Philadelphia: A City at the Heart of American History

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program, we visit the historic center of Philadelphia.


Philadelphia is a big city on the Delaware River in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania. It has about a million and a half people and is often called Philly.

The city was designed by William Penn. The Englishman and Quaker founded Pennsylvania in the sixteen eighties. He chose the name Philadelphia which he interpreted to mean "city of brotherly love" in Greek.

Philadelphia holds an important place in American history. It served as the nation's capital from seventeen eighty-five to seventeen ninety. And earlier, it was the capital of the American colonies during most of the Revolutionary War against Britain.

Philadelphia became the central meeting place for the "Founding Fathers" who created the United States government. The buildings where they worked can be seen today in an area called the Old City, or Independence National Historical Park.

The main building is Independence Hall. That was where colonial leaders declared independence and later debated the creation of a government.


A guide takes us into the room in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The signing took place on July fourth, seventeen seventy-six.

During the summer of seventeen eighty-seven, the room had another important use. Delegates held a federal convention there and wrote the Constitution.

In the seventeen hundreds, Independence Hall was the Pennsylvania statehouse. Philadelphia was the capital of Pennsylvania at the time; today the capital is Harrisburg.

A bell was ordered for the building. But the bell cracked soon after it arrived from England. So in seventeen fifty-three, the bell was melted down for its metal and a new bell was made.

The new bell was rung many times for public announcements, including the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In the eighteen thirties, a group that was trying to ban slavery in the United States began calling it the Liberty Bell. On it are these words taken from the Bible: "Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

But in eighteen forty-six a crack appeared in the replacement bell. No one knows why it cracked. The Liberty Bell has not been rung since, but it remains an important national symbol.

The National Park Service says more than two million people visited Independence National Historical Park last year.

Across the street from the park is the National Liberty Museum. This museum has a collection of more than ninety paintings and sculptures. They represent the idea that liberty is a freedom that is easily violated.

The museum also celebrates more than three hundred fifty world heroes. One example is Jonas Salk, the American doctor who developed a polio vaccine. Another is Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who helped the poor and sick.


Time for a meal. A few blocks from the Liberty Bell is the City Tavern. The restaurant serves food based on recipes as old as the nation itself. For example, there is beer brewed from a recipe developed by Thomas Jefferson, the third president, and his sweet potato biscuits.

In fact, the City Tavern is three years older than the United States. It was completed in seventeen seventy-three. Historians say it was considered the best restaurant in British North America.

When the nation was a year old, the first Independence Day celebration was held there on July fourth, seventeen seventy-seven.

And ten years later, after approving the Constitution, what did the delegates do? Tavern records show they went to the City Tavern for a meal.

Speaking of food, another good place to eat in Philadelphia is the Reading Terminal Market. It opened in eighteen ninety-two with spaces for almost eight hundred sellers. Today, the huge building is filled with stores selling local farm products as well as seafood, clothing, jewelry and crafts from many countries.

One hundred thousand people a week visit the Reading Terminal Market.

Visitors can find all kinds of foods -- including, of course, Philly cheesesteak. The city is known for these sandwiches made of thinly sliced meat covered with cheese. A cheesesteak is offered with onions and other toppings and served on a long roll.


Now it is time to get back to the Visitor Center at Independence Park for a tour of Philadelphia on a Duck. This is a kind of vehicle that can drive on land or ride on water. Other cities also have these kinds of tours.

The seventy-minute ride includes about twenty minutes on the Delaware River, which separates Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

As we travel through Philadelphia, the riders blow on duck noisemakers, like this.


As we pass through Independence Park, our driver points out Carpenters' Hall. That was where colonial delegates first gathered in seventeen seventy-four to discuss their problems with British rule.

We also pass by the houses of important people during colonial times. One of these buildings was where Betsy Ross lived when tradition tells us she sewed the first United States flag.

Outside the historical area, the Duck passes by Elfreth's Alley. This is one of the oldest streets in Philadelphia. It dates back to the beginning of the seventeen hundreds.

We also drive down South Street, a well-known area of shops and restaurants. The Orlons, a group from Philadelphia, had a hit in nineteen sixty-three with a song called "South Street."


Finally, the Duck takes us back to the Visitor Center. We just have time to see the National Constitution Center. This privately operated museum opened in Philadelphia on July fourth, two thousand three.

It was created to increase public recognition of the Constitution, its history and its importance today. The museum is near Independence Hall, where the document was written.

Visitors are presented with the idea that the most important part of American constitutional democracy is the individual citizen.

Children and adults can learn about the United States through interactive technology programs. For example, visitors can serve on a jury or decide cases as if they were on the Supreme Court.

The National Constitution Center also has a big room called Signers' Hall. It looks like the room at Independence Hall where thirty-nine delegates signed the Constitution on September seventeenth, seventeen eighty-seven. Included among the delegates were George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

There are life-size statues of forty-two delegates -- the ones who signed the Constitution and three others who did not. American visitors have fun finding the delegates from their home states and having their pictures taken with them.

Nearby is a rare first public printing of the Constitution. The Pennsylvania Packet Constitution was published in a newspaper two days after the Constitution was signed in Independence Hall. A copy of the Constitution itself is on display at the National Archives in Washington.

The National Constitution Center is not just about political events in the past. On April sixteenth, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton plan to be there for a debate. Six days later is the Pennsylvania primary election.

The city of Philadelphia has much to see, both historic and modern, but that's all we have time for today. For anyone planning a visit, one place to get information on the Internet is, spelled g-o-p-h-i-l-a, the official visitor site for Greater Philadelphia.


Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. For transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, go to Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.