by Stacia Friedman
Pope fever is running high in Philly. In 1979, when John Paul II celebrated Mass here, less than half a million attended. This time? Imagine Woodstock, the Super Bowl and an Andrea Bocelli concert combined — then multiply times 10. Why? Because this is a decidedly different Pope, one whose concern for the poor and the environment resonates with believers and nonbelievers alike. (No joke. Andrea Bocelli really is performing a free concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.)
Unfortunately, Philly seems to be preparing for an invasion from Mars, not for his Holiness. During the Pope’s visit, all major highways in and out of the city will be shut down. We’re told these closures are due to “security and safety issues,” but Philly hasn’t taken precautions of this magnitude since 9/11.
These security measures are not lost on Debra Flynn, an attorney and owner of Statement Consignment Boutique in Chestnut Hill. “There will be more security here than at the Vatican,” says Flynn. “I have a friend who lives at the Philadelphian which has a bird’s eye view of the festivities. She’s going away that weekend because her building’s rooftop and balconies will be crawling with snipers.”
Flynn, on the other hand, is excited about the crowds anticipated by the Chestnut Hill Business Association. “People will be attending events in the city during the day and returning here, via the Chestnut Hill West Train Station, one of the few stations offering express service to the city,” says Flynn. This high-traffic influx will include, not just people from out of state, but residents of surrounding communities.
“This is where they’ll come at night to enjoy our charming village, shops and restaurants. I believe we will see lots of activity on the Hill as people will want to get out of the city into a calming environment. Most of us will stay open later to accommodate our visitors.”
A stream of conflicting news bulletins from City Hall warn that getting around the city will require Olympian agility. They are banning all cars, buses and taxis from the inner city. Yes, there will be commuter rail service, but it will be limited to a few stations, and tickets will be sold in advance by lottery. You want a train ticket? Start praying now!
While the Catholic Archdiocese issues press releases claiming they will provide “special viewing platforms for the disabled,” they are not providing transportation, and neither is SEPTA. “Be prepared to walk miles!” they warn. Try that in a wheelchair.
At the same time, the city is encouraging business to remain open to serve the multitudes. Center City residents and business owners are angry and confused. How will employees get to work? How will supplies be delivered to restaurants and shops?
Despite easy access by train from Chestnut Hill to the Parkway, many locals will be avoiding Papal events. “I’m not a crowd person,” says Julie Angel of Wyndmoor. “TV works for me.”
Lynne Iser of Mt Airy agrees. “I am going to be away, but if I were here, I’d watch it on TV. I hate crowds,” she says.
Debs Bleicher of Mt Airy finds the whole event “circus-like and silly.” His plans for Sept. 26 and 27? “I’m going to hang around my home and the ‘hood.’”
Perhaps the most productive idea comes from Barbara Sherf of Flourtown. “We figured we had a captive audience here, people looking for something to do, so several neighbors and I are collaborating to hold a Rose Lane Yard Sale on Saturday, Sept. 26 (rain date the 27th),” says Sherf. “We’ll get rid of some stuff and strengthen our connections to each other.”
Among the items you won’t find at Sherf’s yard sale but can order now online is a Pope “standee” – a 5’9” image of Pope Francis (his actual height!) made out of “art quality Gatorfoam, not a cardboard cut-out.” Perfect for selfies with the Pope and sure to be a big hit in college dorms this Fall.
Where will this reporter be when the streets of Philly become as crowded as Mumbai, swarming with plainclothes CIA agents and the National Guard on stand-by? I’ll be singing along with Andrea Bocelli from the sanctuary of my Mt. Airy home with a cup of mint tea and my Siamese cat.