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Free audio tours dial in to Philadelphia history

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010



Summertime recreation in Philadelphia this year is coming through your cell phone.

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Several cell-phone audio tours in public spaces are being launched this season – and they’re not just for tourists. The tours are designed to introduce residents to their own city.

Of course, audio tours are common in museums, but to Claire Baker of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society the idea of taking it outside was a revelation.

“I hate to call it a no-brainer, but what a great idea!” says Baker. You can use technology that everybody already has – it doesn’t cost the user anything except cell phone minutes.”

Baker produced Rivertalk – an audio tour of the Delaware River with 20 points of interest from Port Richmond to the Navy Yard, including parks, piers, and ports. It has the cell-phone equivalent of a hidden track. If you dial in, then press 1-0-8, you’ll hear a childhood memory about a section of the riverbank near Penn Treaty Park.

“That little sandy patch we labeled B.A.B.,” says the Track, “very irreverently calling it Bare-Assed Beach.”

Joe Walker, who is now 90 years old, says as a kid he and his friends would go skinny-dipping in the river. He still lives in a rowhouse in Fishtown.

“It was right near where the trash wagons would come and dump their loads of trash on the barge,” says Walker. “It must have been really polluted. It didn’t stop us.”

Didn’t stop him, but it stops many other people. As an industrial thoroughfare for shipping freighters, many Philadelphians do not think of the Delaware as a recreational destination. Claire Baker says the challenge is to show people there is a there there.

But some things are not there.

“Just Like the Missing Islands,” says Baker. “There used to be islands in the middle of the Delaware River. They were used for amusements and there were bathhouses and people would go there to have fun. And they’re just removed to enhance shipping.”

Baker says the point is to get people to think about the industrial and recreational qualities of the river, even if they can’t always see them.

In the heart of the city is another cell phone tour opening this summer called Museum Without Walls. It spotlights 35 sculptures along the Parkway and Kelly Drive.

I’m at 16th street and the Parkway, at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, where I meet with Penny Balkin Bach of the Fairmount Park Art Association.

“We’re looking at a beautiful bronze sculpture called Jesus Breaking Bread,” says Balkin-Bach. “People just assume this sculpture would look like other painted portrayals – where Jesus has a beard, and a certain wandering-in-the-desert look – not a Jesus who almost looks like all of us, who is very accessible in his presentation.”

To tell the story of this and other sculptures, a team of producers used hundreds of voices to assemble a series of three-minute stories. One of the voices for this statue is Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME.

“One of the things that I really like is that it’s outside,” says Scullion. “There’s more of a tendency to put God in a box, inside a church or a synagogue.”

Unlike audio tours in a gallery for people who have paid an admission to be there, anybody could be listening here. Balkin-Bach says the challenge is to make it interesting for anybody

“Somebody who is not Christian could have a very close emotional connection to this sculpture because of its humanistic attributes,” says Balkin-Bach. “Someone who is Catholic would have an entirely different personal emotional connection.”

A tourist named Andrew Antonio took a picture of the Jesus statue just because it’s surrounded by trees, unlike the statue of a Revolutionary War figure in front of the Four Seasons hotel across the street.

“A bit boring in the background when you take a photo of another gray statue,” says Antonio. “That’s why this caught my eye – because he stands out from the green.”

Antonio’s reaction to the statue is different from that of the anonymous person who slipped a bright copper penny into the palm of the Jesus’ right hand. It’s something I would not have otherwise noticed if I hadn’t been lingering here, listening and looking.


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