All Things Entertaining and Cultural

My Philadelphia Story: A Tourist in My Hometown

images40Z27KJRI am a traveler, and several factors make travel unlikely for the nonce.

Yet I am lucky to live in a city, and region, with infinite variety.

As much I may gripe about Philadelphia, and say nasty things such as, “You want something done wrong, ask a Philadelphian,” or “what a hicktown!,” these snipes are momentary grouses and only slightly mar my appreciation of a city I consider to be the most beautiful on the East Coast — Take that D.C. and Boston — and filled with endless things to do.

Even when I’m carping about restaurants that don’t stay open past 10, when 3,000 theatergoers are hitting the streets at 10:30, or mourning the lack of indigenous shopping, I am thrilled that Philadelphia is so chocked with activity.

And not just celebrations around the myriad historical events that occurred here, i.e. the most important and seminal events in United States history. The government of Philadelphia may be mired the middle of the last century — Look at their clothes and hairdos; tragic! — but entrepreneurs, when not stymied by that government, have created a vibrant, energetic town that features all kinds of music, dance, theater, art, and other culture in addition to restaurants, open past 10 or not, that can compete in quality and range of cuisine with any in the world.

That is the glorious secret of Philadelphia. It offers many things that compete with world capitals.

As a theater town, Philadelphia is an equal to Chicago and D.C. even if those cities have better reputations among those who believe they are cognoscenti. More than 100 shows have played on local stages so far in 2015, and a higher percentage of them than not were worth seeing.

The theater takes all forms and is presented at all levels. Established theaters like the Walnut Street Theatre and now-entrenched companies like the Arden, Wilma, and Philadelphia Theatre Company offer polished, highly professional work while smaller, or more fledgling, troupes add to the class, style, and texture of the city. The best parts of Philadelphia’s theatrical evolution is how compatibly traditional and experimental theaters keep offerings varied and how a community of artists — designers and composers as well as actors — have settled in Philadelphia as their home.

The scope of theater has always been true in music. Besides an orchestra that remains among the world’s best even if it doesn’t have the luster of the Ormandy or Muti days, chamber groups abound. The classical is only one part of the equation. Ensembles bring a new and modern music to the fore. It might not be as easy as it once was to find a club to wander into and find jazz or a couple of good vocal sets of the kind Wendy Simon and Monette Sudler provided in the ’80s, but there are some well-known spots like Chris’s that are worth the random gamble.

The thing is in Philadelphia you have to do some research and exploration to know where you’re going. This isn’t New York, Chicago, or New Orleans where you can take risks and see what’s happening in any door of a given district laden with places that feature music. It’s more like Nashville, L.A., or even Prague where some investigation and sampling is necessary to find a place you want to hang in regularly.

Nothing announces itself in Philadelphia, so you need to consult a guide or a listing to see the plenty that is both available and worthy of your time. No street or area can be recommended as a place for you to listen at doorways or stop in for one drink, or one set, to see if a joint is to your liking. The Avenue of the Arts is a joke with an extra hardy-har-har because city boosters, who can only mildly be trusted, like to bruit it as a success when really it’s a theater row where the Kimmel Center, Academy of Music, the Wilma, the Merriam, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company happen to be situated. You can’t just head to the blocks of Broad Street designated the Avenue of Arts and expect to be entertained. Food, fun, and frolic never materialized as Avenue folk and politicians like to pretend they did. So, while you may find a good show at one of the theatrical venues, you, again, need to know what you’re doing and what you’re looking for as you venture into Philadelphia’s wide variety of offerings. The prospect of Broad Street even blossoming into the potential suggested when the “Avenue” was conceived in Rendell days is nil. Besides most the surrounding restaurants being of a similar kind in a similar price range, the University of the Arts has selfishly glommed up a lot of Broad Street real estate and turned whole blocks into canyons of nothing once school bells ring for the night. Someone should have told the U. that all ground floors of Broad Street buildings, especially between Walnut and Locust Streets, should be reserved for commercial use, but the pigs in charge wouldn’t listen, so the school has effectively killed the kind of development an “Avenue” would need to emerge as originally advertised.

No matter. What counts is the theater activity and music activity is real, and no one has to be bored or housebound in Philadelphia if he or she is seeking entertainment.

That goes for dances as well. In addition to the Pennsylvania Ballet, which does excellent work that rates a larger audience, and Randy Swartz’s marvelous Dance Celebration program at The Annenberg Center on Penn’s West Philly campus, interesting dance companies present a wide variety of choreographic and ethnic styles. And opera! In addition to Opera Philadelphia, two world class graduate schools for vocal artists, the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) and Curtis Institute, produce general excellent performances. Small companies add to the riches. Waiters sing opera between serving pasta at Victor’s Café. Operetta even has its day with Daniel Pantano’s knowing and meticulously executed Concert Operetta series that uses AVA, and several of its marvelous singers, as a venue.

imagesCAGA532QYes, you need to guide to find out where everything is. Nothing is going to pop out as you as you walk the street. But the treasure is there to discover, so the exploring to find it is worth the effort.

By now you’ve gleaned I can be hard on My Philadelphia.

As articles appear, it will become clear that love far outweighs any disdain I feel for my hometown.

