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Penn's Landing and the Old City

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The town lies in a very pleasant country, from north to south along the river. It measures somewhat more than an English mile in length, and its breadth in some places is half a mile or more. The ground is flat and consists of sand mixed with a little clay. Experience has shown that the climate of the place is very healthy. The largest ships can sail right up to the town and anchor in good ground in five fathoms of water on the side of the bridge.—PEHR KALM, Travels in North America (1750)

Though it is hard to imagine its appearance when Penn first saw the site of his proposed city, early descriptions and the existing terrain prove that the Delaware River was bounded by high banks. With towering trees of primeval forests reaching to the riverbanks, it must have been Edenlike in appearance. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Philadelphia peninsula had been deforested, marking the first step in the almost total reshaping of the landscape. Early settlers dug cavelike dwellings out of the riverbanks, but these soon gave way to wood structures up on the heights. The banks were gradually cut down to fill the lower plain along the river and to extend property between wharves into the river.

A tour of old Philadelphia might begin near the river where early immigrants such as Franklin arrived by ferry or by ship. On a gray winter day with seagulls soaring above the narrow streets, a hastening great-coated person turning a corner toward the water might be a seaman returning to his ship after a week in port. With the early-twentieth-century steel-hulled schooner Mosholu (now adapted to serve as a restaurant) and Admiral Dewey's flagship from the battle of Manila; the Philadelphia-built Olympia, on the Philadelphia waterfront; the battleship New Jersey, built in Philadelphia's U.S. Naval Yard across the river; and ships still using the river, the Delaware River is an important center of maritime heritage that is exhibited in the Independence Seaport Museum on Penn's Landing.

Like the port region to the south, much of this portion of the old city was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. Although the Old Mercantile City lacks the central landmarks of the American political Revolution, it is one of the most rewarding areas of the city to stroll. Because it has not been redesigned and replanned, it conveys the vitality of the eighteenth-century city in its density, mix of work and residence, and red brick, straightforward character. This is not a sham city, prettied up and embalmed. Rather, it still throbs with life, recalling in its storefronts and fading paint the port and industry of the historic city. In the last generation, as I-95 has cut the old city off from Delaware Avenue and the corridors of industry, many of its large industrial buildings have been converted to modern housing, attracting restaurants and other urban pleasures. This in turn has drawn many of the city's small galleries, creating a Philadelphia NoMa counterpart to New York City's SoHo. With artists in some of the lofts and galleries below, the old city again mixes residence and work in the manner that was the norm when an eighteenth-century cloak maker on Elfreth's Alley (PH2) lived above his shop. Tiny side streets recall the everyday life of the eighteenth-century city within earshot of the bells of Christ Church (PH4).

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas

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