The original capital of the nation, Philadelphia was laid out by William Penn Jr in 1682, on a grid system that was to provide the pattern for most American cities. It was envisaged as a “greene countrie towne,” traces of which are still discernable. Just a few blocks away from the noise and crowds of downtown, shady cobbled alleys stand lined with red-brick colonial houses, while the peace and quiet of huge Fairmount Park make it easy to forget you’re in a major metropolis. Settled by Quakers, Philadelphia prospered swiftly on the back of trade and commerce, and by the 1750s had become the second largest city in the British Empire. Economic power fueled strong revolutionary feeling, and the city was the capital for most of the War of Independence. The Declaration of Independence was written, signed, and first publicly read here in 1776, as was the US Constitution ten years later. Philadelphia was also a hotbed of new ideas in the arts and sciences, as epitomized by the scientist, philosopher, statesman, inventor, and printer Benjamin Franklin.
Philadelphia, which means “City of Brotherly Love” in Greek, is one of the most ethnically mixed US cities, with substantial communities of Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, and Asians living side-by-side among the large African-American population. Many of the city’s black residents are descendants of the migrants who flocked here after the Civil War when Philadelphia was seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberalism. A century later it voted in the nation’s first black mayor, and erected the country’s best museum of African-American history and culture. On the downside, Philadelphia is also the place where in 1985, as part of a huge police effort to dislodge the black separatist group MOVE, a bomb dropped from a helicopter set fire to entire city blocks, killing men, women, and children, and leaving many hundreds homeless. Once known as “Filthydelphia,” the city underwent a remarkable resurgence preparing for the nation’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and its strength today is its great energy – fueled by history, strong cultural institutions, and grounded in its many staunchly traditional neighborhoods.