Wednesday, October 27, 2010

World City-Zen: Philadelphia


Although history does not record when the Delaware (Lenape) village of Shackamaxon was founded - and is similarly reticent about the precise date when six Swedish families arrived in the vicinity some years later as the first settlers with the colony of New Sweden - what is known is that on this day in 1682 William Penn signed a treaty of friendship with Chief Tamanend of the Turtle Clan which would one day see that village become part of the Port Richmond, Fishtown, and Kensington sections of the modern-day city of Philadelphia. The site of that signing (conducted beneath an elm tree which blew down during a storm in 1810) is currently the main attraction of Penn Treaty Park, which was dedicated in October 1893 after serving for many years as a riverside lumber yard.

Penn had already been granted a charter for the Pennsylvania Colony in 1681 by King Charles II, and thus would have been within his rights to just take the land he eventually bought from the Lenape; having learned from the hard lessons of the Plymouth Colony, Penn (an ardent Quaker) did his best to stay on the good side of the locals. He even went so far as to give the new settlement a Greek name meaning 'the city of brotherly love', which it's still known by today*. In what would be Penn's last act before leaving the city forever, he incorporated Philadelphia as a city in October 1701; his treaty, meanwhile, would endure until 1782.

Philadelphia's repute (as well as its environs) grew in importance even as the American Revolution was gaining traction; in fact, it was once second only to London as the largest city in the British Empire, and ironically enough would play host to the First Continental Congress prior to the outbreak of the hostilities, the Second Continental Congress (during which the Declaration of Independence was signed) and the Constitutional Convention which tied up all the loose ends typically accompanying the birth of a new nation. It even served as the temporary capital before one could be permanently established at Washington, DC. One of Philadelphia's own, Benjamin Franklin, played a major role in all these events (plus many more besides) and he is understandably commemorated throughout the city today.

Yet unlike New York City, Los Angeles, and even Chicago - which have all done their utmost to embed themselves into the public consciousness - pop cultural depictions of Philadelphia have (in the past at least) been few and far between. Philip Barry's play The Philadelphia Story is a notable early example, and its movie version (directed by George Cukor and starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Stewart) has some of the best banter ever filmed. Also set in the city (although filmed in Hollywood) are such offerings as Kitty Foyle and 1776, while Rocky and its copious sequels, Trading Places, Mannequin, adopted son M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, and Baby Mama (written by and starring the city's favourite daughter Tina Fey) among others have recently taken advantage of Philadelphia's diverse and visually appealing streetscapes.

Recent years have seen an explosion of music emerge from the city's tough if architecturally important streets, especially in the genre of Philadelphia soul... Dick Clark's American Bandstand of course debuted there in September 1952, and Soul Train's theme song, recorded by MFSB with The Three Degrees, is known as TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia). Hall & Oates specialized in a blue-eyed version of the city's signature sound, while DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (aka Jeff Townes and Will Smith) emerged from the city - 'West Philadelphia born and raised' - to redefine the hip-hop genre in the late 80s and early 90s. Bruce Springsteen's song Streets of Philadelphia (as much as its video and the movie whose theme it was) did much to elevate the city's profile; then, of course, there is the sitcom It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which not only gives the city its bad name back but in doing so provides a counterbalance to the educationally animated antics of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (presumably set there, since it's where Bill Cosby grew up).

*A less widely known sobriquet - Filthy-delphia - seems to be favoured mainly by those who grew up there then left.
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