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Ghosts of Philadelphia

Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia's Old City

On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I found a number of gems. The city has a diverse vibrancy that’s personified by the madness of lunch hour at Reading Terminal Market (an indoor Pike Place Market, quantities of people and culinary options raised to the second integer). Since I’d never visited the nation’s original capital, I went in wide-eyed and enjoyed the parade of surprises.

One of those is how much History means to me. If I think of myself as a humanist, then History is most relevant as a moral guide. The decisions (mistakes, pitfalls) of the past inform the future (better choices). So, not being a history buff, I still found it remarkable to stand by the Liberty Bell (with those Abolitionist lessons) and in those rooms in Independence Hall (where the country was born).

The writer in me, however, is most drawn to Elfreth's Alley, in the heart of Old City. Walking down this quiet brick-and-cobblestone street is to be hit with layers of History at once. Benjamin Franklin and cohorts walked here. The country’s first fire department (Franklin's brain-child, originally private) was here. The residences had slave quarters in the basements and women were confined to the top floors. The infinitely complex French Revolution (brilliantly described in Tom Reiss’ “The Black Count”) would’ve been discussed as current affairs on this 18th-century street. In a small alcove, a tour guide related the story of in-laws who picked opposing sides during the American Revolution. (The dispute ended with someone swinging from a rope.)

That’s a novel I’d like to write, with all its ugliness and injustice and heat and dust. (The men who hammered out our U.S. Constitution over four months famously did so in full suits in the breathless heat of East Coast summer.) What would it have been like to be a blacksmith (namesake Elfreth’s occupation) with his social status, neither wealthy nor poor? What would a so-called lanternman think as he guided wealthy clients to their safe abode on a winter night--ears pricked for the report of gunfire or echoes of no-so-distant witchcraft trials?

Doorways in Historic Elfreth's Alley, Philadelphia

What would it be like to be poor and homeless today, sleeping on shaded sidewalks or park benches to escape the heat, contemptuous of better-off tourists who walk down one of your streets without any regard for your well-being in the City of Brotherly Love?

Teachers instruct us to look most anywhere for inspiration. So I have a feeling it won't be long before I'm returning to Philly and to Elfreth's Alley, maybe in the dead of winter. For a nice, long walk.

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