5-10 November, 2021
I have always had a thing for the East Coast. For me and my peers, growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles, the East Coast just seemed older, more cultured, more worldly than sunny, laidback California. In fact, I almost went to college on the East Coast, but my parents (wisely) talked me out of the financial debt such an endeavor would incur.
When I came back to the United States six months ago, one goal of my time here was to try and see a bit more of it. A good friend had been living in Philadelphia for the past four years and was on the cusp of leaving around the same time that I’d returned. I’d never been to Philly before, so this felt like the perfect opportunity to see more of the East Coast.
The first thing that struck me was the architecture. We were staying in a quirky Airbnb in West Philly, which is lined with gorgeous old Victorian houses. As we explored that first day, our wanderings took us through the frat houses and manicured grounds of Penn, aka The University of Pennsylvania, one of the first American colleges, and then through the Reading Terminal Market, a 128 year old indoor market where merchants from all over – including the Amish – sell their wares. Another friend met us at City Hall (imagine! Having a classic, towering stone city hall as a casual meeting place!) and we continued through the brick facades of Old City, the lush urban greenery of Rittenhouse Square, and finally ended up by the more modern, up and coming Schuylkill riverfront.
Besides the look of the city, other things I appreciated about Philly, and about all East Coast cities for that matter, are the infrastructure and diversity. There were many forms of public transportation, ranging from bus to trolley to subway, and getting around was easy and hassle-free. Now, I’m not saying that the stations and trains were the nicest or cleanest (let’s just say they call it “Filthadelphia” for a reason), but everything worked, which is more than I can say for Los Angeles. And all over, but especially in West Philly where we stayed, were businesses and residences run by and lived in by BIPOC individuals and people of other nationalities. In fact, the only Philly Cheesesteak sandwich I ate during my trip was a vegetarian Asian-fusion version from the Korean-run deli down the street.
One major highlight for me was the Barnes Foundation. Albert C. Barnes was a Philadelphia chemist and businessman who began collecting art in 1912. A supporter of education and social justice, Barnes believed that art education should be available to everyone, and began including art in his two-hour long weekly employee seminars at his factory for his primarily African-American workforce. From these seminars, the Barnes Foundation was born into a physical space.
Visiting the Barnes Foundation is like no other museum experience ever. The art is not hung chronologically, or geographically, but instead is grouped according to principles of line, color, light, and space. No plaques hang on the walls, although these days you can download an app and scan individual pieces to get more information, which is really fun. The idea was that, in order to appreciate art, you didn’t need to know the artist or the time or place in which it was created, which is almost the opposite of what we are taught about art, especially art from Western or European traditions which have been treated as though they are better than other art traditions. At the Barnes Foundation, you will see bits of Navajo jewelry or African sculpture next to paintings by Renoir or Japanese painted scrolls. It’s a most unique and enthralling experience.
Despite the strong presence of culture and history, Philly has a reputation of being more blue-collar and industrial, which for me was not a negative point. Often when I travel, I like to spend a “normal” day, where I just do everyday things and take in the local atmosphere. I got a haircut at an affordable, punk rock salon. I had a coffee and did some writing. I took a walk through the Woodlands, a public cemetery dating back to 1840, where I observed nurses on their lunch breaks, students taking runs, and a retiree before his easel, painting the gorgeous autumn foliage. Normal stuff.
All said and done, I liked Philadelphia. Then we took a bus to a city that I really love. . . but more on that next time.