Criticism is warranted. Philadelphians are an interesting lot that cling to the “range” philosophy that never should be heard a discouraging word.

That keeps the city from growing, just as much as the attention paid to people who stop major projects, like casinos opening or apartment buildings rising or key public areas being developed, do. (The decaying Dilworth home on Washington Square’s S. 6th Street being an untouchable landmark, indeed! And harrumph!) Philadelphia is a self-congratulatory town that pats itself on the back too quickly. People don’t like to disagree, so approval and support spread about matters that should be debated.

Blessedly, visitors don’t see this. They see a place that is easily worth a multi-day visit or even a week to wander. I include the Parkway, the historical district, the Brandywine area, Chestnut Hill, New Hope, the beaches, and even Jim Thorpe or Sesame Place with Center City and its entertainment bonanza as places that make a sojourn to Philadelphia more than worthwhile.

Living here you see the cracks in the plaster. You realize that Philadelphia isn’t parochial — It has in recent years sprawled past Center City to include some exciting fringe areas, and it is one of the more diverse and comfortably integrated cities in the U.S. — but it is provincial. Opinion makers are few. They license what people are supposed to think. And they agree tightly. This would be fine if the opinions were worth the breath they take to be pronounced. As a resident of the city, I have taken the stance not to listen to the collective ‘yes’ corps and keep my eye and outlook a bit jaundiced. Improvement cannot come from agreement. If no one points out the warts, you’ll have stagnation. Entrepreneurs, especially restauranteurs, have been aggressive to get past Philadelphia’s generally self-conscious inferiority complex and smallness of mind — I mean we’re actually going to follow the scaredy-cat reign of Michael Nutter with the mayoralty of the truly provincial Jim Kenney; thank goodness City Hall’s architecture is wonderful because what happens inside is pathetic. — and that has helped the city. Markedly. The ‘yes’ brigade doesn’t influence them. On the contrary, the entrepreneurs give the ‘yessers’ something about which to be positive.

In fact, to say something unabashedly favorable, I have never in 50 years of enjoying Center City seen it so lively and bustling. Streets that used to be empty and moribund even on weekend nights now teem with people several evenings a week. Areas around 3rd and Market, 13th and Sansom, and 17th and Sansom boast bars and clubs that attract large, good-looking cadres of fun seekers. You don’t walk alone on city blocks the way you did in the last century. It’s exhilarating to see the crowds and know people are coming to the city for fun.

Not only coming to the city, but moving to the city. Philadelphia is getting a reputation for being a place to have an interesting life.

Again, thank the entrepreneurs, the artists, and the urban pioneers who populated Southwark, Bella Vista, Northern Liberties, Fairmount, Olde City, upper South Street, Baltimore Avenue, and other areas. They didn’t need or wait for politicians’ help. They thwarted the calcified mummies of City Council and revitalized neighborhoods and made their own fun. Bully for them!!!

I mean it. Six cheers!

So now that I’ve gushed and grumbled in turn, let me tell you what My Philadelphia Story is. It’s an ongoing series of articles that will emanate from me wandering the city and taking all in as if I was a tourist. I intend to go to long favored gems like the Mütter Museum, put the Dream Garden in the Curtis Building on the must-do tourist map, hunt out places where one can relax in evening, scout out a variety of eateries where one might find something decent after 10, and go afield to places like the Bartram Gardens, the Pearl Buck home, and the Rockwood Museum while also getting in line at Independence Hall to see if the spiel remains as embarrassingly miserable as it was the last time I toured there (circa 2009, when anyone with English as a first language would be appalled and anyone with English as a second to tertiary language would be lost). I will report on the year-old renovations and rethinking of Franklin Court while making sure people know what Gwendolyn Bye is doing, or West Mt. Airy’s interesting Quintessence Theater Group. I will share my Philadelphia experiences, some randomly as I amble about my non-stop life, some designed to be reports or reviews of what is always there for your or a visitor’s delectation. The objective is to create a compended guide book of all to do in Philadelphia the same way NealsPaper attempts to cover the theater season in as much thoroughness as one person with currently limited resources can.

As regular readers know, I prefer to be the expert in my reviews and I don’t quote or even solicit the ideas of other people. Where it’s germane, I may seek out a curator and go beyond impressions to a do a larger story about how the village of Odessa and its great homes are preserved or how entities like the Michener or Mercer Museums, or even the National Constitution Center, choose their exhibitions. I will go on a journey and invite the NealsPaper reader as a companion. Who knows? Maybe this will develop to the point I arrange group outings and become a docent for the wonders of Philadelphia.

As always, I promise to be honest and direct within my point of view. How can I be anything else?

That might mean kicking a sacred cow or dispelling a negative thought the ‘yessers’ have conspired to spread. I will enlist the help of public relations people, historians, and curators to give some stories texture. Only politicians will be barred room to contribute. Unless I encounter one who visited the wizard and got a brain.

So, My Philadelphia Story commences with this rambling, praising, damning introduction.

I’m looking forward to the ride. I hope I have lots of company on it. Mainly because in the long run, I live in one of the greatest and most diverse places on the globe, and I want to know it and share what I know.

Happy Trails!!!

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