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Welcome to Urban By Design Online! This blog is a notebook of my travels as a city planner, historic preservationist and nonprofit advocate. It's a virtual collection of the many things that I adore, featuring cities, the arts, architecture, gardens, interior design, and retail. Enjoy! - Deena
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Entries in Philadelphia (1)

Thursday
Aug262010

My Philadelphia...

How I discovered that Philadelphia is not like New York, and doesn't need to be!

Just before I graduated from Tulane, I had a few local government job offers in different cities.  I’d focused my search primarily on the East Coast, that place where people always seem to walk and talk faster than anywhere else in the country.  I had fallen in love with New Orleans, and easily settled into its relaxed ways, but at the time there were no job opportunities in my field. 

I considered career possibilities in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, but had immediately nixed anything in my native New York. Why? Because the entry-level salaries for public sector jobs in city planning were comparatively low, and the cost of living was painfully high.

The Clothespin (1976) by Claes Oldenburg in Center City.   The 45-foot-high, 10-ton sculpture stands in front of the Center Square Building.  In 1959, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (RDA) adopted the first "One Percent for Fine Arts" program in the United States, thus making the commissioning of new works of public art integral to the urban renewal process.

Rittenhouse Square, one of five open space parks planned by William Penn during the late 17th Century. It's mentioned quite favorably in the  Jane Jacobs urban classic, The Death and Life of American Cities who praised the park as an asset that led to increased real estate values.  I spent many a lunchtime there, and on the weekend on the adjacent Walnut Street to shop in the area of 200 businesses known as Rittenhouse Row.

Eventually, I chose to move to Philadelphia.

Prior to my job interview, I’d never been to Philadelphia. After I accepted the position, I spent a couple of days in Center City at the Alexander Inn, an adorable boutique hotel.  I walked along the cozy streets of Wash West, and had a few great meals in Rittenhouse Square.  There was certain loveliness about it.  Ultimately, I was convinced that the city would be just like New York, because it was after all on the East Coast!

 

A quaint block in Washington Square West

Oh, was I ever wrong, wrong, wrong!

Years ago, a local writer in attempt to praise the city, made the unfortunate error of referring to Philadelphia as the "sixth borough" of New York City, because so many New Yorkers had settled and/or commuted daily to and from the city.  Honestly, in the years that I spent living in Philadelphia, I never really saw much similarity between the two cities, and the most obvious thing that they had in common was sharing the same time zone. No, Philadelphia is not a bedroom community of New York City.  I have always respected Philadelphia's place as the sixth largest city in the United States, with its own unique history, and known for its many "firsts."  

This is one of my favorite blocks, Green Street in Philadelphia's Spring Garden which is a local historic district. 

Living History Daily

Inevitably whenever people would visit me from out-of-town, I'd take them right away to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, adjacent to  Fairmount Park. I'd always look forward to spring to see the Azalea Garden in bloom, or watch the rowers along the Schuylkill River, or catch a breeze by the the Fairmount Waterworks.  There were several venerable arts institutions in the Parkway Museums District, which included one of my favorites, the Rodin Museum, where the extraordinary work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin was on display.

Swann Memorial Fountain in Logan Circle by Alexander Sterling Calder designed with architect Wilson Eyre.

I know that I could have never been able to have the same lifestyle on a public servant’s salary in New York.  As a young professional, I had the extraordinary experience of living in the heart of a major city, without sacrificing the opportunity to have an exceptional, and culturally rich quality of life.

Another plus of living in Philadelphia was that I knew storeowners by name.  There were so many independently owned stores within my neighborhood; so buying local was not impossibility. Soon I found an adorable coffee and bake shop (Zach’s now closed) where I’d order chai smoothies daily. At the local drycleaners, the owner always seemed to take $5 off my bill, whenever I’d smile, and say hello.  There were many nearby restaurants like Zorba’s Tavern, Bridgid’s and Figs that offered really great food without a huge wait. These spaces really became my home away from home, my extended living room, where I'd meet up with friends for a meal, socialize, and just linger.

I immersed myself in the architectural history of Philadelphia. Philadelphia Architecture - Guide to the City became my primer to find out more about four centuries of architecture, which is still represented in the city.  I also loved taking super informative architectural walking tours, to familiarize myself with the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Throughout the year, I also availed myself of the many free public lectures offered at University of Pennsylvania School of Design.

On many a weekend, I spent my time exploring the up-and-coming neighborhoods, such as Northern Liberties, and New Kensington.   I often traveled over to University City in West Philadelphia, and the Northwest historic neighborhoods of Mount Airy (highly recommend InFusion Coffee & Tea), Chestnut Hill, and Germantown.  My weekly itinerary always included buying fresh produce at the always-bustling Reading Terminal Market. I also loved to shop at the wonderful, locally owned chain, Metropolitan Bakery, which always had a tremendous selection of artisanal breads.  Nearby was the always energetic Chinatown, where I spent many a lunch hour.

Another weekend highlight were trips to Old City, where I’d always find something at my favorite stores like The Papery, for gorgeous stationery, Kellijane (now near Rittenhouse) and Fosters (which just closed). A little further "uptown" I would window-shop along Antique Row, and also at the delightful Open House.   I also shopped in Manayunk, where there were an abundance of independently owned art galleries, and where inevitably I'd take out-of-town guests who were always surprised by this quaint main street in the middle of a bustling city.

I appreciated having access to so many diverse cultural events in Philadelphia.  At least twice a month, I saw live theater, took in an art exhibition or went on a walking tour, thanks to the great program that lists arts and cultural discounts throughout the Philadelphia region, called Funsavers.  During the winter, I took in many a movie at the Ritz theaters for many independent flicks and documentaries.

In the 1970’s, the Philadelphia Sound was pioneered by the super production teams of McFadden and Whitehead, and also Gamble and Huff. When I moved there, newcomers like Jill Scott, Musiq, and Kindred the Family Soul were creating a new soundtrack with Neosoul music. Literature was another passion, and the outstanding Free Library of Philadelphia's outstanding author's series, where I met Donna Tart, Paule Marshall, and Jennifer Weiner.  I also enjoyed outdoor concerts at the Mann Center, and spent numerous evenings at the beautiful Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and the listening to magnificent performances by the Opera Company of Philadelphia at the Academy of Music

Kimmel Center of the Performing Arts [hendrix682]

Eventually a new job opportunity led me to return to New York, a place that I missed most because my family was there, and it was home.  I longed for the familiar things that make New York special from the rush of the subway, the lights of Broadway, and long walks through gracious brownstone neighborhoods.  Philadelphia was not as hectic, allowed me to have a leisurely commute, and was a phenomenal place to start my career in. I also made so many wonderful, and lasting friendships.  It's the city that really did love me back.

More information about Philadelphia:

Design*Sponge Philadelphia Guide: A great design resource guide.

Parkway Museums District: Arts and cultural institutions along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and beyond.

Philadelphia Center for Architecture: Home of the AIA Bookstore and Walking Tours

Uwishunu- Philadelphia blog about things to do, events, restaurants, nightlife, and more.

Visit Philly: Fantastic tourism and events information.