The city of Philadelphia is well-known as the place where delegates from the American colonies set forth a document declaring their independence from Great Britain and their plan to engage in treasonous revolt against King George III. The city is absolutely brimming with historic sites, world-class art, and amazing food, but for me, the moment that hit me the hardest wasn’t seeing George Washington’s copy of the U.S. Constitution or looking out over downtown from the Rocky Steps — it was when I stood in front of the house where I was born. There, in front of a modest stone colonial home in a quiet, tree-lined suburban street, personal and global history collided.
Making the trip back to Philadelphia, where it all began, has been on my list for a while. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy to remind us of the things we meant to do. When my uncle passed away in early October, I knew I needed to be there for his memorial. Not just to see my aunt, but to reconnect with a place that had always hung on the periphery of my life story.
When I touched down in Philadelphia for the first time in 25 years, it was with a certain weight of expectation. I was also traveling solo for the first time in years, adding to the sense of being a fish out of water or a prodigal son returning home from many years in a foreign land.
Like any self-respecting tourist arriving in the City of Brotherly Love for the first time, I knew my first order of business was to seek out a proper cheesesteak. Now, there are as many opinions as to what constitutes a true Philly cheesesteak as there are cheesesteak joints scattered throughout the city. Some claim it only counts if the sandwich includes Cheese Wiz. Others argue that you have to go to one of the original shops, Pat’s or Geno’s, to get an authentic version. I’m not a traditionalist, so I did some Googling and found a sandwich that looked good to me. From the airport, I made a beeline to Philip’s Steaks in South Philly and ordered an Old Fashioned: steak, provolone, grilled onions, and hot peppers. It was heaven on a roll.
The next day I had blocked out to see everything I could conceivably fit in around downtown Philly. I parked my rental car in an underground garage near city hall and hoofed it on foot. That day, I covered 11 miles, starting with a walk to Independence Hall, where I took the guided tour and learned a lot about the history of the founding of our nation. From there, I wandered through some of the old cobblestone streets which remain from the colonial days, passing by the Liberty Bell and the modest grave of Benjamin Franklin along the way.
After absorbing all that history, I’d worked up an appetite. Philadelphia may not be as famous as its cousin metro to the north, but let me assure you that it is every bit New York’s equal when it comes to the quality and variety of its food scene. Eating is simply part of the culture here and if you’re gonna eat, the food may as well be good. For lunch, I wandered the stalls at Reading Terminal Market, a train station turned indoor bazaar, sampling cannoli and soft pretzels until I was stuffed.
From the market, I along the wide boulevard that cuts a diagonal northwest from city center to the Schuylkill River, past fountains and monuments and bronzes to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a Sylvester Stallone impersonator was posing with tourists for a few dollars a photo. From there, the city lay before me like a glittering jewel. And though my feet ached, I found myself feeling homesick for a life I never lived.
I have no memories of living in Philadelphia. And yet, I choked up when I walked by our old house in Drexel Hill. In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel The Glass Hotel, one of the characters imagines a “counter-life” where he made different choices and watches his life go in a very different direction. Walking through the neighborhood, I could imagine another me going to school here, learning to drive on these winding roads, getting takeout from Pizza Odyssey. I don’t regret the choices that led our family to the West and brought me all the way across the country from the place of my birth — my life is incredible — but I could not help but wonder who this other Jonny would have become if he had charted a different course.
I had dinner with my Aunt Wendy, seeing her for the first time since my wedding. After dinner, she gave me a paper bag bursting with family photos and documents, a treasure trove of stories from my past, and entrusted them to me to care for. For the rest of the night in my hotel room, I laid out old photographs on the bed and tried to decipher who was in each one, how they were related to me, and what I could learn about them.
The next day was the memorial, where friends and family swapped stories of my Uncle Jim; about his time in the Marines, about his love of rock music, practical jokes, and Ferraris. We laid him to rest in the cemetery where generations of Eberles are buried, and I went to eat pancakes with cousins I never knew I had.
That afternoon, with dappled sunlight pouring through autumn leaves and less than an hour before I had to be at the airport, I stopped at a small park next to a creek near our old house. There, preserved in a small clearing, is a cabin. It is believed to be the oldest remaining log cabin of its kind in North America. No one knows who built it, only that they were likely Swedish settlers who arrived before the English in the 1630s. Their story is lost to history, but their rough, two-room home stands as a testament that they were here. They lived. They were a part of this place. We all have our time, and when we go, we don’t leave much behind except for boxes of photos, old passports, and maybe one or two good stories as proof that we, too, were here.
This was more than a quick trip Back East. It was a chance to catch some of those memories before they are lost. To reconnect to roots that go back three hundred years in this soil. To know a little more about my story.
So, look out, Philly, because I’ll be back for more.
Philadelphia Travel Tips
Where: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Getting There: Easily accessible by plane, train, or automobile. The airport is located just a few miles south of the city. I rented a car because I needed to get out to the ‘burbs, but there’s also 280 miles of commuter rail service throughout the Greater Philadelphia area if you’re not into heavy traffic and parking headaches.
What to See: Center City is walkable, but I’d recommend spreading your sightseeing out over a couple of days to avoid the blisters I incurred attempting to do it all in a single day. If you’re into history, be sure to check out Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell (note that reservations are required for the Independence Hall tour and you should arrive early to get through security). After that, walk over to Elphreth’s Alley, one of the oldest and best preserved streets in the city, passing the grave of Benjamin and Deborah Franklin on your way. Further south, you’ll find the historic William Still House, where the abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor William Still helped hundreds of people escape from slavery.
What to Eat: You can’t go wrong at the historic Terminal Reading Market, a public market with stands selling everything from roast pork to sushi. I highly recommend a cannoli from Termini Bros. and an Amish-style soft pretzel from Miller’s Twist. In addition to its famous cheesesteak, Philadelphia is also teeming with incredible Italian food.
What to Drink: The cocktails at Prunella are outstanding. There’s a great view of the restaurant’s blazing pizza oven from the marble-top bar.
Jonny Eberle is a writer, podcaster, and jet-setting world traveler. He lives in Tacoma, WA with his family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. His writing has been published in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can listen to his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, and his writing podcast, Dispatches with Jonny Eberle, wherever you enjoy podcasts.
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- Cheesesteak: The Oral History (Philadelpha Magazine)
- More travel writing by Jonny Eberle