Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 11, 2002
Byline: Howard Shapiro

A walk with history

A new self-guided audio tour is a good way to learn more about the most historic neighborhood in Philadelphia — and America.

Keith Arnold was telling me about what it was like in Philadelphia, the place I live. He was blunt.

"Bathing was infrequent and perfumes were quite popular," he said. "Indoor plumbing was unheard of.... Smoke from chimneys polluted the skies. Muggers hid on dark, poorly lit streets, and garbage and waste were thrown into the streets and streams.... Pigs and goats ran wild."

I was standing in the yard behind Independence Square, the spot where the words of the Declaration of Independence were first publicly spoken. In the context of cobblestone lanes and buildings where Ben Franklin ambled and George Washington really did sleep, Arnold's description was easy to imagine — well, maybe not the pigs.

His was the voice on a disc that played on the red CD player I'd rented a few minutes earlier at the Lights of Liberty office at Sixth and Chestnut Streets. Arnold narrates the revised and reprised AudioWalk & Tour of Historic Philadelphia.

It's a gem — 74 minutes of history and easy to tote around the most historic neighborhood in the United States.

It's full of curious little facts, and impressively concise. This is not the history you fell asleep trying to learn in a formal education. It's the sort of stuff you want to tell someone about.

The narrative is also down-to-earth, literally, suggesting at times that tour-takers sit on the grass and listen to a narrative.

The tour delivers part of its punch by mixing several subjects in quick order. For example, you stand in front of Dolly Todd's little house on the corner of Fourth and Walnut and in about three minutes, you're fully aware of what makes a Flemish Bond brick design (the house has it), how the yellow fever epidemic massacred Philadelphians (Dolly's husband died of it), and how the widow Todd went from this little corner to national fame (her next husband, James Madison, would make her a first lady).

You walk along Fourth Street, by Old St. Joseph's Church, and you look at the church and feel from the narration how tough it was to be Roman Catholic in early Philadelphia, even though Pennsylvania law protected the rights of Catholics.

You sense the density and dirt of places that are now open and clean. You walk on cobblestone and know that Thomas Jefferson's boots touched the same stretch as your shoes — and your souls are somehow, for a few seconds, bound.

This is a feeling many Philadelphians never get close enough to sense. Funny thing about tourism: Everyone else's place seems to be ripe for discovery. I consider myself well-informed about Philadelphia. I can tell you about the sports and the culture and politics, the restaurants and nightlife. I can show you the Liberty Bell as easily as anyone who can get to Fifth and Chestnut.

Even so, when I was taking the audio tour, I was reintroduced in an interesting way to information I'd forgotten — or never knew.

Until this month, the city hadn't had a self-guided audio walking tour for about six years, after the Norman Rockwell Museum, the rental agent for the tour, closed. This was a major hole in the city's offerings; self-guided audio tours of all sorts have become popular in the last decade because people have been enthusiastic about them in museums.

Nancy J. Gilboy, who lives in Society Hill, realized this in the early '90s. She saw nonplussed visitors wandering around her neighborhood. Maybe they were looking at the plaques of four hands clasping on the facades of buildings and had no idea they were seeing the sign of the oldest existing fire insurance company in America. Or perhaps they were looking at the First Bank, but didn't even notice the regal eagle and cornucopia popping over the portal.

So Gilboy wrote, produced and operated the original taped audio tour; the words that Keith Arnold speaks on the CD are hers. The tours began in 1985 and, in the ensuing years, she began to take on more day-job responsibilities.

Gilboy now administers the Sister Cities program here, and is president of the International Visitors Council, which arranges more than 5,000 appointments a year for foreigners who come here via U.S. State Department programs. For years, she relegated the lost tour to the back of her mind.

Recently, she looked around and saw several reasons to renew it, starting with the opening of the new Independence Visitor Center. (Both the center, at Sixth and Market Streets, and Lights of Liberty now rent the tour.)

"And we've been seeing over the last eight to 10 years," she said, "how tourism really became an important part of Philadelphia's economy. And another reason — I'm so tired of hearing that Boston is the most historic city in America, and it's not. It's Philadelphia."

She dusted off her material, did some editing — the new tour is shorter by 10 minutes — found vivid red Sony Walkman CD players, bought about 100 of them and plastered them with her logo and large operating labels, making them easier to deal with. The tour was back.

With the current CD, you can take the entire tour from first to last, using a spiffy map that leads you to the right places and lists the topics of each of 65 tracks you'll hear on the CD. The longest of the tracks runs almost three minutes; the majority run under a minute.

You can also choose to hear whatever topics you like, and easily find the place to walk in Old City while listening.

Gilboy worked in a local editing studio to convert her old taped tour to the slimmed-down, modern CD version and add a track about slavery and abolition.

After the editing was under way, she rearranged the CD again, because her tour-testing fiance, real estate developer Philip Harvey, found Gilboy's first CD version — 22 lengthy tracks — too bulky.

"He calls himself an impatient tourist, and I call him the tourist from hell," she explains. "He kept hitting the wrong button on the Walkman and was getting very irritated at trying to find the tracks, so I realized I needed to break it down into shorter segments." Hence, the 65 tracks.

Gilboy also found a way to set up the tour so that four people can travel with one CD player for a total of $20. (A single user pays $10.) It should be four people with high-quality deodorant and enduring friendships, because when listening to the tour, they're tethered to one another by their earpiece extension wires. It's doable, though, and given the exacting nature of life in an embryonic Philadelphia they'll be hearing about, it may even be called comfortable.

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AudioWalk & Tour of Historic Philadelphia, Copyright ©2002-2008 Nancy Gilboy