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The best-kept American secret, revealed

Uday K. Chakraborty

A blend of historic heritage and vibrant present makes Philadelphia a unique and exciting place to be. Philly, as it is affectionately known, is a large city with a small-town friendliness, which is part of the city's attractions.


A view of Philadelphia with the Liberty Place in the background

Philadelphia is America's best-kept secret. Through the dominant American mass media, people know quite a lot about other US cities, without even visiting them.

But, Philadelphia remains an exception, despite its credentials and importance with regards to the nation's history and economy. It is the fifth largest city of the US and the second largest on the East Coast, after New York. It has the honour of being the nation's birthplace. It is also regarded as one of the most prolific cultural and educational centres in the country.

The city itself started with a bit of luck and great vision of its founder William Penn. Manhattan was a bargain for the Dutch, but Philadelphia was a steal for William Penn. The British Crown gave this land, now known as Philadelphia, to Penn to settle a debt owed to his father. Penn laid out the modern grid-like city plan and soon the city was host to some of the nation's great events.

Little did the British know that this spot along the Delaware River would provide such a fine backdrop for the nation's history. Great minds spawned great ideas here, which in turn gave rise to a new nation.


The Pennsylvania State Museum

It was here that Benjamin Franklin lived and put his multifaceted genius into action. Philadelphia remained the nation's capital until 1800, and the number one industrial city for about two centuries.

When I arrived here on a long assignment on a freezing December evening, I hardly had any idea about the place. Later, I read the usual glowing description about the city in Philadelphia Inquirer, that the city's fathers were seriously considering an ad campaign that ran "Philadelphia isn't as bad as Philadelphians think it is". I found this contrasting image quite interesting and worth exploring further.

Philadelphia's history can be experienced by just walking through the city's streets. The most historic square mile in America is right here and called the Independence National History Park. This tree-lined park offers an excellent view of historic buildings and, on Sunday, volunteers, dressed in periodic costumes, amble around leaving an impression of a bygone era.

The most important building is the Independence Hall, originally the Pennsylvania State House, which served as the nation's Parliament, while the city was the capital of a new-born country. It was here that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and, in 1787, the US constitution was written. On top of the tower, the Liberty Bell hung until 1976, when it was shifted to new glass-walled pavilion, to give visitors a clearer view.

Just a few kilometres away, the Society Hill is another historical neighbourhood. More than 900 colonial-period restored buildings in Georgian, Victorian and Federal styles could be found here. A strong civic association protects the architectural integrity. Here, one can still imagine l8th-century statesmen and merchants bustling around the cobble-stoned streets and visiting quaint taverns that are still in use today.

At the intersection of the Broad Street and Market Street, the City Hall is the heart of Philadelphia's politics. It is the country's largest city hall.


The Independence Hall

Atop the building is a 40-tonne statue of William Penn, which could be seen from anywhere in the city in the olden days. There existed a gentlemen's agreement that had prevented any building from overshadowing Penn's perch on City Hall. But, the 60-storey, silver-blue Twine skyscraper of Liberty Place changed all that. The building asserts the presence of a new vibrancy on the city's skyline. It has drawn the neighbourhoods into the centre of the town, has become a landmark for visitors and has firmly established the city's transition from a manufacturing complex into a booming service economy.

Tradition still plays an important part in the city's life. Even today, economically, culturally and politically, the city is dominated by the scions of old families who lived on the Main Line, an aristocratic area for generations. Of course, there are a few newcomers, who gained the privilege by their entrepreneurial success.

One of them is an Indian engineer-turned-businessman, Sadhan C. Dutt. Much before Narayana Murthy and his ilk put their imprint in the American business scene, Dutt was running his business empire (DC-Kuljian Group) around the globe. Starting from a small consulting engineering firm in Calcutta, his interest now covers a large range of service economy. Interestingly, I found that Philadelphia is a city where you can find an exclusive neighbourhood each for different communities such as the Swedes, Chinese, Japanese, etc. It is also a university city surrounding the campuses of three universities.

When you are beyond any of these neighbourhoods, there are many picturesque places in the city to sooth your nerve. The city is justifiably proud of Fairmont Park, the world's largest landscaped municipal park. The Philadelphia Museum is huge and underrated. It houses great art collection from the colonial period, modern art and has one of the world's largest collection of Asian and African artefacts.

Within the municipal area flows the Schuylkill River. The river is perfect for international regattas held every year. However, even amateur rowers can rent sleek shells to glide on the calm, sheltered flow of this river. Then there is Penn's landing, the city's riverside Promenade square. On the river, a replica of a ship from the colonial era is permanently moored. The view along and across the Delaware River is simply stunning, particularly in the evening, when the long cantilever bridge twinkles brightly with thousands of lights.

Naturally, after a while, I really began to love the city. It is a large city with a small-town friendliness. That is part of the city's attraction. It's a people-friendly city (Unlike New York), partly because many of the people who live here are likely to have been brought up and raised in their dear Philly — a name lovingly used by the residents.

Mark Twine once wrote: "In Boston, they ask, `How much do you know?', in New York, `How much do you worth?', while in Philadelphia, `Who are his parents?'

This is not a city of flamboyant people or conspicuous consumers. At the same time, there's an awful lot of wealth and riches here from the land, accumulated because of inborn thrift. With the result, the city has over the years acquired a skinflint image and has become the discount capital of the US. This is evident in Franklin Mill, the largest collection of discount store in the world, which looks like an enclosed mini-city. Philadelphians don't just look for good prices, they just run after them. For tourists from India, it should be good news.

It is a city that can satisfy just about any whim. Walk through Old City and appreciate historic charm, have a famous Philadelphia cheese steak in lunch, eat a scrumptious Italian dinner and end the day in a quaint tavern or in a nightclub. Philly has everything for everybody.

This mixture of historic heritage and vibrant present make Philadelphia a unique and exciting place to be. The best thing about Philadelphia is that it's still Philadelphia.

Fact file

How to get there: British Airways and Lufthansa fly directly to Philadelphia. Otherwise, it is a two-hour bus or train-ride from New York.

Where to stay: Cheaper hotels and motels are found on the outskirts of the city. You can get a good room from $40 onward. What to eat: Getting any kind of food, including Indian vegetarian food, is no problem.

When to visit: The best season to visit Philadelphia is from May till October.

Special excursions: Visit the famous Amish settlement (two-hour drive), where you can observe the life of this orthodox farming community, which remained unchanged for the last 250 years.

Also, visiting the gambling and beach resorts of Atlantic City can be virtually free of cost, if you take any of the Casino's sponsored buses starting from here.

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