Thursday, March 18, 2010

History - where you least expect it

One of the fabulous and yet often overlooked things about the city I live and play in, is it's incredible history. I spend so much time rushing, stressing, and worrying about making 30 hours worth of things fit into 24 hours of day. 16 hours if you consider the fact that I should be sleeping 8 hours a night.
Philadelphia is often thought of as a fascinatingly historical city to tourists. Just ask anyone and they will start rambling off attractions such as The Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the National Constitution Center. Names like Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross are common place in Old City, a neighborhood of Center City where many historical Landmarks are often found. I have been to most of them, often when friends or family come to visit they want to know what to do in Philadelphia.

But the history in this city is so much more than the touristy landmarks, and I am fascinated by every single bit of it. I can't say exactly what it is that draws me to the stories and the yellowed photographs. I imagine it has something to do with things being different, but in the same exact place that I spend every day in. The buildings I see every day were something completely different 100 years ago. What also fascinates me is that one day, the very things I do, the places I go, and maybe even the words I write will become part of history. This never ending circle of change and growth and today we leave behind more of a record than ever, albeit a digital record. I have a bad habit of idealizing the past. Imagining it as this perfect, peaceful technology free time when marriage was forever, families ate a home cooked meal together at a kitchen table and kids respected their parents and cursed a whole lot less. I know that this is not how it was, but I can't help but think of it that way anyways. And sometimes when I wish I lived in the magic of the past, I remember how it would have been literally unthinkable for me to be a serious runner, after all it was thought that women's bodies could not handle running marathons.
Ok so what does this have to do with running? Well after yesterday's photo-run I was excited to take my camera out and run a different trail. This time I would be running solo, and with plenty of daylight I was going to make it a point to find some things off the path to not only take some great pictures but to just explore. I start off a little slow, remembering my legs are not used to doing 100% percent of the work. Evening sun is my favorite kind of light, and my eyes are darting every which way looking at my surroundings. I gaze out at the river, the bridges, the hills and the trees. I snap a few shots along the way, a train stopped on a bridge, crew teams practicing in the river. It's not long before I reach my turn around point and boy was I excited to be heading back. I was so caught up in trying to be faster than the ladies I had just passed I was getting a bit winded, so as I turned around I slowed to a trot (I generally try to avoid using the term 'jog'). I ran back past the boat houses, past crew teams loading boats onto trailers, runners just stretching out for their runs, and plenty of picnickers enjoying dinner in the sunset.
I was just running under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge when I noticed a small archway across the street. Small archways I find, are quite common throughout Fairmount Park although I have yet to find out their original purpose but this one looked like it would make good photo op. I wait until a break in traffic and sprint across the street, and to my surprise I find this little archway is an entrance to a long twisty windy stairway. If I needed to find a reason to explore this overgrown pathway. Plus a quick set of stairs is always good for your glutes! Even a huge tree across the path couldn't stop me.

I climbed over and just kept on going. There was something mysterious and forbidden about climbing an overgrown staircase into nowhere, and just as I was reaching the top, a dark green SUV went whizzing by my line of vision. My heart sank as I realized I had just found a new way into the park and not some secret garden like place. That is until I looked across the street and saw yet another staircase and I dashed across and started to climb. What I saw at the top of those stairs was nothing short of amazing, at least to me. It was a large open field, to my right a large white house with black shutters and shrubs in front, and to my left a abandoned brick structure with several archways, boarded up windows and dotted with disintegrated No Trespassing sings.

As much as I am fascinated by history I am also fascinated by abandoned buildings. They stand cold and empty, skeletons, reminders of what used to be. Whenever I come across them I wonder what stories they hold, what happened in and around them in their prime. But the walls they cannot talk to me they can only stand, looking sad and tired as I imagine what they used to be. I was no longer running, not even walking really, just exploring. Walking carefully throughout the structure, snapping picture after picture. Tree branches had started growing out of the brick, trash littered the ground, an ever present reminder that this once wonderful neighborhood was slowly and continually crumbling. I imagined this would be the type of place you would run into the wrong kinds of people after dark. I thanked my lucky stars that it was still very much light out as I took pictures from every angle I could, loving the light, the shadows, every thing about it. I found myself making up stories of what it used to be, and in my mind it was a concession stand of some sort, and the empty field adjacent to it was probably a common place for families to come bring their children to frolic in the summer time. It was getting late though and I knew I didn't want to stick around for long so I started running along the circular sidewalk that would take me to the white house opposite the field. As I approached the building I noticed many signs posted up around it and so of course had to go take a look. Much to my surprise , according to the signs it was the Historic Strawberry Mansion. Now I always knew it was up here somewhere, and I knew it was the namesake for the surrounding neighborhood and the Strawberry Mansion Bridge that I had just run under not too long ago.

Looking down at Strawberry Mansion Bridge from a path behind the mansion

Because I was all too aware of the setting sun I made my way back to Kelly Drive and finished up my run. Straining to finish the last quarter mile I realized my mind was so buzzed with my newfound 'discovery' I hadn't really concentrated on having a quality run. I didn't mind because I was so excited to dash home and read more about Strawberry Mansion and other historic details of this wonderful city that I had yet to uncover.
I came across one fabulous site PhillyHistory which has images of Philadelphia dating back to the early 1900's. I am so sucked in I could browse all night. After much Googling and reading, I discovered that the building I had been looking at was in fact part of the Strawberry Mansion Music Pavilion. How sad that something that was a place for such art is now overgrowing with weeds and littered with garbage. It really makes you stop and think of how well you take care of the place you are supposed to be leaving for your children and generations after that doesn't it? and doesn't it make you wonder what hidden gems are lying undiscovered in YOUR own city??

xx Sara

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