Hidden Treasures on the Beaten Path

March 31, 2006

As published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Hidden Treasures on the Beaten Path"

By Amy Gutmann

The first weekend after I moved to my temporary lodgings on Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, in 2004, I hopped on my bicycle to begin exploring my new home. I had barely pedaled out of low gear when a young man was waving to catch my attention: "Aren't you the new Penn president?"

Somewhat startled, I nodded. "Yes, I am."

"Welcome to Philadelphia!" he shouted back. Thus was I introduced to the neighborly yet jaunty spirit of the fabled City of Brotherly Love.

In crowning Philadelphia America's next great city, National Geographic Traveler captured the pulse of my new hometown. Philadelphia is blooming like the majestic trees that line its streets and parks. Once-dormant factories have found new life as art galleries and restaurants; theatrical, musical, and dance performances animate the Avenue of the Arts; the University City neighborhood radiates multicultural energy and intellectual vitality. Even Philadelphia's renowned historic district is more accessible than it once was, offering engaging exhibits alongside the famous symbols of American freedom.

What I find especially appealing about this city is its scale: Philadelphia is mostly flat and compact enough to be negotiated comfortably on foot or on bicycle. Once you realize how accessible one area is to the next, your one- to two-hour break from a conference opens up a world of possibilities. As I walk or bike through our grid of streets and parks, I invariably discover fresh treasures. I'll leave the best-known destinations to the guidebooks and invite you to explore the Philadelphia I love.

When Walt Whitman wrote, "Thrive, cities! bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers," in his great poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," he could just as well have been describing my adopted home. Philadelphia's two rivers are more than ample and sufficient; they are beautiful to behold.

Why not begin at the city's eastern end, where Philadelphia - and, to a large extent, American democracy - grew up along the Delaware River? As a history buff, I never tire of exploring the paths frequented by our Republic's founders as they debated and resolved their way toward crafting our Constitution. David McCullough's biography of John Adams describes Adams's difficulty adjusting to the endless round of lavish receptions to which he and his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress were treated by Philadelphia's rich and powerful after long days in the State House, now Independence Hall. Adams partook of a "sinful feast" at the home of Philadelphia's mayor Samuel Powel. A tour of the opulent four-story Georgian mansion and gardens on 244 South Third Street is a perfect way to plant oneself in Colonial Philadelphia.

If the Powel House's elegant carved woodwork, paintings, and antiques fail to transport you back in time, then continue a few blocks north to Elfreth's Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited street in the United States. Strolling along the 300-year-old cobblestone path lined with houses still used as private residences, you can imagine the wedding celebration for Jeremiah and Hannah Elfreth in 1752, the year the Liberty Bell arrived in Philadelphia.

The founder who left the greatest mark on Philadelphia was Benjamin Franklin. We owe him our fire department, library, hospital, and, of course, the nation's first university, the University of Pennsylvania. One could not choose a better time to visit Philadelphia than during 2006, the tercentenary celebration of his birth. For a revealing perspective on Franklin's contributions to his adopted city and his country, I recommend the wonderful exhibit, "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," running through April 30 at the new National Constitution Center only a few blocks to the west.

As Penn's founder, Franklin is memorialized all over the university's West Philadelphia campus, from the statue on College Green, to the dedication of Franklin Field, to our beloved "Ben on the Bench" sculpture. But Franklin landmarks also are scattered throughout the historic district, from the museum and post office where his house once stood (314 Market Street) to the burial ground of Christ Church (on Arch Street between Fourth and Fifth), where visitors toss pennies on his grave for good luck.

After a few hours immersed in history, you are likely to be famished. Fear not: Philadelphia's dining scene is among the best in the country. Much of the current buzz is generated by my friend Stephen Starr, who has created a sensation by opening across the city uniquely themed restaurants where the diecor is as exciting as the cooking. Among my favorites in this part of town are Buddakan, where a giant Buddha oversees the spicy Asian cuisine, and the neo-Japanese Morimoto. For a little less drama, you can walk up Second or Third Street and find any number of interesting bars and bistros among the art galleries of Old City.

If you are in Philadelphia on the first Friday of any month, Old City galleries will beckon you in with wine and cheese. Some of the artists are local, others from farther afield. In either case, "First Friday" furnishes a glimpse into the transformation of a fallow industrial area into an artsy neighborhood that is enticing young people to relocate from New York. Ten years ago, for example, two young theatrical directors converted an old post office near Christ Church on Second Street into an exciting space for their growing company. Today the Arden Theatre is a pillar of Philadelphia's vibrant professional theater community. I enjoy the Arden's ambiance as well as the quality of its productions.

