We spent last week in Philadelphia, celebrating my parents’ 50th anniversary, spending Rosh Hashanah with the family, and getting reacquainted with the nephew while he’s still a toddler (it was actually the first time Ted had seen him since he was 2 months old, though i’ve been there a couple of times since).

The 50th anniversary party was good; we had it in a restaurant with about 40 perople showing up. Some of them were people I’ve known all my life, so it was good to catch up. Interesting to see how people have changed. There’s a couple of former neighbors I babysat for, who were like older sibs to me when I was a teenager and whose presence in my life meant a lot then – they were probably my biggest non-parental adult influences, along with my late uncle. They’re grandparents now, the kids I watched having grown up and had kids of their own, and he’s fatter and balder but she looks exactly like she did at 30, with just a few lines and wrinkles added. The kid down the block three years older than me, who was wild and slightly dangerous (in his mind, and to some degree in mine) is settled, married over twenty years and the father of a teenager. Unfortunately, due to death, distance or (in a few cases) estrangement, only one person was there who was actually at my parents’ wedding, but she’s in her eighties and going strong.

It was fun playing with Hunter too, though the visit confirmed that eight hours playing with a toddler is more than I really need to have at one time. (Fortunately he takes 2-hour naps.) I have no idea how he’s doing developmentally, because there’s so much variation among kids – I know from my old baby book that I was talking clearly in sentences at his age, and a friend of mine has a son a who months younger who’s drinking from a real cup, whereas Hunter uses a sippy cup and tends to drop or throw it now and then. (Then again, I often use a sippy cup too (=sports bottle) though I don’t throw mine.) But as far as I can tell he’s somewhere in an average 2-year-old range, having just turned 2, which is pretty good for a kid who was born 2 months early.

I’m glad we went, because obviously those were important things to do, but it sure was a relief to come home to good roads, green everywhere, and our own comparatively uncluttered house. I feel a bit like Kipling’s soldier returning from Mandalay: “I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!” Only subsitute “home” for “maiden”. A lot of Phladelphia feels like it’s either stuck in a time warp or even decaying; the roads are crap and the sidewalks are upheaved and uneven (I mean, among the Northeast rowhouses, not in picturesque historic areas where you’d expect uneven paving.) I first got that sense of time warp on the way home from the airport; I-95 was as bad as ever (in terms of both traffic and paving) and we were listening to WMMR, the same radio station I listened to in high school. They were doing an alphabetic theme, and the letter of the day was ‘E’ – so they started playing “Escalator of Life” by Robert Hazard and the Heroes, a Philly band from the 1980s. And then Pierre Robert came on; he started DJing at that station the year I started high school, and apparently he’s still there. My parents are still there too, in the same small rowhouse I grew up in, though I think it’s more cluttered now. (They may move soon, though, for health reasons.)

The one thing that had changed a lot, ironically, was the historic Old City. We visited the relatively new Constitution Center and the National Museum of American Jewish History that opened last year, and Franklin Court which had been refurbished and reopened just a few weeks before. We also took a look at the Liberty Bell; which is much better displayed than it was in the 1970s and 1980s; it used to be behind glass and was impossible to photograph, between the glass and the crowds. Now you can walk all around it, so the crowds are spread more thinly, there’s no glass between you adn it, and there are interpretive exhibits about the growth of liberty in the US.

The most noticeable overall change in the historic exhibits was that they no longer give the impression that the past was exclusively populated by white men and Betsy Ross. Now it’s populated by white men, Betsy Ross, black men, and women fighting for suffrage. There were a few other women mentioned in Colonial times, but only in the context of their relationship to Ben Franklin – not much about women running farms and businesses while the men were fighting, or women fighting either informally or disguised as men, or women like Mercy Otis Warren who were active in the politics of the day. (One exception: the Jewish Museum did discuss the lives of both women and men. You can’t really talk about the history of Jews in Philadelphia without mentioning Rebecca Gratz, anyway.) Still, getting away from the whites-only focus is definitely an improvement. Sometimes it seemed labored and artificial, as if they’re thinking more about connecting with current visitors than anything else, but other exhibits did a better job pointing out that Philadelphia has always been a diverse city. There were 10,000 Blacks in Philadelphia in 1790, over 60% free and some of them landowners. (Source of those numbers is Wikipedia, but I remember the exhibit at the Liberty Bell saying that 1 in 10 Philadelphia residents in Colonial times was a free Black.) There were also still large numbers of American Indians in Pennsylvania then, some assimilated into Whateveryoucallit culture and some not. (Can’t necessarily call it “mainstream” culture, since there might still have been more natives than imports on the continent in those days. Can’t call it “white” culture when I’ve just said it included lots of blacks too. Can’t call it “Anglo” culture, given the large groups of Germans, Huguenots, and other European groups there at the time. “Culture of the people who wrote most of the history books” is accurate, but unwieldy.)

Some things in Philadelphia do change. But don’t worry, there’s stilll plenty to recognize. The roads are bad, Pierre Robert is still good, local government is still more prone to “piddle, twiddle and resolve” than to solve problems, and my mom still thinks Northeast Philly is the center of the world.

If you’re off to Philadelphia this morning,
And wish to prove the truth of what I say,
I pledge my word you’ll find the pleasant land behind
Unaltered since Red Jacket rode that way.
Still the pine-woods scent the noon; still the catbird sings his
tune;
Still autumn sets the maple-forest blazing;
Still the grape-vine through the dusk flings her soul-compelling
musk;
Still the fire-flies in the corn make night amazing!
They are there, there, there with Earth immortal
( Citizens, I give you friendly warning ). .
The thins that truly last when men and times have passed,
They are all in Pennsylvania this morning!