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Getting Your Philly

Our hotel on Society Hill faces the river. To its back are streets busy with people checking out restaurants and bars in something of a cross between New York's Greenwich Village and D.C.'s Adams Morgan.

Being with children, however, I take the early retirement route, which is lucky, since one kid awakes before 7 a.m.

At Philadelphia's Constitution Center, there are no ho-hum history lessons. (R. Kennedy/GPTMC)

That gives us time to meander to an old-fashioned diner where a hearty breakfast costs about $7 per person, with a generous tip. Along the way we pass Elfreth's Alley, the oldest residential street in America; Betsy Ross's house; the U.S. Mint, where coins are made; a historic church and synagogue; and Benjamin Franklin's grave. It's a little like visiting Williamsburg, except the people dress normally and there's a big. lively city all around.

Across the street from Franklin's grave sits the 45-acre Independence National Historical Park. Like Washington's Mall, it includes a wide grassy strip bordered by buildings. But unlike Washington, whose planners are always thinking up ways to clutter the view between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, Philly is in the midst of undoing such damage.

In the coming year, workmen will tear down the sole remaining building between the former Pennsylvania State House and the new National Constitution Center, which opened July 4.

We begin at the Constitution Center, a gleaming white building encircled in windows. Inside, in a round theater with tiers of seating, the lights dim as an actor narrates a multi-media show. Pictures and lights appear on the floor, on a screen and on the walls. I must not have been listening when Mr. Sullivan and other teachers droned on every school year about our country's founding, because I learned a lot of new stuff.

I didn't realize, for example, that the bloody war for independence dragged on longer than any U.S. conflict except Vietnam. That under the Articles of Confederation, nine states had their own naval forces. That our founders considered the idea of dividing the United States into 13 equal parts, in an attempt to reduce inter-state wrangling. That 20 of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention owned slaves, and half of them fought in the Revolution.

None of that choked me up, though: My sense of patriotism peaked around 9/11, and has been plummeting ever since.

What made me cry was the grand finale, when the audience was bombarded with a montage of pictures and sounds: protesters calling for an end to the Vietnam War; Gerald Ford proclaiming that "Our long national nightmare is over"; Ronald Reagan demanding, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"; Martin Luther King crying out, "Let freedom ring." My daughter looks at me when the lights come on and doesn't get the tears running down my face.

"I didn't even understand a lot of that," she says.

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