Old City Makes Philly A New City
By John W. Gilmore
As children living outside of Philadelphia in the ’60s and ’70s we thought of it as a large, dirty old useless city. As far as we knew there was violence everywhere; every street had a gang associated with it; the Mafia would often fight it out on the streets of South Philly; and the prostitutes, drug dealers and organized crime was known to reside at 13th and Locust streets — the Red Light District, right in Center City. The main train station (30th Street Station) was filled with empty holes and caverns where businesses used to be some time in the distant past. The most viable station we often saw in transit was the 69th Street Terminal, which had many dirty, shabby shops and restaurants and slimy, slippery floors. Philadelphia was a place to be avoided at all costs.
Even so, I remember visiting every so often on hot summer’s nights later as a young adult. I remember taking the Elevated line from 69th Street, getting off on Market Street, and walking down to Penn’s Landing for free concerts. Penn’s Landing was always extraordinarily hot. There were bleachers, more like stair steps made of stone and concrete, and not a tree or piece of shade in sight. Now, on the waterfront, there are free summer concerts at Spruce Harbor Park.
Multi-colored lights hang from the trees, and people swing in the breeze in hammocks in the shaded areas underneath. Picnic benches surround the stage where the band plays. The music can be heard from everywhere, even the lounge chairs looking out over the ice-cream parlors, snack bars, and restaurants on the long boardwalk that runs along the river. From the boardwalk you look out on the water and see small boats, large ships, and even naval vessels harbored there. Someone goes by on a goose shaped paddle boat straight out of a Snow White Disney Cartoon, as people are walking, eating, or sitting and talking.
Several docks are set together in a square configuration that resembles a manmade lake or very deep pool enclosing floating gardens. Large stores and museums are at one end of the Harbor Park portion of the boardwalk and a Hilton Hotel is nearby, while giant ships turned into high class restaurants are moored at the other end. You can enjoy walking on the boardwalk or through the shady park, maybe even stop for lunch in one of the luxury restaurants. Whatever is your choice.
The band plays. This time a Cuban Band, maybe something else next time. Cuban Jazz and Salsa music fills the space as we sit trying to eat our ice cream before it melts in the 90 degree heat. It is good to be in the shade listening to music and watching a few people dance, moving to the Latin beat.
We walk out of the park and go a few blocks down Columbus Avenue. We climb the stairs to the bridge leading over this six lane road to find a cross-over with a stone and brick slab designs on the floor and not a scrap of paper in sight. Large, red-brick flower-box gardens line the sides full of echinacea, daisies, sunflowers and gardenias creating an elevated urban garden.
Descending from this garden, we make our way down the cobblestone streets. We walk down Dock Street, make a hook around many large, stone buildings and monuments to find a Chinese restaurant where we have an early dinner. We are in no hurry. Spot Hero, an internet parking app, gives us more than 20 hours of nearby parking for $14 in a lot that usually costs $16 per hour. But we will not stay that long.
We end the day on a pleasant note. The day has been good. I begin to reimagine Philadelphia. The whole riverfront has been redeveloped. The little broken down, dirty city that I remembered doesn’t exist any more. I want to explore the new, lively version of the city more fully. Old City seems to have come back to life, near the riverfront anyway, and the stations. I would like to see the rest.