Philadelphia freedom: Going to the Democratic convention

The nation will focus on Philadelphia this month, as the city hosts the Democratic National Convention.

Some 6,000-plus delegates — including 96 from Wisconsin — will assemble there for the convention, which opens July 25. Counting media, technicians, dignitaries, politicians and candidates, as many as 50,000 will attend.

And when the crowds arrive in the birthplace of America, Philadelphia is ready to welcome them as they have eight times before: the Democrats in 1936 and 1948, and the Republicans six times, most recently in 2000.

Many special events are planned for convention-goers, with parties scheduled before, during and after the convention, which takes place at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia.

Philadelphia provides an abundance of sightseeing opportunities for convention-goers. It’s home to the Liberty Bell, of course, as well as Independence Hall, located just across the street. Independence Hall has been restored to look as it did during the constitutional convention and includes the chair in which George Washington presided over Congress. Another historical site is the house in which Betsy Ross supposedly sewed the first American flag.

But there’s much, much more.

Visiting a penitentiary

Though some might not think of a prison as a tourist attraction, one could spend days exploring the fascinating Eastern State Penitentiary. The now-crumbling prison was built in the 1820s as an alternative to the large, dirty rooms that housed the criminally insane, as well as the general prison population. A Quaker-inspired group that included Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Benjamin Rush believed prisons should be places of penitence. Under what came to be known as the “Pennsylvania System,” Eastern State prisoners were placed in single cells. They were given only one book — a Bible — and encouraged to regret their misdeeds as they spent their days in solitude.

When constructed, Eastern State Penitentiary was the largest and most expensive public structure in the country. It also was one of the most advanced — it had central heating before the White House, as well as flush toilets.

Today, the prison is a National Historic Landmark and open to visitors. Audio guides are available that include the “voices” of long-gone inmates and guards.

Philadelphia arts 

Five blocks from the Eastern State Penitentiary is the Philadelphia Museum of Art — a complex that includes the Rodin Museum — and the Barnes Foundation.

The late Albert Barnes grew up “poor and tough” in working-class Philadelphia at the turn of the last century. He held a number of degrees, including one in pharmacology. Working as a chemist in his own lab, Barnes created a medicine to prevent eye infections and blindness in newborns. He bought out a partner and then sold the company months before the crash of 1929. Those resources underwrote his lifelong passion for collecting art. He built his collection with the idea that teaching people to “see” art would advance the cause of democracy. The Barnes Foundation collection includes the largest number of Renoirs in one place  (181 paintings), as well as paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso.

Not to be outdone by the Barnes is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Everything from African art to textile art is featured, along with workshops on film, photography and music.

Philly theater ranges from Shakespeare and Broadway hits to experimental avant-garde. The Walnut Street Theatre, the nation’s oldest continually operating theater, is where Milwaukee Repertory Theater artistic director Mark Clements first opened a production he directed of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The show then transferred to Milwaukee for the 2014–15 season.

The list of actors who’ve appeared at the Walnut includes Wisconsin-born Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, the theater royalty of their day. The couple spent their summers at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot. The Walnut comprises 1,100 seats on two levels. With 50,000 subscribers, the theater tops the nation in terms of annual subscribers.

Food and drink

It would be impossible to point out all the trendy, eclectic restaurants within walking distance or a short cab ride from the convention hall.

One surefire hit is the 1960s-inspired Continental Mid-Town, one in a collection of popular restaurants operated by Starr Restaurants — and a visual feast. Downstairs includes a cluster of old-style banquettes, complete with channeled backs. Upstairs, the vibe is slightly less frantic. Duos can dine while sitting in bamboo hanging chairs, bathed in the colors of aqua lights.

Start with one of the handcrafted cocktails — listed as “retro” or “pop.” Among the “retro” offerings is one near-and-dear to Wisconsinites: the old-fashioned. A number of special martinis are offered, including the delicious Grace Kelly. The city’s most famous sandwich, the cheesesteak, is represented here in a cheesesteak egg roll. There’s a taste of comfort food in the lobster macaroni and cheese, and another good choice for an entrée is the Chicken Tikki Masala, featuring Punjab-style chicken and curry. Prices are reasonable and reservations are recommended for this popular spot.

Finally, the convention hall is just a couple of blocks from one of the city’s must-see attractions, Reading Terminal Market. Dating back more than a century, the market is colorful, noisy and filled with an abundance of delicious smells. It is about five times the size of Milwaukee’s Public Market and holds 80 vendors.

For a Southern-style breakfast, check out the eggs and grits at Pearl’s Oyster Bar. Stroll past other oddly named places such as the Flying Monkey (a bakery), The Head Nut, and Beck’s Cajun Café. Although jambalaya and gumbo aren’t served at Pearl’s, you can get it here. At Beiler’s Pennsylvania Dutch Bakery, women dressed in Amish outfits twirl loops of dough and fashion them into delicious doughnuts. Or watch them make large, flavorful pretzels at Miller’s Twisted Pretzels. All of the baking is on-site.

And, yes, you can get a cheese-steak here, as well as a roast pork sandwich (rumored to be more popular with Philadelphians).

On July 28, when she makes her speech accepting the party’s nomination, all eyes will be on Hillary Clinton.

But before and after — between their caucus meetings, platform debates and protest actions — convention-goers can turn their attention instead to George Washington, Betsy Ross, Claude Monet and cheesesteaks.

If you go …

• Historic Philadelphia: Independence Visitor Center, 6th and Market Streets (historicphiladelphia.org).

• Democratic National Convention Updates. The convention is at Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. (visitphilly.com and phldnc.com).

• Eastern State Penitentiary. 2027 Fairmount Ave. Five blocks from Philadelphia Museum of Art. Open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission charged. (easternstate.org).

• Philadelphia Museum of Art and Rodin Museum. Advance admission can be purchased by calling 215-235-7469. Pay-what-you-can admission is offered on the first Sunday of every month and every Wednesday night. The Main Building, 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, is closed Mondays, and the Rodin Museum is closed Tuesdays (visit philamuseum.org). The Barnes Foundation is at 20th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway (barnesfoundation.org). Admission charged.

• Walnut Street Theatre. 825 Walnut St. (walnutstreettheatre.org).

• Continental Mid-Town Restaurant. 1801 Chestnut St. 215-567-1800.

• Reading Terminal Market. A foodie paradise, opened in 1892, at 12th and Arch Streets. (readingterminalmarket.org).

— A.S.

Photo: B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia Benjamin Franklin (played by Ralph Archbold) arrived in Philadelphia as a runaway apprentice from Boston. He’s pictured at Elfreth’s Alley.
Photo: B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin (played by Ralph Archbold) arrived in Philadelphia as a runaway apprentice from Boston. He’s pictured at Elfreth’s Alley.