Particular Sights to See:Center City
Taxi drivers tell tourists that Center City is a "shining city on a hill". During the Industrial Era, the city almost urbanized out to the county line, and then retreated. Right now, the urban center is surrounded by a semi-deserted ring of former factories.
But wait. At Ninth and Market Philadelphia had once built the White House or at least a mansion for the President of the United States. Secret deals between James Madison and Alexander Hamilton had agreed to move the nation's capital city to Virginia in return for nationalizing the states' Revolutionary War debts, although the circumstance which made it acceptable to the public had been the Yellow Fever epidemic. After that happened, no amount of logic or log-rolling was going to keep the government in this city. Philadelphia vainly built a very elaborate mansion for the President, but President Washington never occupied it, and it was converted to housing the University of Pennsylvania. That University eventually tore it down and replaced it with two somewhat more suitable buildings, meanwhile using the Walnut Street Theater and the Musical Fund Hall, at Ninth and Walnut and Ninth and Locust Streets respectively, for commencement exercises and the like. No one can be completely certain, but it is felt by many that 9th and Market was the general area where Benjamin Franklin had flown his famous kite. This definitely later was the site of Leary's second-hand bookstall, which had the remarkable history that it was once run by a former Philadelphia mayor. Ninth and Market Street is now the site of a Post Office on one corner and a vacant lot on the other. But let the imagination wander a little, and see Ben Franklin, The White House, the University of Pennsylvania, and a former mayor tending a bookstall.
There is a restoration of the house, the very house, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at the corner of 7th and Market. Although hidden among the hulks of former department stores, some idea of the former elegance of the area is given by the description of stir raised by that rich young Virginian arriving in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress with his fancy carriage, team of horses, and several footmen. All of that colonial splendor has just about vanished in a sea of Victorian commercial architecture, which has in turn become merely a quaint relic. Over the front door of what was Lit's Department Store is still to be seen the mystifying motto, "Hats trimmed free of charge.", and today almost no one knows what that meant. At Sixth and Market, however, look out. The National Park Service brings colonial history crashing across Market Street, with tourists, a vista of Independence Hall, and lots of federal money. Dare we mention pork barrels? The whole subject of Independence National Park is so huge we must return to it several times, but just glance as you go through from City Hall to Penn's Landing.
Notice in particular the corner of Sixth and Market, where the real White House really stood. Robert Morris once had a mansion there, which Benedict Arnold occupied for a while after he was in charge of recovering Philadelphia from the British occupation, and subsequently both Washington and then John Adams lived there, as Presidents. Unfortunately, a fire took it away around 1830, and the remains were covered with trashy commercial buildings for decades, until the Park Service built a big public restroom there, now torn down. The current public furor about this site is truly remarkable, and the ample amounts of federal money our Senator has been able to obtain from the Appropriations committee on which he sits is probably a big factor in attracting interest. The main focus of dispute has to do with the fact that President Washington brought eight black slaves with him, and although he hastened to replace them with white indentured servants whose civil rights were probably no greater than slaves, the black slaves undoubtedly had to have lived somewhere. A search is on for the real, the true, the authentic slave quarters, as a suitable place for a public monument to their service to the country. The Park Service has a long reputation for defending scholarly standards, and its reluctance to accept archaeologically evidence of the slave quarters has brought down on their heads the furious response of the black community and the politicians seeking their favor. None of these latter groups can see any sense to quibbles about the precise location of Washington's outbuildings, just put up the monument, but for a while, it looked as though the scholars were determined to go down with their flags flying.
Several blocks further East, Market street comes to the brow of what was a cliff overlooking the Delaware, where the earliest settlers lived in temporary caves while they built houses. At the corner of Front and Market, from 1702 to 1883, stood the London Coffee House; during the Continental Congress, it was a place of high intrigue. The trolley lines once made a loop at the bottom of the hill at the river. Prior to that time, horse trolleys had to stop at the top of the hill at Front Street because the hill was too steep for them. At the lower level on the waterfront, there was a terminus for the ferry from New Jersey, bringing commuters, shoppers and farm produce from the Garden State. In time, a subway was built down Market Street, taking a sharp turn at the brow of the hill and heading off toward Frankford and the far northeastern parts of the city. The conjunction of the trolleys, the subway, and the ferries brought throngs of shoppers, mixing with other crowds emerging from three subways at 8th Street, still others from two train stations at 13th Street, and trolleys or buses at every one of the fourteen cross streets. This fourteen block strip was surely a great place to sell dry goods. But today, with the ferry terminal gone and the trolleys vanished, it is mainly a question whether the foot of the hill at the Delaware River is destined to become a museum or an amusement park.
Originally published: Friday, June 23, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2019
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