Eastern State Penitentiary
In the outskirts stands a great prison, called the Eastern Penitentiary: conducted on a plan peculiar to the State of Pennsylvania. The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.
In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who devised this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature.
--Charles Dickens. American Notes, 1842.
It sits at 22nd and Fairmount Avenue, in Fairmount, which was a working class neighborhood of Irish and Polish immigrants and their children. Now that yuppies live there, they refer to it as "The Art Museum Area" for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is just down the block, sitting where Fairmount Park ends and the Ben Franklin Parkway begins. They like to erase a past which isn't relevant to them. It's understandable. Take, for instance, the prison:
It takes up a city block, but this isn't what's interesting. What is interesting is the architecture. It looks like a castle--and by castle, I mean a real fortified castle, with thick walls and towers, arrow loops and cornices. One would think this was a relic of the Middle Ages, of some Scottish lord's estate. One would think it would keep out the barbarian hords, vikings, Saxons, pirates. Instead, it was made to keep the barbarian hordes inside. And in the days when it was built, there was no Fairmount, only the "Faire Mount" upon which the neighborhood would later be built. The rest was countryside slowly being encroached upon by Philadelphia's swelling population.
I grew up only blocks from the penitentiary. I would see it every day--walking to school, walking to the store; my best friend Lyandra lived across the street from it. It would haunt our games. We believed that although the prison had been closed before we were born, there were still prisoners inside, trying to get out, trying to escape. We would imagine what it was like--dark, filled with spiders and rats, stone walls. Looking back, that sound more like our basements. We would pretend to be prisoners, we'd pretend to fight prisoners, we'd pretend to escape prisoners. We'd sit at the window and wonder about what was really inside. But we would never dare go near the building. It was haunted. There may be real prisoners still inside. Best not to go near. In my mind, there was never sunlight shining on the prison--it was always dark, in shadows, cloud-covered. Whether this is fact or not doesn't matter anymore--but it's true.
Only blocks away is the Art Museum. I think if you stand at a certain spot on Fairmount Avenue, you can see both at once. The museum is equally huge, only more so, and is modeled after the Parthenon--all columns and Greek gods. It's more glamourous than the penitentiary, and it too had a huge impact on me, particularly the Joan of Arc statue, which stood at the bottom of my street, where it meets with the park and the museum. That's always well-lit, sun shining. Welcoming. And so it now gives its name to the neighborhood, as opposed to the Faire Mount that the prison is built on.
So what of the prison? The ghosts are replaced, it seems, by tourists, and by a Bastille Day celebration, where yuppies storm the prison while a woman dressed as Marie Antoinette throws Tastykakes at them. Maybe it's better this way.
The Quakers meant well. Quiet contemplation. Rehabilitation. They meant well for the city, too. A free exchange of ideas. Religious plurality. "A Greene Countrie Towne" But the best laid plans... So this castle, this tower of despair, is just a tourist attraction. And all their good intentions, leading to hell, are just words in the mouth of a tour guide.