The Ritz Theatre movie complexes in Old City and Society Hill show top-tier independent films, including outstanding foreign work. For film buffs like me, they are candy stores: I try to sample everything they offer and keep coming back for more. The Ritz publishes a monthly program book that gives reviews and outstanding characteristics of each film. I recommend the healthy snacks at the concession stand.

Follow me on a pilgrimage to South Philadelphia, home of the city's most colorful fictional character, Rocky. You can easily spend an afternoon in the open-air stalls of the Italian Market, sample one of Philly's famous cheesesteaks at Pat's or Geno's (their rivalry is legendary), view the Frank Sinatra mural (along with one honoring Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia's late, notorious mayor), and tour the Mario Lanza Museum, dedicated to the favorite son who achieved stardom as the tenor Enrico Caruso in the film The Great Caruso. Opera fans will want to make a dinner reservation at Victor Cafe, where talented young singers regularly belt out favorite arias while serving your pasta.

Art lovers flock to the magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose permanent collection will edify and delight for as much time as you can spare. If you have more time, take a quick cab ride to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, on Broad Street just north of City Hall. Home to America's first art museum and school of fine arts, the academy celebrated its 200th anniversary last year. Its collection of American art ranges from the 18th- and 19th-century masters Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale, and Thomas Eakins - all of whom spent time in Philadelphia - to an outstanding array of 20th-century figurative and abstract works, including an important collection of African-American artists. The academy's building, designed by Frank Furness and opened in 1876, is considered an outstanding example of Victorian Gothic architecture. You will want to look up at the silver stars painted on the blue vaulted ceiling above the Grand Stairhall.

A few blocks east, at the corner of 12th and Arch, stands the ideal place to grab a quick lunch and soak up some of the best local ambiance: the Philadelphia icon known as the Reading Terminal Market. Amish farmers travel from Lancaster County to sell meats, produce, and baked goods next to Mexican taco vendors, Asian fishmongers, and some 80 other merchants who all share a converted train shed abutting the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The snapper soup at Pearl's Oyster Bar is a local favorite, but you can also find Middle Eastern, Thai, vegetarian, and countless other specialties. The market also is a great place to pick up flowers, exotic spices, and Philadelphia-themed souvenirs.

Philadelphia's City Hall marks the central intersection of Philadelphia's business district at Broad and Market Streets. You can't miss the French Second Empire mansard roof with the statue of William Penn atop the ornate tower. The statue, designed by Alexander M. Calder, faces northeast toward where Penn signed a treaty with the Native Americans in 1682. Calder would have been shocked to see it draped in the uniform of whatever Philadelphia sports team holds the locals in its thrall.

You can easily spend an afternoon strolling south along Broad Street, recently renamed the Avenue of the Arts. Retail stores like Banana Republic and Tower Records occupying the avenue's grand bank buildings and the numerous restaurants and shops show off Philadelphia's renaissance. Tea or a drink in the soaring rotunda of the Ritz-Carlton hotel, the former Girard Bank building, gives me a taste of the city's past as the nation's financial center.

We pass the historic Bellevue, still home to a hotel, now complemented by Ralph Lauren, Tiffany, and other elegant shops, a fine jazz club - Zanzibar Blue - and the Palm Restaurant. Next comes the Academy of Music, an unassuming brick building with quaint street lamps that encases a magnificent 19th-century opera house worthy of any Italian city. Tours are available if you call in advance. Just another block down takes us to the edgy and innovative Wilma Theater and the soaring glass skyline of the spectacular Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, home to the Philadelphia Orchestra and several other performing ensembles. While taking in a concert in either of the Kimmel Center's two theaters, you will admire the genius of the architect, Rafael Vinoly, who also is designing Penn's new Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

One of my favorite weekend haunts is Rittenhouse Square. Elegant hotels and condominiums in converted mansions, charming restaurants, and some of the best shops in the city border this stately, generously planted park. Start your morning at tiny La Colombe Torrefaction on 19th Street, where the coffee is served in china and the pastries are sinfully delicious.

Entering the square, you can mingle with joggers, families with small children, and dog owners, all composing a memorable tableau as they enjoy their favorite features of the park. On a warm day, you will find an art show or fresh produce vendors. The corner of 18th and Walnut poses enticing choices. You can enter a very well-stocked Barnes and Noble (complete with Starbucks) or Anthropologie, the latter displaying multicultural clothing and home dEcor in a magnificent Beaux-Arts mansion; walk north on 18th to the elegant stationery and gift shop Details; or head east down Walnut for more fashionable shopping.

