Back from an overnight to Philadelphia with the Cub Scouts, taking the railed parallel to I-95 and the Post Road on Amtrak, whisking around the historic district, and flying back the same way this afternoon. Sleep-challenged with my ears still ringing, here's what's on my mind: city planning, infrastructure, scale, and public services. Like most cities, Philly gets both sides of a pass-fail grade. In the news, a grand collaboration in wireless access, creating a broad wi-fi zone in downtown Philadelphia. Originally, the wi-fi was to be free, cut city planners caved to the telecomm industry, started a separate nonprofit to govern the offering, and will charge $16-20 a month. No giant Bryant Park for Philly. So they turned a homerun into a cheap, bad hop single, but it shows they care about planning. The same cannot be said for the disaster area around one of the gems of all of public America, Independence Hall. Sure, it's run by the National Park Service, but the jumble of chain link and bulldozers that has characterized the area around Independence Hall is a disgrace to a city that has always had an identity crisis of geography, lodged as it is like a stray poppy seed between the shining front teeth of New York and Washington. Can't they get this right? Yeah, there are shiny new welcome centers and museums on this sacred ground, one housing the Liberty Bell. But the makeshift security fences to create a "secure area" along Market Street that - get this - still allows traffic to pass down the narrow block, and the armed Gestapo-like NPS officers patting down Scouts and grannies makes this space a hodge-podge. And there are still bulldozers tearing it all up! Couple that with Independence Hall's bedraggled back garden, which should be an outdoor show place, and the general decripitude about the fading Stalin-era bank and insurance towers and the smelly back-alleys of the neighborhood, and the seat of Liberty does not stand tall enough. Still, the boys had a great time on the train, we watched the silly but entertaining Nicholas Cage vehicle National Treasure on hotel room pay-per-view, featuring some of the sites we'd just seen, and we were surprised by the beauty and warmth of the city's revitalized waterfront, shining as it does across from the lights of Camden.
UPDATE: Some readers took issue with my Philly takedown, which probably was a little strong. I'm just frustrated with the state of the historic district, despite many millions of investment. And let me clarify the pathetic "security" problem. To visit the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and Congress Hall, you must pass through security that's tougher than the folks out at JFK (ok, but not quite Gestapo-like). They yell at little kids. Loudly. They make Cub Scouts take their belts off. Then - get this - you exit the building and walk across an open Market Street to Independence Hall, passing a couple of rangers who open little people pen gates. Let me repeat: the street is open. So while the tourists are nearly strip-searched by surly armed guards, any old car bomber or fertilizer truck driver can rumble on through, a mere 15 feet from the room where the Declaration of Independence was ratified and signed. A pathetic incidence of the cover-your-ass planning that masquerades as "security" in our post 9/11 cities.
That said, I don't want to leave the impression that Philadelphia's not worth a visit on leisure (having been there many times on business). It is. My 10-year-old, who's obsessed with American history these days, can't wait to go back. Oh, and the folks at PhillyFuture.org - a great city-based blog network - had some comments for me:
He says a few nice things, too (he was "surprised by the beauty and warmth of the city's revitalized waterfront"), but the criticism seems selective and unwarranted. 'Cause hey, at least we haven't turned our historic buildings into giant billboards.
Oh, and someone should tell Mr. Watson that the front tooth of Washington was knocked out five years ago. What you see there now is a cosmetic implant.