I’m back in Philadelphia now and it’s been quite an adjustment. I like it, don’t take me wrong, but the urban experience is not what it used to be. Compared to the freedom of the outdoor life of the Jersey Shore, masks are de rigueur. I notice that due to the extreme heat, still prevalent, people hang the masks to their wrists and put them on as needed when entering stores and buildings. The elevator in my high rise is back to one or two people maximum.
Although I’m on the sixth floor, I can hear the city noises more than before. Gone are the chirping of the birds, the gentle rustling of the sea grasses and the soothing ocean waves. The motorcycles and the ATVs roar in the evenings, stopping at the corner of Spruce and Seventh Streets, speeding up when the light turns green. When the #47 SEPTA bus arrives at the corner of Washington Square, I can hear as clearly as if it were the smoke alarm in my bedroom: “Caution, the bus is turning” .
Last year when I came back to the city after the murder of George Floyd, the destruction was even more evident. Hopefully we have learned something worthwhile this time, that all lives matter equally. Although, as far as I’m concerned, we won’t have a clean slate until some reparations are made. I remember that when Desmond Tutu spoke at Saint Joseph’s University, he told us that it was never too late or, as my father would say: “Nunca es tarde si la dicha es buena” (it’s never too late if it’s good news).
This year Philadelphia was impacted with some very serious floods due to the remnants of hurricane Ida. Main roadways were closed, puddles had turned into rivers in the midst of the city and the infamous Philly potholes are even worse than usual. I can only imagine what the damage must be in places that were hit with the full brunt of the storm.
Thanks to the COVID “light” restrictions we are experiencing, the outside eateries are still in vogue, making traffic more congested than usual in our historic streets and parking impossible. What do they think, that we are in Madrid? I remember that in my visits back home, my brother used to invite me to go into the city with him. Only to find out that my role was to sit in the car, while he would double park, as he did his errands. What else are little sisters good for?
Back in Philly, familiar stores and restaurants have closed, others have opened. My favorite Century XXI, with its collection of Desigual designs, has disappeared and Primark, the new Japanese chain, is taking its place. Whenever I enter a store now, the sales people run to help happy to have customers. Entire blocks on Chestnut Street seem abandoned. In the evening the streets are more deserted than usual —definitely not Madrid.
Just when I think that I’m no longer a happy urban pioneer, I stop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I marvel at the Frank Gehry renovation and addition. It is so gorgeous! It reminds me of what I. M. Pei did at The Louvre. The light pours into the basement floor, among the tall columns previously hidden from sight. The spacious new entrance rivals the doors by Cristina Iglesias at the Prado Museum. Philadelphia is still the international place I call home and love.
I can walk everywhere, ride public transportation for free (some advantages of being a senior citizen), buy just about any food item from Spain at the local Di Bruno’s gourmet shop. I step out of my building into Washington Square where families are picnicking, people read on benches and locals practice Tai Chi. I sit in my balcony and I see the Walt Whitman Bridge in the distance, the Moshulu ship anchored on the Delaware River, the airplanes making their final descent to the Airport and I hear the children at McCall School during recess; they actually sound like birds chattering.