October 10, 2011, Washington, DC: What a luxury it is to travel by train on a Sunday afternoon down the northeast corridor. On yesterday’s ride, the sun was sinking and the air was warm enough that boats still sprinkled the Susquehanna River. The towns and waterways between Wilmington and Baltimore zoomed by in a golden blur. Just west, traffic was likely building down I-95; overhead was some of the busiest air space in the country. But there on the train tracks we were making good time, carrying students back to school after a holiday weekend at home, shuttling professionals into the routines they keep Monday through Friday.
For two hours back to Washington, my time was my own, with extra leg room. I had the freedom to write, to let someone else drive, to reflect on my first ever visit to the city of Philadelphia.
For as much as I frequent this stretch of coast, I have never spent a weekend in Philadelphia until now. On Sunday morning, I walked the neighborhood of Rittenhouse Square, one of four squares equidistant from City Hall that urbanist Jane Jacobs held up as a shining example of city planning back in 1961. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs called Rittenhouse “a beloved, successful, much-used park, one of Philadelphia’s greatest assets today, the center of a fashionable neighborhood – indeed, the only neighborhood in Philadelphia which is spontaneously rehabilitating its edges and extending its real estate values.” Jacobs credited the neighborhood’s success to a mixture of residential and commercial uses and to a mixture of people, too. Those people operated on different schedules, comprising an intricate “ballet” that kept the neighborhood busy and safe around the clock.
I can’t proclaim to understand what it’s really like to live in Rittenhouse Square. After all, how much can a visitor really soak in in the course of a weekend? What I did glimpse during my brief visit, however, was a Rittenhouse reflective of the one Jacobs knew decades ago. An empty park bench in the square was hard to come by. Sidewalks were overflowing with brunch goers at cafes beneath tall office buildings, just around the corner from quaint brick rowhouses. During meals at neighborhood haunts like Marathon, Pub & Kitchen, and Philadelphia restauranteur Stephen Starr’s Dandelion Pub, I saw Rittenhouse as a coveted city neighborhood. Through the eyes of an outsider, it appeared a good place to go for walks close to home, to watch hometown sports, to enjoy a happy day in the city.
It is a luxury to spend a day observing a city you’ve never before seen in action.
After two weekends away, there was something else luxurious about Sunday, too. It was luxurious to pull into Union Station and be just one mile from our apartment. No airport parking garages, no trips down the highway, just a three minute cab ride to the front door. If I hadn’t been lugging my laptop and camera, I’d have biked across Capitol Hill and been home in no time.
Sunday afternoon, 30th St. Station, Philadelphia
Sunday football at Pub & Kitchen, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia
Dandelion Pub, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia