon, zigzagging about—to bask in the sweet protective red-leaf maples and blooming rhododendron. A real European-style court.

Yeah yeah. It’s nice. We walk east. Sarah wants to take me to South Street, of all places.

But she gets me looking up and about, noticing strap hinges on shutters, the frilly decorative business of protective ironwork over basement windows. No time or money for that sort of thing anymore, I think.

Sarah notices a sign, near 19th and Spruce: THE CONSULATE OF ROMANIA. “There’s a terrific Romanian gift shop at 18th and Walnut,” she remembers from another walk, and then at 16th, we stumble on a second Romanian shop of trinkets and small gifts: “We’re in the heart of Romania!” she declares. Who knew?

We stop. The sandstone-colored Drake bakes in the sun above us. “The Liberty Museum,” Sarah says unrelated to anything except pure enthusiasm. “Nobody knows about it. Jose Garces Trading Company—fabulous! Do you know about the Packard? The apartment building across from the Inquirer building—the lobby was the showroom for Packard cars. The Fabric Museum—it’s stellar, brilliant.

“Anyway, Philadelphia is way prettier than New York. It’s a village on steroids!”

Sure. Yet as we walk on, I begin to understand what she sees: A few nights ago, when the Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, she heard a commotion out her window near Broad and Walnut. A band of revelers, then it started swelling. She took Pearl, her snow-white Pekingese, outside to investigate. And there, in front of the Union League, was a beautiful sight:

Twenty mounted cops on horseback, in a perfect row. Waiting. What they were waiting for was a riot. The horses had face guards. Broken windows, burned cars. We have a certain history, even in celebration.

Sarah didn’t see it that way. She and Pearl got as close as they could to those horses, whose saddles were as high as the top of her head, and she imagined those cops in different uniforms—Civil War uniforms, say. In front of the Union League. To her it was like walking down Delancey and wiping away the cars. You dream straight into another time.

We land in the Magic Gardens, Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic wonderland, which I’ve never been to. Sarah finds this lapse “almost inexcusable. In Japan he would be a national treasure.”

And there, in the timeless fairyland weirdness of Zagar’s imagination—what’s the deal with all the bike wheels, anyway?—I get it: What I see as a past that’s lost and not possible to recover, she sees as present, because it is … here to see. A glorious old brownstone now chopped up into apartments—isn’t it still a glorious old brownstone? She moves lightly, because Sarah doesn’t carry the baggage of the idea of “Philadelphia.”

We walk. It’s a good way to travel.