Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Sixth and Arch to Second and Arch

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When the large meeting house at Fourth and Arch was built, many Quakers moved their houses to the area. At that time, "North of Market" implied the Quaker region of town. {bottom quote}
Dr. Fisher

During a recent speech, Senator Arlen Specter let it slip that he had a lot to do with obtaining federal financing to establish the new Constitution Center on the north end of Independence Mall. Probably even more important, he intimated that his wife, Joan Specter, did a lot of domestic agitating to see that it happened. The earmarks were his, the fingerprints were hers. Some have worried that the Supreme Court might be uneasy about a center telling the world what the Constitution is because the Justices see Constitutional interpretation as their unique function. The point that is sensitive is the emphasis on the words "We, the People", which could be seen as urging easy modification of the document by shouting demands or repetition of certitudes without passing due process in order to be considered. The second floor of this enormous new building is devoted to some very skillful exhibits relating to the history and significance of certain features of Constitutional history. The many auditoriums are the site of public lectures and programs, and there is a very interesting set of life-sized bronze figures of every member of the original Constitutional Convention. A striking feature of the display is to show how short and inconsequential Hamilton and Madison seemed to be in person, while Ben Franklin and Gouverneur Morris appear imposing and formidable in the flesh. These things matter in politics.

{Free Quaker Meeting House}
Free Quaker Meeting House

Cross Arch Street to the Free Quaker Meeting House, and if you have called the Park Service in advance, perhaps you can visit, noting how visually dramatic design of drastic simplicity can be. Just across Fifth Street is Ben Franklin's gravesite, in Christ Church cemetery, extended to this location when the gravesites became full around the church itself.

{Ben Franklin Bridge}
Ben Franklin Bridge

Going down Arch Street from Fifth to Fourth, you can visit the orthodox pacifist Meeting House, it's interior largely unpainted and grimly plain -- quite different from the effect of pristine simplicity of the Free Quakers. If you go inside the meetinghouse, a quiet and unprepossessing Quaker will be more than happy to give you a magnificently short and simple explanation of what Quakerism is all about. In passing down Arch Street, glance at the warehouses on the left, covering the site of what was once a major factory for shoes and uniforms for Union soldiers in the Civil War. Behind the buildings on the North side of the street, as the ground slopes sharply toward the river, you can sense the rough, tough waterfront of the Eighteenth Century. Charles Dickens might have felt entirely at home in the Nineteenth Century. Looking three blocks further North on Fifth Street, you can see St. George's Church, the oldest Methodist Church in the world, its view unfortunately obscured by the approaches to Ben Franklin Bridge.

{Elfreth's Alley}
Elfreth's Alley

Continue down Arch Street, past the building once said to have been the house of Betsy Ross, turning a half-block to the left on Second Street to the head of Elfreth's Alley. For full effect, continue down the alley to the end, but you will eventually have to retrace your steps because of rearrangements of the streets. Going down Elfreth's Alley, observe how tiny the Colonial buildings are. That's a reminder that placing taxes disproportionately on land will result in small residential plots, even though a whole continent of vacant land stretches to the Pacific. At one time, you might have walked south on Front Street, to Market, and then right to Second and Market. However, the embankment of the Interstate highway blocks you so you have to retrace your steps to Second Street. At the corner of Second and Market, however, do not neglect to look back toward the Southwest corner of Front and Market. The original building has unfortunately been demolished, but here was the site of the London Coffeehouse, where it could be fairly argued the American Revolution began. The owner, John Bradford, first learned of the Tea Act from a sailor at the Arch Street Wharf and fiercely resolved to stir up trouble about it. In retrospect, the Revolution might have seemed justified, but the Tea Act itself was intended by the British to be conciliatory, actually lowering the price of tea.

Now, go to the corner of 2nd and Market, where Christ Church displays Colonial architecture at its most breath-taking. If your feet hurt, you could rest by sitting in the pew once reserved for George Washington.

At this point, you have a choice. You can go South on Second Street to the restaurant and hotel area at the foot of Society Hill, eventually going on to a tour of either the elegant mansions to your right or the waterfront marinas and museums, on your left. Or instead, at Second and Market, you can turn West on Market, crossing at 3rd and Market to go through the archway to Ben Franklin's house and museum, eventually to the financial district and the State House. All of these are good choices, and if you are really smart you will do all of them.

Originally published: Monday, April 02, 2007; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019