While in Philadelphia, skip the cheese steak. The “authentic” Philly is a lie that locals tell unsuspecting tourists. Unless, of course, you appreciate dry-mouth induced by a stale-cardboard hoagie stuffed with slivers of sweat meat scavenged from some poor butcher’s garbage pale and soaked in gas-station-quality nacho cheese. Then, by all means, chug a bottle of Pepto and order that “authentic” cheese steak. If not, no worries. Philly has so much more to offer.
Philadelphia is one of those iconic American cities that every star-spangled road tripper should experience. The Nation’s first capital, home of both Benjamin Franklin and Rocky Balboa, Philadelphia was founded by William Penn (founder of the whole-damn Province of Pennsylvania) in 1682. In a city that boasts and preserves its colonial roots and revolutionary significance, there’s just so much to do and see — the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Reading Terminal Market, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology…
But if you were just passing through — if you could only choose one thing to do in Philadelphia — you really should go to jail.
Eastern State Penitentiary was once home to gangster Al “Scarface” Capone, bank-robber and prison-break-extraordinaire “Slick” Willie Sutton and Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog” (Prisoner #C2559), an actual dog sentenced to life in prison (i.e., donated to the prison) to boost inmate morale. (For the record, Pep was innocent and his incarceration was purely a morale booster and PR stunt.)
Operating from 1829 to 1971, ESP became a model for modernizing prisons of its day by focusing on prisoner reform and not simply punishment. In this sense, ESP is considered the first penitentiary (as in, a place to repent). The halls were designed to resemble church architecture and it is often speculated that the small cell doors were designed so that prisoners would have to bow their heads as they entered and exited their cells. Prisoners were kept separated throughout their sentences as it was then believed that solitary confinement would encourage reflection and repentance.
While abandoned (1971 ~ 1994) wild flora grew throughout the complex and stray cats took up residence. The buildings — with many cells left in dramatic ruin — now resemble a fortress or dungeon more so than a church and seem worn by many more than its 188 years. Walk the cell blocks and see how the prison developed over time — first with a lofty goal of reforming criminals into moral and productive citizens, then with time, resources and overcrowding working against efforts to maintain and expand what was then thought to be the ideal system.
There is plenty of history here because ESP represents an ideological revolution in the American prison system. But many exhibits also make you think about now and the future — race and economics, harsh punishment for petty or recreational drug offenses, and the seemingly endless cycle of repeat offenders. Inmates are often forgotten by society at large (under-rug swept) but the vast majority will one day re-enter the public sphere. What are we doing now to make them (or even allow them to be) productive citizens? What could we be doing better to ensure that the cycle of incarceration-release-incarceration is not inevitable and unending? I imagine that we all harbor our own opinions on the matter but visit the vastly informative exhibits at ESP. They just might alter your perspective.
Adult admission with either a guided tour or an audio tour is $14 online or $16 at the door. Slob and I opted for the audio tour and I have ever since asked for audio tours when visiting museums and landmarks. I prefer to meander, photograph and ogle at my own pace.
I once entertained a dream that I would move to Colonial Williamsburg, operate an iron printing press, and dress exclusively in knee-length breeches and tricorn hats. So, I hate to downplay historical monuments like the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall because, despite all the negative news and the ever-widening political divide in our country, our colonial and revolutionary heritage reminds us of our Founders’ Idea of America and I believe that that idea is still worth fighting to attain. That said, those monuments are scant and offer little that you did not learn time and again if you were subject to a public education in the States (another kind of prison entirely). Eastern State Penitentiary, however, is something different. Visiting ESP, considering the conditions of those Americans who are often disregarded, is an act of empathy and it is entirely worth your time and attention.
*Featured image source: Pioneer Fringe