Philadelphia: Let Freedom Ring!
Just in time for the Fourth of July (and beyond), a Philly boy gives the lowdown on the very gay-friendly city where America began.
Walk through Independence Park, the symbolic heart of Philadelphia, and across from Independence Hall and within eyeshot of the Liberty Bell stands a lone historical marker dated 1965, a positively futuristic anachronism for a city whose chief claim to fame is 1776.
Turns out, four years before the Stonewall Riots gave LGBTQs a collective voice, a local restaurant refused service to patrons who the manager thought “looked gay.” KA-BOOM! Nothing like a little dumbassery to get the blood flowing. About 150 people staged a sit-in at the eatery and soon morphed into very public July picket lines demanding gay equality just a few yards from where American freedom was proclaimed. The association was unavoidable, particularly since what was to be called the “Annual Reminder” was held every Independence Day.
So, if a native Philly boy such as me may say it, no offense to New York or San Francisco, but you are Johnny-come-latelies to the party.
The City That Loves You Back
And the Annual Reminders are celebrated 50 years on, commemorated via a ceremonial picket line on July 4 and a massive block party in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood the following day. It is part of a trio of rainbow-themed events on the city calendar, sandwiched neatly between Philly Pride (June 12-14) and OutFest, the largest National Coming Out Day celebration in the world (October 12). FYI, the Annual Reminders are tailor-made to while away the daylight before the Fourth of July fireworks light up the sky at night.
I chalk up the welcome transformation of the City of Brotherly Love into a gay destination to an acute sense of self-awareness. So identified with the American Revolution is Philadelphia that the city is perceived as being one-note; two-note if you throw in Rocky Balboa and his iconic run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (People still do it, complete with “Rocky dance” at the summit. Just sit back and wait.) Consequently, there has been a hard push to be something — anything! — other than a city whose golden age was 239 years ago or “ADRIAAAAAN!”
To a point, anyway; history is a big draw in Philadelphia. Fresh off a refurb, Independence Park is a veritable shrine to America (declared here), the Constitution (signed here), and aforementioned Liberty Bell (cracked here — oopsy). But the park is more than just a marginally kid-oriented expo for a time gone by, although the sparkling, white marble temple housing the Liberty Bell is quite the marginally kid-oriented expo.
Part of the renovation was the inclusion of the massive National Constitution Center, a walk-in laboratory of how the document defining American governance actually works in the here and now, and whose 17-minute “Freedom Rising" theatrical production former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor hailed as “the best civics lesson in the country.” Women’s rights, racial equality and gay liberation are all explored, and the potholes on the road to freedom get as much press as the flattop. No sugarcoating here.
Gotta See It To Believe It
But Philadelphia can educate the masses in more ways than just jurisprudential intricacies. Aside from the Museum of Art and its staircase calf workout, there is the Rodin Museum, whose collection is outdone only by its Parisian counterpart. Philly’s answer to the Frick and Getty, the Barnes Foundation is an American educational art and horticultural institution; its post-impressionist and early-modern art collections are among the best in the world: 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and 7 Van Goghs!
There is also the Mütter Museum, where you can see Einstein’s brain chopped up into itty-bitty bite-sized pieces. Wait…what?
In 2011, Einstein’s sushi-ed noodle became the showstopper for a Philadelphia institution already known for stopping shows. The Mütter’s humble origins harken back to Dr. Thomas Mütter, a pre-Civil War teaching physician who relied on a well-pickled smorgasbord of…ah…“visual aids” to document various diseases and conditions. The museum today showcases everything that can possibly go awry with a human body. It is the absolute must for parents whose kids delight in the macabre. For boys, it’s pretty much from age 13 until death — I know; this is me to a T. A skeleton with one body and two heads? Check! A skeleton with two bodies and one head? Check-check! The body of a woman who turned to soap? Checkity-check-check! You can even have your wedding photos done at the Mütter, with the 139-strong Hyrtl skull collection as a backdrop. And I swear to God I am not making this up.
But perhaps you want to save the traumatization of your children to some later date. A more controlled descent is the G-rated Please Touch Museum, from the first stone a 7-and-below haven where kids and parents engage each other through play slyly designed to introduce little minds to big concepts like architecture, ecosystems, and physics. Once the hungry-mind fire is lit, the Franklin Institute, a world-class science bonanza for tweens and adults, throws fuel on the cerebral flames with exhibits a little more advanced (building your own Mars rover), a little more “Mütter” (a two-story model of a neural network you can climb through) and waaaaaay more geeky (“The Art of the Brick”— the largest Lego display on Earth! Woot-woot!).
But asking a Philadelphian when it’s the best time to visit the city is the best way to see a head explode. We’re a torn bunch: Some will say the Fourth of July; what better place to experience the holiday than in the city that created it? The panorama of a sky on fire over the Museum of Art is an Olympian experience, not least of which is because the museum is built as a fabulously ornate Greek temple.
But then there are the Mummers. Every New Year’s Day the wide boulevard of Broad Street is washed over wholesale by wave after wave of sequins, ostrich plumes, and string bands: the Mummers Parade, a colorful and musical folk parade. Right along with cheesesteaks and hoagies (like a sub sandwich), the Mummers are unique to Philly and a source of immense pride and identity — and the one of the most family-friendly events the city’s cultural engine revs out. Clubs belong to five larger divisions, Comic, Fancy, Wench Brigade, String Band and Fancy Brigade, and are made up of ordinary citizens in a no-holds-barred show of one-upmanship to come up with the most creative costumes, dances routines, and tunes.
So may this piece represent a rebuttal to Charles Dickens, who infamously called Philadelphia “distractingly regular.” He obviously did not grab a margarita at Woody’s, which are about $5 cheaper than in New York. That alone should bring the crowds in running.
Cover photo credit (Liberty Bell): Andrea Golod for PHLCVB