PHILADELPHIA is America without skyscrapers. Well, like everything in this never-neverland of east Coast culture, that is only partly true. In the 1980s Philadelphia dropped the requirement that all its buildings should not rise above the 60-foot high statue of William Penn, one time Cork hurling mentor and Quaker founder of the “brotherly love and tolerance” state of Pennsylvania.
But the city still has that French second-empire low-rise feel to it, the sense of place it had when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula here, offering escape from New York and one of the best convention centres for business get-togethers.
There is something appropriate about its convention reputation. This is the city which staged the first ever convention, and one can imagine the excitement in 1787 by whatever the 18th century equivalent of a tourism chief might be as they got the inns ready for the high-powered delegates who were to devise America’s Declaration of Independence. One of the inns, the City Tavern still has characters in costume still wandering around, as if they never left, and drinks are served in pewter tankards. For the American revolution, like 1798 or the Dublin literary tumult of the 1950s, was planned in a smokey pub.
Conventions are still important to the city. It is the best performing convention venue on the east Coast, and the city likes to emphasise its Liberty Bell pedigree and reputation as a medical centre. A bit of an irony that the home of a heart-attack cheeseburger offers an indication that Americans have taste after all.
Of course the famous Philadelphia cheesesteak can be found at almost every street corner. The champion burger burgher is Rick’s at the Reading Terminal Market, where you can top it off with local favorites Bassetts Ice Cream or Famous Fourth Street cookies from a 100-year-old farmers’ market featuring fresh meats, seafood and produce, ethnic foods (including the Amish of Lancaster County), crafts and local Philadelphia foods.
The Academy Café looks out on the junction of the wonderfully named Locust Street and Broad St, one of the two perpendicular wide streets that Penn devised when he drew up the plan for the “holy experiment”. At the end of the street the hopelessly overstated City hall, its underskirts spilling out into a four-acre block, remains a statement to the 19th century when Philadelphia punched above its weight. By the time the building, started in 1871, was completed, Philly’s rivals were looking upwards to higher and higher buildings. Henry James described Philadelphia as “flat and comfortable”. At least the second part of that is still true.
In 1987 Penn’s statue was finally dwarfed as the cold reality of American corporate culture finally hit home – America judges prosperity by height, like medieval fortress town in Italy. Two stylish modern equivalents of NY’s Chrysler building, Liberty 1 and 2 have climbed into the clouds since then. The cluster of five high rise buildings that can be seen from the approached mark out Philly’s stock for the next generation.
By way of contrast, the cluster of low red brick buildings where the nation was founded have a quiet, understated European feel to them. The cherry trees in the square and the polished wooden desks with quill holders in place suggest that this belongs to a less frenetic age.
The Liberty bell is housed in a tiny visitor centre built in 1976`it’d trademark crack looking close to 90cm long (could it be that the crack really in ninety in Philly?). They have started building a new one where queues can be better managed and maniacs with mallets like the one who attacked the bell in April kept away. One suspects that one of the buildings where George Washington lived will no longer be asked serve as a lady’s toilet.
This is where the mother of all conventions took place, George Washington stands on front of the building and Admirals John Barry, Wexford born founder of the American navy, at the ban, forever pointing south towards the Potomac where the capital was moved in 1790.
The building is on the scale of Dublin’s Mansion House, the lower housed literally below the upper house, with a climb of 34 steps in between. A guide tells you in monotone how Barry really shouldn’t be on the back lawn, that a revolutionary called Adams might be appropriately placed there instead (John, not Gerry, he was the second president and written out of history because he was defeated when running for a second term).
The little streets behind give a clue why Barry served as Irish America’s first icon. This was where the Irish emigrants rose through the ranks a little earlier than their counterparts in more famous cities. Philadelphia to our ears is still more than a Brian Friel play or a movie title.
Tom Muldoon’s ancestors came from Mayo in 1838 and spend most of the four generations since in an exclusively Irish environment. Even he grew up in Queens NY all his friends and classmates were Irish and he reckons he got to know just four protestants by High School. From escaping this claustrophobic background he now finds it helpful to emphasise Irish roots in Philadelphia, where he is president of the Trade and Conventions Centre.
The convention centre, $540 million plonked right into the heart of the city with a $440m extension due as soon as the Republican governor and the Democratic mayor get their act together, is the key to its success in the convention business. Out of town convention centres are so Houston by comparison.
The promotional video lists Philadelphia’s attractions; it is safer (thanks to high profile Dublin born chief of police John Timoney), cleaner and cheaper than New York. And therein lies its attraction as a weekend destination: Philly (you quickly find yourself calling it that despite yourself) is Manhattan without tears. The cluster of high rise buildings has that Manhattany feel, and a selection of jazz clubs to serve the addiction for Manhattan madness that infected us all in our twenties, but unlike Manhattan: here you can do real shopping and have an almost Manhattan-scale array of museums and art galleries to attract you.
The Buddakan restaurant has a spectacular statue of Buddha at the centre of the main dining room. Appetisers include truffle scented Japanese vegetarian ravioli with a sauternes shallot broth entrees include lemongrass seared swordfish with sesame long beans and Thai basil pesto.
Warmdaddy’s is one of Philadelphia’s hottest nightspots. Front and Market Streets. Zanzibar Blue has a range of blues music.
One problem: how to go. The US Airlines midday connection through Gatwick airport is the most convenient. Newark is an hour and twenty minutes away by train.
This is the ideal centre to base your Amtrak east coast rail holiday. It is just over an hour in each direction to Boston, New York, Washington and Atlantic city is reachable by bus if you think a roll of the dice might pay for your holiday.
Hotels are cheaper, streets are more crime-free, and shopping taxes are lower. And as the Liberty bell can testify, the crack is getting better all the time.
US Airlines flies to Philadelphia through Gatwick, 12.15 daily and has a series of special offers.
Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Centre www.pcvb.org Tel: 001215-6363000
Sites Include: Philadelphia Museum of Art is the third largest art museum in the U.S.A.
Franklin Science Museum Benjamin Franklin parkway at 26thStreet 0-01215-4481200 Powel House 244 South Third St 001215-6270364 Fax 001-215-6271733.
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