PHILADELPHIA — To induce or not to induce? That’s the question vexing pregnant women whose babies share late-September due dates with Pope Francis’s much-heralded arrival.
Meanwhile, Center City restaurants, unsure whether fresh produce will make it through three rings of increasingly impenetrable papal security, don’t know whether they’ll make a killing or have to close.
And where, oh where, will all the pilgrims rest their weary heads? In $75-a-night bunks on a battleship moored in the Delaware River? Or at the Philadelphia Zoo, where 240 members of one New Jersey parish plan to bed down?
“They can enjoy the pope side of things and the zoo side of things,” said a spokesperson, apparently unaware how much the two are converging.
An estimated 1.5 million people are expected to travel to the city for a high-level global Catholic meeting on family issues, the highlight of which will be the visit by the pope the weekend of Sept. 26. The papal itinerary, punctuated by stops at Independence Hall, a seminary and a prison, will culminate that Sunday with Francis presiding over a public Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near the art museum whose steps were made famous by Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky.”
Philadelphians have been harshly critical of city officials for implementing extreme security measures, including a ban on driving into the downtown area during the weekend, and for devising an overly complicated lottery system for train tickets — and poorly communicating it all.
The decibel level has been so high — with some on Twitter predicting a #popeapocalypse — that Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput set aside ethereal concerns to warn against “the temptation to focus on possible problems in security, logistics and transportation.”
After recommending that residents lay in groceries and prescription medicines, Mayor Michael Nutter has been trying to allay anxieties with an online “Papal Playbook,” which includes tips on everything from where to worship to how to handle stressed-out pets. Last week, the city launched an “I’ll be There” campaign to persuade potential pilgrims that Philadelphia will still be open for business.
“You don’t know what to expect,” said Luisa Magda, manager of The Bishop’s Collar, a bar blocks from the parkway where uncertainty is mixed with the tantalizing prospect of huge sales. She will be upping staff and paring back the menu because of the lack of clarity over deliveries — a concern shared by the giant food purveyor Reading Terminal Market, which only recently resolved to stay open.
“Accessibility keeps changing,” Magda said. “I think it’s going to keep changing until the week of.”
Whether it overdoes or underdoes the papal preparations, Philadelphia risks reinforcing the notion that it is a second-rate stopover between Washington and New York City, both of which will host His Holiness and appear to be taking his arrival in stride.
With its quaint, colonial streets built for carriages rather than motorcades, Philadelphia lacks experience with the crowd-drawing presidential inaugurations and visits from world leaders that are routine on Washington’s broad avenues. And the expected influx, potentially doubling the city’s population of 1.5 million, is on a scale that New York never sees.
“I don’t care who comes to [New York], the population doesn’t go from 8 million to 16 [million] overnight,” said Charles Layton, who owns a condo close to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and plans to join an exodus of residents as the pious pour in.
Officials are planning for the deluge by redrawing the city’s map with colored lines for the two-day papal visit. There’s a three-square-mile “traffic box” marked in green, which will be closed to incoming traffic, surrounding a black “secure vehicle perimeter,” where private cars will be towed, and inside that is a red fenced “secure perimeter,” where pedestrians will undergo airport-type checks.
In response to rumors that every one of the city’s 11,500 hotel rooms was already booked, the World Meeting of Families issued this bewildering statement in July: “An individual being told that inventory is ‘unavailable’ does not mean that the hotel is ‘sold out.’ Once the inventory is fully opened, we do expect that hotel rooms . . . will be full, so we encourage people to consider alternative forms of lodging.”
Last week, Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, said that “plenty of rooms are available and at affordable rates,” but he believes they will be quickly booked.
Meanwhile, more than 2,600 families within a 120-mile radius have offered shelter through the “Host a Family” program “for a reasonable daily fee.” Others, hoping to cash in on the inconveniences, have posted rooms, homes and at least one houseboat on Craigslist and Airbnb. Interest has been so great, said Julie Welker, a real estate agent near the parkway, that she put on a series of do-it-yourself-rental seminars as a “community service,” with advice about liability insurance and guidelines on removing valuables in case of papal pilferers.
Welker has heard “mixed reviews” about the outcomes for DIYers. And Brent Rovner, a digital marketer who set up a site in January, said that from the beginning there has been “more excitement from people listing than demand from people coming.”
Popedelphia.com is “going strong,” Rovner said, with 7,000 monthly visitors, close to 500 listings and a “pope rent calculator” to help figure out fair market prices. So far, however, there are few takers.
Of course, anyone contemplating shelling out $25,000 for a listed six-bed “private estate” in Malvern would have to contend with the regional rail company’s perplexing plans. In an effort to avoid a repeat of the crush following the Phillies 2008 World Series win, SEPTA set up a Web site in July for “Pope passes.” It crashed after fulfilling just 28 requests for 203 tickets, leaving thousands to be distributed through an online lottery, which ended in mid-August. Now passes are for sale at a select few stations.
Private cars aren’t an option because of the driving restrictions. “Be prepared to walk,” warns the World Meeting of Families, noting (phew!) that Philadelphia is the “fourth most-walkable city.”
But none of the hitches seems to faze the relentlessly upbeat Belinda Lewis-Held, who has made a career of papal pilgrimages and last year launched apilgrimsjourney.com. She plans to bus 1,200 fellow Catholics from western Pennsylvania to accommodations ranging from cushy hotels to cushioned floors in fitness clubs. Her Pittsburgh pilgrims, bearing socks and gloves for Philadelphia’s homeless, will be identified by their Steelers-colored flags on “crowd-friendly sticks.”
“I could hit your hand, and it has no problems. You can’t hurt somebody with it,” said Lewis-Held, who patented the product.
But the logistical challenges weren’t dampening the ineluctable draw felt by the choristers gathering outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on a recent evening for their third papal choir practice.
Jean Madden, associate director of the Office for Divine Worship and gatekeeper for the evening, exhibited saintly patience as she guided 350 adults toward upstairs pews while shepherding a flock of 50 high-school singers to an underground rehearsal room.
“Make sure,” someone at the cathedral’s door said, “no homeless people.”
The homeless gather on the parkway not far from the Basilica, about 40 on one recent afternoon. Their numbers swell each night. They will have to move for a security sweep. What happens after that isn’t clear.
With the pope’s “pastoral priorities in mind,” the World Meeting of Families is working on a plan, a spokesperson said, that will “maintain the dignity of every person.”
So many needs. So many stakeholders.
“I can’t even imagine,” marveled alto Rachel Bloemker, contemplating the coordination required for a papal visit, as well as the palpable thrill of being picked to participate in this “once-in-a-lifetime event.”
“We’re really excited for it to be over, too” allowed tenor Michael Hogue.
To which a fellow chorister intoned, “Can we all say an ‘Amen’?”