Classical-music aficionados should not miss a peek at the Curtis Institute of Music on Locust Street at 18th. (You are likely to hear a charming cacophony of practice and performing sounds wafting toward the square.) This top-tier music conservatory occupying a magnificent 19th-century mansion has trained some of the world's great musicians, and its free student concerts performed several times a week are among the best-kept secrets in Philadelphia.

Lunch can be ethnic, at Stephen Starr's Alma de Cuba, or simple, at Pietro's Pizzeria (both on Walnut), classic French at the famous Le Bec-Fin, or in between, at any of the elegant sandwich places on 18th. When I want to continue my romance with Rittenhouse Square, I try to get a table at tiny Rouge, which offers sidewalk dining on warm days, or join the hordes carrying a picnic into the park.

The literary enthusiast will cross Rittenhouse Square to 21st Street and DeLancey Place, where precious delights lie waiting in the Rosenbach Museum & Library. The Rosenbach brothers collected rare books, manuscripts, and decorative art; their elegant former town home now displays manuscripts of James Joyce's Ulysses, Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, among thousands of other literary and decorative works. The Rosenbach is a hidden treasure one never tires of revisiting.

The ideal place to experience Philadelphia's new greatness lies just over the Schuylkill (Dutch for "Hidden Creek") in the vibrant urban microcosm that includes the University of Pennsylvania. Our West Philadelphia neighborhood will absorb and delight you with its cultural and epicurean novelties.

From 30th Street Station, for example, one can walk to the corner of 31st and Walnut Streets, where a colorful building beckons. Here Penn's public-radio station, WXPN, has created an exciting performance venue to complement its nationally syndicated jazz show, the World Cafe. At World Cafe Live you can catch local or nationally known artists on Fridays at noon or most evenings, and get a feel for Penn's eclectic cultural scene.

That scene includes two internationally acclaimed museums that we are thrilled to have on Penn's campus. Archaeology lovers of all ages will not want to miss the Egyptian mummies and Royal Palace, and fascinating artifacts from virtually every great ancient culture at the university's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. In a few minutes, you can travel from antiquity to cutting-edge modernity by heading over to the Institute of Contemporary Art at 36th Street just above Walnut. ICA's flexible layout enables it to recast itself for each of its several annual exhibitions, so there is always something fresh to experience.

Penn's Ivy League charm is easily accessible from anywhere in the neighborhood. Cross Walnut Street on 36th Street and walk straight ahead onto Penn's campus. In a minute or two, your path will intersect with Locust Walk, the lively pedestrian path that unites our campus from east to west. Turning left onto the walk, you will approach College Green, identifiable by the statue of a seated Ben Franklin in its center and by a second Frank Furness building, the Fisher Fine Arts Library, facing you across the green. Dating from 1891, this magnificent building originally served as Penn's main library, and students still take advantage of its beauty and quiet for serious studying.

The question of refreshment now becomes a delicious challenge. Korean or Italian? Chinese or Mexican? One solution is simply to retrace your path north along 36th Street, walk past the Penn Bookstore, Cosi, and Urban Outfitters, and turn on Sansom Street in either direction. My favorite Stephen Starr Asian restaurant, Pod, and the Italian bistro Penne offer fine dining to the west, while La Terrasse (French), the White Dog Cafe (eclectic American), and the Bubble House (Korean) all line up one block to the east. You may prefer to pick up a sandwich or salad at Cosi, next to the ICA, or at any of the numerous food trucks that ring Penn's campus while you take a walking tour of the many other architectural treasures on the campus, including Louis Kahn's internationally admired Richards Medical Research Building.

As a sports fan who frequents all of our Penn Quakers' home basketball and football games, I consider the Palestra to be a national treasure. This basketball mecca - and "museum" - serves not only Penn's men's and women's teams, but plays host to the other Big 5 (La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple, and Villanova Universities) men's collegiate basketball matches as well. No other region in the country can boast such a vigorous collegiate rivalry, and the Palestra is filled with memorabilia celebrating some of the Big 5's greatest moments.

Walking west on Walnut toward 40th Street, one encounters two last examples of the neighborhood's special vibrancy: the Annenberg Center, at 37th, features performing-arts programs from all over the world. At 40th, the Bridge Cinema offers film-study sessions led by Penn faculty members that are free and open to the public, in addition to current commercial films. And the neighborhood around 40th Street boasts some of the finest international cuisine to be found anywhere in the Northeast.

"We use you, and do not cast you aside - we plant you permanently within us," Whitman wrote of cities in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." I hope that you will plant Philadelphia permanently within you and return to our great city often.