At about 8:30 PM on the first Friday of the current month, my wife Sandy and I exited Capofitto, an Italian bistro cum gelato/sorbetto (ice cream/sorbet) store that we like. We’d downed a pizza-centric meal there, capped off with scoops of cappuccino gelato and peach sorbetto. Pretty damn good for sure. Capofitto is in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City section, whose roots go back powerfully to Colonial days. No doubt the block on which Capifitto resides, a length of Chestnut Street, was trod upon countless times by any Founding Father you can name, not to mention his romantic partner(s), as was just about every Old City block. I find it très neat to think about that. Old City is a cool part of town.
“What next?” we asked ourselves. Should we go back to our home in the burbs? Nah, the night was young. And quite dark, as the Sun had set an hour earlier and neither moonlight nor starlight was apparent to me. Essentially, Old City was being illuminated by electric lights, and in a muted manner. Which I enjoyed. Everything seemed dreamy and atmospheric — the semi-ancient brick buildings, the stone-paved streets. I felt as though I was on a movie set. I asked Sandy if she’d like to go for a walk. She said yes, and off we went down Chestnut Street toward nearby Penn’s Landing, a large swath of Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront. The night not only was young, it also was calling.
Like the Founding Fathers, Sandy and I have moseyed along Old City’s arteries many times. That’s an activity that doesn’t get old. We keep coming back for more. And this being a night whose effects I actually was paying attention to, which isn’t always the case, I felt myself getting into the scene more than usual. “Holy brotherly love,” I murmured to myself when, half a block from Capofitto, I turned around and saw the huge and perfectly-sculpted United States Custom House, which went up in the 1930s, glowing warmly in its white lights. “That’s gorgeous.” Indeed it was. I snapped its picture, the first of many that Sandy and I would snap as we investigated Philadelphia under darkened skies.
In a flash we were at Penn’s Landing, a once unassuming and still developing stretch of territory that city officials have been master-planning and trying to force into glorious bloom for over 50 years. To put it another way, the keys to unlocking Penn’s Landing’s full potential as a tourist and city resident draw have yet to be discovered. But it’s getting there, as we shall see. First thing you notice at night when you enter Penn’s Landing near its northern end, as Sandy and I did, is the Ben Franklin Bridge, which connects our nations’ first capitol with Camden, New Jersey. The bridge is massive and grand and, when skies are black, a visual wow. Why? Because years ago someone had the sterling idea to string colorful, Christmassy lights along it. Sandy and I looked at the bridge long and hard and, as on many nights before, we liked what we saw.
I must have realized this on past visits too, but that night I was taken by the low-wattage illumination in most parts of Penn’s Landing. Just like in Old City. Philadelphia — and I’m all for this — ain’t aiming for a Times Square type of lighting blitz. A feeling of intimacy, I think, is the result throughout most of the city. And that casual, relaxed spirit was true even in the section of Penn’s Landing that the masses have discovered and turned into a destination. I speak of Spruce Street Harbor Park, which drew closer as Sandy and I headed south along Penn’s Landing’s walkways. At night we couldn’t and wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, because the possibly thousands of color-shifting LED lights hanging from its trees were superb and put us under a spell. And we didn’t need to don shades . . . yes, the lights dazzled, but subtly.
Spruce Street Harbor Park, loaded with things to do, overlooks Penn’s Landing’s marina, which I never used to think much of because I’d rarely if ever notice anything interesting going on within it. And the grounds of what is now the park, which opened for business in 2014, once were as bland and barren as an unbuttered slice of white bread, except for a grove of trees and a monument to Christopher Columbus. That, at least, is the way I remember the area. But all that has changed. Lo and behold, SSHP has become, I’d guess, the most popular place to hang out in all of Philadelphia. The governmental folks who orchestrated the park’s development birthed a phenomenon, a winner that has far exceeded in popularity anyone’s expectations.
Designed to have a summery sort of ambience, the attractions at Spruce Street Harbor Park have a limited run each year, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the powers that be are brainstorming ideas that would keep the park open most or all months. Yeah, more is better, guys! This year, SSHP’s season began in early May and will end on September 25. At the very least, why not open the gates in mid-April and close them in mid-October? Sounds like a plan to me. Anyway, the place was mobbed the night Sandy and I visited. With good reason. It has a low-key, breezy combination of things going for it, besides the groovy LED shafts whose color blips rise and fall regimentally.
There are hammocks dangling between trees; tables and chairs of different sizes and shapes scattered all around; a boardwalk lined with food shacks; craft beer stands; an indoor arcade; restaurants floating in the marina; a bocce court . . . you get the picture. Among other pursuits, folks lounged, strolled, stuffed their faces and watched others lounge, stroll and stuff. And played their parts peacefully and politely. The nitwit factor at Spruce Street Harbor Park and the rest of Penn’s Landing and, come to think of it, in Old City, was nil that night. Do hypnotic lights amid semi-darkness induce commendable behavior? I don’t really know, but there might be something to that.
Alas, all good things that first Friday evening, for Sandy and me anyway, came to an end. To a train station in central Philadelphia we eventually proceeded. And, not long after that, at our abode’s doorstep, a mere handful of miles from one of the city’s borders, we arrived.
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(All photos, except that of the United States Custom House, by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)