The Philadelphia Story, Global Province Letter, 13 June 2012

The Quakers lacked neither courage nor energy. It was not so much the actual content of their creed as it was the uncompromising obstinacy with which they hung on to it and their attitude toward themselves, which were decisive. The two flaws fatal to the influence of this remarkable people on American culture were, first an urge toward martyrdom, and a preoccupation with the purity of their own souls; and second, a rigidity in all their beliefs. The first led their vision away from community and inward to themselves; the second hardened them against the ordinary accommodations of this world. Neither the martyr nor the doctrinaire could flourish on America soil. ------ Daniel Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience

Withdrawal. "On June 4, 1756, six leading Quakers in the Assembly offered their resignations," a consequence Boorstin attributed to the martyrdom and quest for purity that encased the Quaker soul. This abdication from politics, which intensified at the end of America's colonial period, presaged a cleavage of the Quaker from the community and framed the life of its adherents from that day forward. While making a mark in business and science, the Quakers never again were a driving force in government. We think their departure has colored the affairs of Philadelphia for 250 years and more.

In days of yore we would journey into the Pinelands of New Jersey to cavort at rather splendid parties where the celebrants seemed equally split between New Yorkers and a large contingent out of Philadelphia. The New Yorkers were blatant and emphatic and a little more into their drink. The Philadelphians were stark, inward looking, and free of optimism. The ladies from Pennsylvania had tightly combed locks and their dresses stretched right up to their necks. Their bodies, and often their personalities, seemed to be wrapped in an impenetrable shell. Somehow, they seemed out of place in a world bent on trendiness.

Fourteen or fifteen degrees of separation are the lot of many Philadelphians. We have known many gentlemen of wit and potential from that city and its restful suburbs who are noble conversationalists at any dinner party or even sparks at Fourth of July festivities. Yet they have treaded water for the whole of their lifetimes, often skipping career, marriage, and the sundry other rites of passage with which most of us decorate our lives. Theirs was a quest for anonymity.

Their somnolence is something deeper than the turning-inward-from-society irrevocably undertaken by the American Quaker in 1756. It is as if the archetypal Philadelphian became Rip Van Winkle, fast asleep in his cavern while the centuries rolled by. At the end of the Colonial Period, Philadelphia, just behind London, was the second largest English-speaking city in the world. Ever since, it has been on a downward spiral, as its citizens' get-up-and-go just got-up-and-went. But there are signs now that the town is awakening...

Treasures Aplenty. It's not as if the city lacked the cultural resources to sustain greatness. The Philadelphia Art Museum is wonderful, but in years past, we could walk in and find it rather empty. For decades its sports teams were also-rans, but now the Philadelphia Phillies have a bevy of talent, as do the Philadelphia Flyers, and both are frequent contenders. The town is blessed with beautiful squares and abundant green spaces right at its core, more so than other metropolises. The renowned Longwood Gardens, a creature born of DuPont munificence, is within its ambit. Surely the Philadelphia Garden Show is the best garden annual in the United States and perhaps in the world. Most recently, the magnificent Barnes Collection has moved from Merion into a great new building downtown. (In this, the powers-that-be clearly violated the will of Dr. Barnes, but Philadelphia's estate lawyers and its judges are adept at skirting the law). It is wonderful to report that the downtown is for walking since parts of it are so handsome. Driving is a whole different matter.

Redevelopment: Edmund Bacon vs. Louis Kahn. Why is Philadelphia off the map, far from the center of American consciousness? A hint comes to us from the way the downtown got its makeover. The father of the redo was Edmund Bacon: city planner, naval officer, politician, architect, author, college teacher, and more. He was a Philadelphian, an operator, and a handshaker who knew how to get close to the levers of power. Certainly, he did a creditable job for the city. But he was no genius.

That distinction went to Louis Kahn—an Estonian émigré to Philadelphia, a difficult fellow, a manager of three marriages(only one of which was legalized), perhaps a bit of a mystic, but an artistic giant. He and Bacon did not get on at all, and thus Philadelphia's really great architect, perhaps America's greatest architect, did not get city commissions, though he built importantly at the University of Pennsylvania. This can all be seen in his son's excellent documentary My Architect. Kahn was better treated in New Haven where he built not just one, but two handsome museums for Yale University. Or in Bangladesh, where he created a wonderful set of buildings for the capital. It seems as if Philadelphia has had a talent for smothering its most creative, most interesting natives.

This is a clue as to why Philadelphia is America's Sixth City. As to why Pennsylvania, rich with resources, is not the fulcrum of the United States. One need only walk along the sides of the Delaware River, kneading the rich dark loam on the Pennsylvania side and shuffle through New Jersey's red dirt on the other, to wonder at the paradox of Pennsylvania. It has everything going for it, but it never quite went anywhere.

The Philadelphia Awakening. But there are all sorts of little signs that the long sleep is over. For instance, Philadelphia restaurants, while still understudies, are moving on stage. At least a half dozen respectable new restaurants now populate the inner city: even ten years ago people could only chat about one. More importantly, the city has had a mayor and the state a governor--Ed Rendell--who brought some financial sanity to the city and a wisp of strategic direction to the state and who, miracle upon miracles, seems untainted by the legendary Pennsylvania corruption. He did not reverse the economic slide of the city, but he set the stage for its resurgence through a regime of political rectitude and courage.

