Weekend in Philadelphia: This City's Got Problems

I like Philadelphia. I don't love it. I came to that conclusion this past weekend as I went museum-hopping. It has a ways to go before it can be a 'Baby New York.' My Boston friends and I would laugh our asses off when we would see this commercial play during Red Sox broadcasts in 2003 / 2004:

I don't really want to knock the town that gave us the greatest document ever written by mankind, or was the last residence of Benjamin Franklin, the greatest of our nation's founders never to serve as an elected official. But I have to speak-up as a recent visitor of Philadelphia. It is not on the same level as Boston or New York. It ought to be, with its museums, universities, big train station, four major historic attractions, and very decent Center City (what they call downtown). Also Philly is known for cheesesteaks and very fine pretzels (either baked sourdough or chocolate-coated....mmmmmm).

Instead of giving a long-winded review, I thought I'd just touch a few topics by doing a list of pros and cons. Maybe the pros outweigh the cons. If I were a college student, Philly would be phine. But as a salaryman resident, Philly might kill me. Here's my list in no particular order:


1. Museums. Philly has the Franklin Institute Science Center. While not quite as good as Boston's Museum of Science (Boston has better permanent exhibits and a bigger planetarium), the Philly museum is bigger, and it won the King Tutankhamun exhibit through the end of September. It is worth seeing. Philly has a huge Museum of Art. It also has the Rodin museum, the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of France. Philly also has the Mutter Museum, the largest medical museum in the USA. It is modelled after British medical museums, and has some pretty incredible specimens. It has the liver that was shared between Cheng and Eng, Grover Cleveland's surgically removed tumor, a post-execution tissue sample from John Wilkes Boothe, and dozens of skulls and fetuses, displaying fatal defects, rare diseases, and fatal injuries. It certainly uses some freakish samples to draw the crowds, but the presentation is clinical and very informative. And it currently has a wonderful exhibit on the medical advances pioneered by Benjamin Franklin, as well as a history of Franklin's health and ailments. He lived to be 85, which is outstanding by even today's standards (85 is my personal goal, too).

2. Food. That includes pretzels, cheesesteaks, and ice cream (Scoop de Ville is awesome). And one of the best Cuban restaurants I've been in, Alma. Alma is part of the Starr Restaurant Organization, which has twelve restaurants in Philly, two in Atlantic City, and two new restaurants in New York. They are the best in town. And the locals and tourists alike appreciate the many Starbucks in the 'teens streets in Center City.

3. Compact downtown. Buses, and trolleys can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go for $2.00 per ride. The buses are frequent on weekend days, so they score good marks. Philly's downtown is only slightly larger than Boston's. Boston's downtown is very compact for a world-class city.

4. Theater district. It's decent. Maybe that's the only part of Philly that is like a 'Baby New York.' But with Boston rebuilding theatres in the last 10 years, Philly might have fallen behind Beantown. Not good for a city bigger than Boston.

5. Shopping. Philly has Macy's, Anthopologie, J Crew, Joe A. Bank, Nordstrom, and the American Institute of Architects (AIA shop - one of Philly's best small shops.

6. Pro sports. An American city isn't "big" unless it has at least two pro sports teams. To Philly's credit, they have four pro teams, all on the south side. Furthermore, all three sports venues are clustered together near the banks of the Delaware River. That's pretty good, similar to what Cincinnati or Baltimore has for their football and baseball teams. Plus, there is a charming minor league ballpark just across the Delaware river in Camden, NJ. It has one of the best views of any minor league ballpark in the nation. Camden is home to Campbell's Soup, so the ballpark bears the company's name. Does that count as a Philly attraction? I would say so.

7. Benjamin Franklin. Enough said. He was a scientist, ladies man, scholar, publisher, journalist, medial pioneer, ambassador, co-author and co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, and thus played a key role in founding the USA. He's Master Yoda to General Washington's Luke Skywalker. He's Bill Belichick to Tom Brady. You get the idea.

8. US History. Philly has the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, The Constitution Museum, the Betsey Ross house, and Christchurch (the church and nearby cemetery). That's six major historic attractions within a short walking distance of each other. And there are horse-drawn carriages and Duck tours, if you are a sucker tourist who is into those rides.

9. Higher Learning. Philly has some great schools, such as U Penn, Temple, St. Joe's, Drexel, the Art Institute, the Moore College of Art and Design, Thomas Jefferson University, the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, and LaSalle University to name a few.


1. The Philly economy. Philly seems to have been left behind in the economic expansion of the 1990s. I hear the job market is stagnant. Restaurants are full and the tourist economy seems to be doing fine. There are better restaurants and hotels today than there were 10 years ago. There has been gentrification around the U Penn area, which used to be notorious for high crime rates. There are incentives for companies to come to Philly. The Chrysler Building-inspired Liberty Center still looks great 20 years after being built. The Comcast Center will be the tallest building in the state when it opens this fall. It is almost as tall as the Empire State Building. It is not fully-certified as a Green building, but it will feature some Green technologies, such as waterless urinals. When I look at Boston and New York seemingly rolling in mountains of cash, I can't say Philly is up there with them. In terms of overall quality of life, Philly is ahead of many inland cities, like St. Louis or Atlanta. But it seems to lag other coastal cities like Miami and Seattle (albeit, its cultural and educational institutions are above average for big cities in the USA).

2. The Delaware riverfront. There is none, right? There ought to be. There is demand for urban housing. There are people who want to live in Philly. But the waterfront is an eyesore. Philly will need to wait -as Boston did- for a beautiful waterfront.

3. The Schuylkill riverfront. It now has a park with jogging and bike paths on its east bank. But the industrial neighborhoods on both sides of the river need a lot of work. Aside from 30th Street Station and the Post Office on the west bank, the area is known for its red light district and unfriendly streets. Interestingly, violent crime in the area is low (most violent crime occurs west of the train station roughly from 50th to 63rd streets, and also in the North Side of town). But it is in need of development. Someday.

4. The drivers don't respect pedestrians. They just don't. Fortunately, car traffic in downtown is not as fast or as high-volume as midtown Manhattan. The narrow streets are similar to Boston's. But I have to point out that only a few drivers yielded to me, and blocking the box is also a common problem at red lights.

5. Are the locals of Philadelphia grumpy or is it just me? This needs to be studied further. But people in Miami and New York seem so much more....well, lively and happy.

6. Many businesses close early. I wanted to grab some chocolate-coated pretzels to take home. I saw them in a bakery on 17th Street on Sunday morning. I went back at 4:30pm to find it had closed at 4pm. Several shops on Chestnut, Market, Broad, and Walnut streets were closed on both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, in the middle of the hotel and tourist area (the 'teens streets, as I call them). What was up with that? Stay open, dammit.


So many great things about Philly. But I spotted some deal breakers as well. I had such high hopes. But it had been said to me back in 1998 by a former boss, that "Philly is the most boring big city in the Northeast." I wouldn't go that far. Washington DC is such a ghost town. But then again, isn't Baltimore more lively (I will know in 2008 or 2009 when I visit there)? Is Portland or Seattle a better coastal city in which to live (I *think* so, but they could disappoint me as well)?

Maybe I am too harsh? I like the 'thumbs-up' or 'thumbs-down' approach to travel destinations or restaurants. Right now, my thumb is pointing down.

Still, the WORST northeast city I have ever been in is Trenton, New Jersey. It was scary entering on foot in the morning, and it was scary leaving on foot at night. That was June 30th, 2002. It's the only city where a hooker approached me in broad sunlight. What a sad and scary place.

So Philly, you're better than Trenton.


And Ben Franklin was born in Boston.