Before I left home to come to Philly, everyone warned me that the East Coast would have a very different culture than what I was used to. I’ve lived on the West Coast my whole life and had never been to this part of the country before, so after everything I’d heard, I was expecting a bit of a culture shock. Yet, surprisingly enough, I haven’t noticed a huge difference in the culture here. Maybe it’s because I’m from a major city, and cities tend to have the same sort of feel: bustling, fast-paced, anonymous…those are all things I’m used to. I had always heard that East Coast-ers tended to be rude, or aloof, or generally unfriendly, but that has not been my experience here in Philly. For me, the differences have been more subtle. Here are a few I’ve noticed:
1. Walkability and Public Transportation: Not only is Philly easily navigable because of grid system, but it’s mostly flat, with only the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers posing any natural obstacle in the city’s layout. Because of this, it’s very easy to walk around the city, and you could–theoretically–pretty much walk from one end to the other, if you wanted. In my hometown of Seattle, that would be far more difficult because of the water and hills the divide up the city. Philly also has a far more complex public transportation system, called SEPTA. It includes everything from trains to trolleys to buses to subways. This can be confusing at times, but it’s obviously a well-used system and much more extensive than anything I’ve seen on the West Coast, where people rely much more on cars.
2. Parks and Green Spaces: In major West Coast cities, there seem to be far more parks and green spaces than here on the East Coast (or at least in Philly). Of course, this is probably because East Coast cities are much more condensed while West Coast cities tend to be more sprawling. But in Seattle, nearly every neighborhood has a large park of some kind, and there are smaller parks and green spaces scattered throughout the city. Here in Philly, the only real park is Fairmount Park–which, to be fair, is one of the largest city parks in the country–but other than that, the only green spaces I’ve seen have been the few public squares on the edges of Center City. And because most houses in the city are rowhomes, it’s very rare for anyone to even have a yard or other personal green space.
3. People: Though I’ve always heard stereotypes about people on the East Coast being rude, that has not been my experience here in Philly. For the most part, people here are a lot like people in any major city, in my opinion–they’re always busy and in a hurry to get somewhere, so don’t expect them to smile or say hi if you pass them on the street. But I do feel like people in Philly are more vocal and outgoing than in my hometown of Seattle. And in many ways, this makes them more friendly–I have had several strangers be extremely kind and generous to me. Once, when I got into the elevator to go up to our apartment, another woman stepped in and said warmly, “Good morning, honey!” We chatted for a minute while she went up a couple of floors, but she talked to me as if she’d known me forever rather than just having talked to me for the first time. Other people in our building have been the same; recognizing that we had just moved in, they welcomed us and showed genuine interest when they asked where we were from and what we were doing in Philly. Another time, when I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a friendly security guard named Gerard struck up a conversation with me. Recognizing that I was a student, he asked about my classes and we chatted about our favorite pieces of art in the museum.
4. History: There is so much history here in Philly, and on the East Coast in general! You can hardly turn a corner without passing some interesting old building. And as a history major, I love it–I’m a total nerd for American history, so it’s been really exciting to see the city that was so central to the country’s beginnings.
One of the most interesting pieces of history I’ve gotten to experience here in Philly is the pervasive Quaker culture that has been so influential to Pennsylvania. William Penn, the state’s founder, was a Quaker, and his influence has trickled down throughout Philadelphia’s history. The strict alcohol laws in PA are due to the Quakers, as are historic sites like Eastern State Penitentiary (the first “penitentiary” ever built, it was a revolutionary approach to prison for its time). It’s also pretty common to pass buildings that say something like “Friends’ Meeting Place” which designate that they house Quaker meetings. Even the name “Philadelphia” (“City of Brotherly Love”) is based on the Quaker values of peace and acceptance.