In his new book, A Nation of Wusses, Rendell pillories leaders who lack the guts to go for greatness. That's promising. Because that would seem to be the Philadelphia disease—a leadership so inert that it lacks the will to climb Mount Everest. Rendell, perhaps, is the new Philadelphian who will not sit still for mediocrity.

The Transit of Venus. From June 1-10, 2012, the American Philosophical Society celebrated the passage of Venus afore the sun, something we will not see again until 2117. It was wonderful to sense new vitality in the Society. The most important event in our own eyes was not the transit itself, but a talk given by Ms. Andrea Wulf, accomplished British garden historian, on June 1 in Benjamin Franklin Hall. She drew from her new book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens which was about the transit of 1769, when astronomers about the globe charted and shared their results, leading to rather accurate estimates of the distance of the sun from the earth. David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia participated, constructing his own telescope, since he was unsure whether British craftsmen in London could meet their commitments to deliver scopes to America, their order books so full. Just before the American Revolution, at its height, Philadelphia ably participated in this worldwide scientific event. We would like to think that with the 2012 celebration, Philadelphia was once again finding its place in the sun.

Ms. Wulf, born in India, reared in Germany, and now of London, has previously authored
Founding Gardeners, about the rich garden and botanic history of colonial and post-Revolutionary America. Philadelphia is key to her history, for John Bartram was the leading specimen supplier not only to the colonials but to the world. Philadelphia was at the center of the 18th century.

Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. The late Neil Postman, cultural provocateur and New York University professor, in 1999 authored Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, suggesting that we might freshen our minds and hearts by injecting 18th century values and mores into our present lives. He took it to be a good time, better than most. His suggestion has merit, for we need to recover our culture if we are to create harmony amongst our citizens. We have previously suggested that one of the routes to greater harmony is to enjoy what we have in common, nothing more so than our rich Western culture. Modern digital life and the incessant demands of the workplace have shunted culture aside. Although we have previously emphasized the role of collaboration in pulling people together, the bridge of culture is as strong a force for unity.

If and as Philadelphia awakens, perhaps it can help join the 18th to the 21st century. It was not a provincial city in the 18th. To shed its shell now would mean that it chooses to be a world city once again. In the movie The Philadelphia Story, socialite Tracy Samantha Lord Haven shakes off the Philadelphia traces and emancipates her spirit in order finally to live and love. Can the city do the same?

P.S. Philadelphia has a native cuisine all of its own. Some swear by its cheese steaks. We ourselves were delighted to find chipped beef on the breakfast menu of a hotel we frequent there. Next time we will step up to some scrapple, to be quickly followed by several glasses of milk in order to ward off indigestion. Other delectables come from this region. We have previously discussed, for instance, "Fish House Punch," which on one occasion put a few of our guests under the table.

P.P.S. All manner of thing went into hibernation subsequent to the Revolution. Thomas Willing, a prosperous Philadelphia merchant, took delivery of a finely carved card table in 1759. At his death in 1821, it fell into disuse. According to Thatcher Freund, author of Objects of Desire, and other journalists, it was finally put in storage in 1898, along with several other antique articles. It rested in the basement of the First Pennsylvania Company, forgotten until 1964, when a Willing descendant uncovered it, a byproduct of his search for new quarters for the Philadelphia Martime Museum. Finally consigned to auction at Sotheby's in New York, it fetched $1,045,000 in January 1991, bought by the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee.

P.P.P.S. "Popular nicknames for Philadelphia are Philly and The City of Brotherly Love, the latter of which comes from the literal meaning of the city's name in Greek: "brotherly love", compounded from philos("loving"), and adelphos("brother"). (Wikipedia)

P.P.P.P.S. Sarah Kliff on Philadelphia's efforts to end food deserts: "Philadelphia has the highest obesity rate and poorest population of America's big cities. It also has an ambitious plan -- launched out of 632 corner stores -- to put healthy food on every table. The $900,000 investment in better health depends on apples and oranges, chips and candy, $1,200 fridges and green plastic baskets. The results could steer the course of American food policy. Philadelphia is trying to turn corner stores into greengrocers. For a small shop, it's a risky business proposition. Vegetables have a limited shelf life, so a store owner must know how much will sell quickly -- or watch profits rot away. He also lacks the buying power of large supermarkets and is often unable to meet the minimum orders required by the cheaper wholesalers that grocery stores use. With shelf space at a premium, shop owners must pick and choose the products they think will sell best. Chips and candy and soda are a sure bet. Eggplant? It's hard to know."

P.P.P.P.P.S. Philadelphia has gotten deeply in the museum business. Just announced is the Museum of the American Revolution which will be seated close on to the Liberty Bell.  Robert Stern has done the design which means that it will be competent but probably not spectacular. For sure this addition suggests that Philadelphia is already hearkening back to the 18th century.  The central question for the city fathers is whether they and other leaders can be imaginative enough to totally reinvent the concept of a museum and begin to create institutions that are more profoundly linked to the needs of modern urban man  Philadelphia does not need more monuments.   It requires creations that are organically linked to the city which contribute to its spirtual and economic resurgence. Throughout America palaces we call museums are being constructed willy nilly, and they will probably not draw enough income to justify the dollars spent on them. Without more thought we will have many empty palaces.


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