Tourists' takes on city run the gamut

Is Philadelphia gorgeous or gross? Depends on who's talking.

Posted: July 02, 2007

Even on a week as palpably beastly as this last one, being a tourist in Philadelphia is a philosophical experience.

Millions of visitors will pass through the city this summer. Most will make a pilgrimage to the same sights. They'll pose beside The Bell, tour The Hall, eat cheesesteaks, and succumb to the obnoxious pleasure of the wacky quack. But they will all come away with different perceptions.

Janae Lawson, for instance, and four friends from Raleigh-Durham went back home, grateful to still be alive.

Outside the Hard Rock Cafe on Market Street, a deliveryman pushing a hand truck charged up the sidewalk. When they didn't scatter like ninepins, he barked, "You're going to get run over!"

In North Carolina, Lawson explained, "We're much more courteous." The pace of life back home, she said, makes Philadelphia seem maniacal.

"If I lived here," said Lawson's colleague Lola Decacus, "I'd have to be on something." Realizing how that sounded, she clarified. "High blood pressure medicine."

In contrast, Meg Kroll from Fort Lauderdale found Philadelphia positively mellow.

"Everybody's angry in Florida. It's a more aggressive environment. Many people in South Florida have forgotten the basic ability to be courteous."

She and her entourage were passing a parking garage when a car tried to exit. "We were blocking the sidewalk. He waved to us and apologized."

"In Florida, we would have been run over," said Kroll's friend, Mary Ellen Macuski.

After a trip to Philadelphia, the impressions visitors take away seem to depend mostly on what they brought with them.

Cut to Independence Hall where Krishna and R.S. Rao, a couple from Hyderabad, India, waited along with the Watson family from Springfield, Va., in the (endless/orderly) line for their 11:45 a.m. tour.

Krishna's silk sari rustled in the (weary/refreshing) breeze as she walked serenely to a bench and sat down to rest. Holly Watson chased after her cranky 21-month-old son, Eric, who was pushing his stroller into the crowd.

The night before, the Watsons had planned to stay at the Hampton Inn on (gritty/hip) Race Street, said Greg, a captain in the U.S. Air Force.

"We have stayed in Hampton Inns from one side of this country to the other," he said. On Race Street, however, "We didn't have a very warm and fuzzy feeling."

The family saw homeless people digging through trash. "That's something you obviously find in cities, but not something we're used to." So they drove to Valley Forge and found a hotel.

"It can be very upsetting," says Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. "When you're on vacation, you're not geared to thinking about the realities of the world."

Levitz receives a lot of complaints from people like the Watsons. And that's worrisome.

The city's roughly three million summer visitors generate one-third of the annual $10 billion in tourism, Levitz says. Most tend to be first-time visitors. "They have a checklist," she says. And they are on a mission to do everything on that list.

Hanging with the homeless isn't on it.

In 1996, the average stay was four hours, Levitz reports. Today, it's about three nights.

Even when most of that time is spent in the historic district or a hotel, it's enough to get an eyeful. "Summer is when you see the most homeless and there are more people around to see them," Levitz says. Usually, tourists react in one of two ways. "You may not be upset about it or it's a very strong turnoff."

The Raos were unfazed. Compared with India, they saw little poverty, said R.S., a 65-year-old retired factory manager. Small, distinguished, white-haired and white-sneakered, he said, "The city is well-planned and very orderly. Drivers obey the traffic directions."

While all around them, people were turning into steaming puddles of damp T-shirts and molten flip-flops, the Raos were quite comfortable. "For them," explained their translator, "it's not very hot."

"I don't know how you guys handle the heat," said Brenda Northrup, of Wenatchee, Wash., as she and her family took refuge in Reading Terminal.

You might recall (of course you do) that in the era of powdered wigs, British empiricists theorized about perceptions of reality. How it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove the truth of any one viewpoint.

For example, dip your right hand in ice water, your left in hot water, then after a few minutes, plunk them both into tepid water. What will happen is you will simultaneously perceive the tepid water to be both warm and cool.

The point is that everything's relative.

To wit: While New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin thought Philadelphia was a pigsty, the Northrups found it clean.

(That, alone, almost makes the tuition spent on Philosophy 101 not only worthwhile, but relevant.)

Regarding the city's grooming, Horst Heitmann, a representative of the German air force, has been of both minds. On this, his third trip to the city, he wanted to show his friend Ulla Eisenmenger "the beauty side of Philadelphia."

"Last year, I was driving up the Route One and it was not so beautiful. I closed the windows and locked the door," he said, then softened the criticism. "But you can find these kinds of places everywhere."

He likes the food here well enough.

"But I prefer German schnitzel."

Helen and Brooks Bailey, retired print-shop owners from Gainesville, Fla., took their 13-year-old grandson, Cortland, to see the essential Philadelphia.

They missed the proselytizers across from City Hall, the jaded art students smoking cigarettes on Chestnut Street, and the existentialist scene on 12th where someone had left a copy of the "Queer in Philly" guide, along with a banana peel and a pair of neatly folded pants on a café table.

Nearby, a demented guy in a hard hat was venting to a patient young man with a backpack.

"Thanks for listening," the guy said. "I just had to get that off my chest."

"Sure," said the young man. "Take care of yourself."

That aspect of the city would pass unnoticed as the Baileys and their grandson made their appointed rounds.

What they did see, however, was just as real.

The Bell. The Hall. The wacky quacks. The venerated remnants of history.

"You can't come away from here," Bailey said, "without a tremendous amount of pride for what went before you."

That's one perspective, anyway.

For a complete guide to holiday events, including local fireworks, visit http://go.philly.


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or

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