Philadelphia – Part 1: Art, Cheesesteaks, and Rocky

Philadelphia

Before this trip I had never been to Philadelphia. It’s a city I had heard about, read about, and seen in popular culture. I knew about Philly cheesesteaks, Rocky, and the Flyers, Phillies, 76ers, and Eagles. And that’s about it. Which is to say, almost nothing at all. I just didn’t have a sense of it, and as a history nerd, and someone who loves great cities, I’m sorry I didn’t check this great city out earlier.

We wound up in Philly for four days, with our accommodations, transit passes, and walking tours paid for thanks to Context Tours. I had entered a photo / essay contest with Context at TBEX Asia in Bangkok last fall, and this was my prize – not bad at all! Context is a brilliant company that offers “private guides and (very) small group tours for the intellectually curious traveler” (description from their website). I love Context – their tours are led by people who are truly experts on their topics (think Ph.D’s and / or people who have worked in the field for years), so they can drive really deep on specific topics.

We arrived in the early evening, just as the sun was setting, and the sky was a brilliant, fiery red. Here’s the view from the rooftop patio at our condo:

I use the term “our condo” but it wasn’t ours at all. It was a condo arranged for us through Philly Stays (like Air BnB), and was a perfect spot to base our trip from. Right in the middle of town, virtually everything was in walking distance. Of course, anything is within walking distance if you have enough time, but let’s just say that this was within reasonable walking distance for most reasonably mobile people.

A corner unit, we had an awesome cross breeze and great downtown views…

Tired after a long drive from Toronto, we pretty much crashed the first night, but not before I peer pressured Angela into going for our first ever Philly cheesesteak at Steve’s Prince of Steaks. I’ll write a post about Philly food (awesome), so I’ll spare you all the details, but I will say it was the perfect, greasy, delicious intro to our time there. Some of you won’t want to wait for the food post, and as such I am sure you’re screaming at your screen right now, “but did you get onions and Cheez Whiz? I have to know if  you got the whiz?!” Well, since you asked, yes. Yes I did. And it was magical.

Our first full day in Philadelphia kicked off with a Context walking tour called “Philadelphia Public Art: from William Penn to Rocky Balboa.” We met our docent, Heather, at a coffee shop near the old city hall. Heather is a contemporary art expert, and a Ph.D. candidate at Temple University. She happily greeted Angela and I, and as we were the only ones on the tour, we were able to take off right away.

We began at Claes Oldenburg’s statue Clothespin, which, to the untrained eye (mine), looks just like a huge clothespin. But to those who know what they’re looking at, they’ll see the intertwining of the two figures that make up the clothespin, as well as the embedded 76 at the top of the pin (1776 was a critical year in Philadelphia history – this statue was commissioned in the bicentennial year, 1976). Heather explained other key elements, including how the statue ties together Philly’s colonial heritage to contemporary times, and reinforces the idea of brotherly love.

Immediately I appreciated the value of a good tour guide – Heather brought each art piece to life for us, explaining the significance of every statue and installation. Philadelphia is a city where you’ll walk past art at every turn – it has the second largest collection of public art in the world after Paris. Having just come back from Paris a few weeks ago, we were definitely getting our art on this month. Knowing what you’re looking at as you explore the city makes things infinitely more interesting, and sheds some light on the city’s history while also explaining – to some degree – what makes a city like Philadelphia tick.

Heather from Context

Heather walked us through a series of sculptures, from the mid-1800’s to present day. One thing she explained that we found fascinating was Philly’s Percent for Art rule, enacted in 1959, which dictates that each new building development must allocate at least one percent of the project’s budget to the creation of a new site-specific public art project. So, obviously, there’s a heap of art in Philly.

In an effort to avoid making this post 76,000 words long by detailing everything we saw during the tour, here are a few of the highlights:

Your Move – Across the street from City Hall sits this park that many locals refer to as Game Piece Plaza. Here you’ll find over-sized game pieces from games like Sorry, Monopoly, checkers, chess, dominoes, and others. This is interactive art – on this day kids were trying out skateboard tricks on the big yellow piece in the middle. It was great because they lacked talent and wiped out fairly consistently, creating no shortage of entertainment for passers-by.

Grumman Greenhouse – We were admiring another Oldenburg piece when Angela’s eye caught this plane in nearby Lenfest Plaza. It wasn’t part of the tour (which speaks to the sheer volume of Philadelphia art), but Heather was happy to check it out anyway. This plane is a sculpture by Philadelphia artist Jordan Griska. The inside of the plane “grows nutritive and medicinal plants, provided by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and uses the edible growth for City Harvest, which feeds low income families in the region” (description from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). Visually compelling and functional. Cool.

Rodin Museum – The Rodin Museum has a version of The Thinker out front, which was nice to see, as well as a reproduction of the Gates of Hell, which is quite a trip if you’ve never seen it. I liked the reflecting pool with the small statue out front (above). The tour didn’t take us inside, but you are able to walk the grounds where there is plenty to see.

Love – Robert Indiana’s famous Love sculpture now resides at city hall, as it’s usual location in Philadelphia’s Love Park is under construction. The first thing that struck me about it is how small it is – I had recently seen a version of Love in Taipei (see below) and it was big enough for happy tourists to pose in. This one is perched on a stand and is maybe less than half the size of the one in Taiwan. Still, it’s iconic, and always worth a visit.

Rocky – There’s a debate about whether or not the Rocky statue deserves to considered art, as it was built as a movie prop, but it is a full-sized bronze statue and it’s certainly inspired millions of people around the world. Let’s put it this way – aside from a few people at the Love sculpture, we didn’t see one person take a picture of any other Philadelphia art. Not one. At the Rocky statue there were line-ups forty people deep. With more coming.

Located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to the side of the famous stairs, the Rocky statue is certainly popular. People line up, flex their guns, take a picture, and then try to run up the stairs. A big Rocky fan, I have to admit, I dug it. I loved the movies, and enjoyed seeing the statue.

Then, of course, I ran up the stairs. I was beat by a sixty year-old guy with a cane, but I made it, and I think Rocky would have been impressed if he were there and a real person.

With a perfect introduction to the city, we were ready to dive further into Philadelphia’s rich history (and killer food scene). More to come on our time in Philly in the next post!

Have you explored Philly? What were your impressions? Did you enjoy the art? Run the steps? Eat a cheesesteak? Comment below!

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