December 02, 2002

The Best and Worst of the City of Brotherly Love

Arranged in Thoroughly Random and Unrelated Pairings

PHILADELPHIA - LOVE IT: Longwood Gardens. Before you start writing an e-mail, let me say that I realize Longwood Gardens is not in Philadelphia, but rather in Kennett Square, Pa., just beyond Chadds Ford, some 45 miles west of the city. However, it is the largest botanical garden in the region, one of the best in the world, and it’s a quick, easy, and pleasant trip from downtown. It counts.

I first visited Longwood six or seven years ago. At the time I was living in Washington, D.C., and was spending the weekend with a friend in Philadelphia. It was her suggestion to visit Longwood, which was not really a surprise since she is an avid, I might even say a rapacious, gardener. (This is a woman who, after buying her first home, planned no fewer than four separate gardens for the property and purchased 1,000 bulbs for just her first round of planting.)

I was wary. “Not my kind of thing,” I thought, and it was summertime, it was hot, and it was muggy. I agonized over the prospect of spending hour after hour looking at obscure roses, new varieties of flowering broccoli, and oh-so-adorable peeing fountains, surrounded all the while by the cooing matrons of garden clubs from up and down the East Coast. My only hope, as I saw it then, was that we were heading to Kennett Square in the morning. The worst-case scenario, I thought, was that I could bear it until lunch, after which I might suggest we move on, planning to blame the weather, a headache, fatigue, or something similar.

My experience that day was quite the opposite; dramatically so, in fact, and so much so that the day remains indelibly etched in my memory.



Kennett Square, Pa.

Longwood Gardens must be seen to be believed. Acre upon acre of gardens, groves, and greenhouses, meticulously tended, painstakingly maintained, all of the facilities clearly first rate, with the added benefit of informative brochures, signage, and staff. I can’t imagine there are but a handful of plant species not represented at Longwood, the Conservatory housing many not suited to the region’s climate. And while the Gardens attract large crowds daily, especially from late spring to early fall, the grounds are so large that my friend and I often found ourselves enjoying time sitting near a small pond or in a quiet miniature forest thinking we were the only people there.

My friend’s passion for things botanical was an enormous addition to the experience. I heard and learned more about her particular favorites, but beyond that she explained many unknown uses, purposes, and traits of various plants, which were best suited for household growing (in other words, which I would be most likely to kill at some point in my life), why certain plants were growing near others, and various arcane facts that in this perfect pastoral setting were among the most fascinating things I had ever heard in my life.

We toured the grounds for three hours and then had lunch in Longwood’s café, after which my friend, whom I had first met nearly 15 years earlier, revealed she knew me better than I imagined. “Do you want to keep looking around or have you had enough?”, she asked, offering me a way out. I passed. We left the café and spent another four or five hours exploring, and seven years later I can honestly say, one can never get enough of Longwood Gardens.

PHILADELPHIA - HATE IT: The subway system. Hate is probably too strong a word. Maybe disappointed is more accurate. The subway system isn’t horrible, it’s just not great.

Many people are surprised to learn that Philadelphia even has a subway system. Granted, it’s not a particularly expansive system, but it’s not one of those fake mini systems that some cities use as municipal showpieces, and it serves its purpose. The cars are clean, the trains run with sufficient frequency, it seems safe enough, and the fare is reasonable. And the subways move a great number of people through the city’s main corridors, meshed efficiently as they are within the lay-out of the Philadelphia area’s enormous regional rail system and the city’s trolley routes, which share the subway tracks on some lines.

It’s just that it doesn’t go everywhere, or even almost everywhere. I know that’s a lot to ask, too much really, and I probably wouldn’t even say it -- the thought probably wouldn’t even have crossed my mind -- were it not for my experience with the subways in New York and Washington, both of which have their own faults and problems, but both of which go nearly everywhere you want to go. (I know, the Washington subway doesn’t go to Georgetown. Who cares?)

I’ll get used to it. After all, everything else is falling into place.


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