I grew up in rural Maryland, on the side of a wooded mountain. The first time I visited Philadelphia, I was 12; my family drove to see the Liberty Bell for the National Bicentennial. The site was in a run-down section of the city then, but all I remember is being inside Independence Hall, touching the 200-year-old wood railings and smelling the dusty scent of the room, like it was someplace sacred.
I must have already been thinking of my own independence, wanting to be free of my family and the conservative area where we lived. Perhaps already I heard that small voice in my head which asked if I might be attracted to men. My family must have walked right past the site of the 1965 gay rights demonstrations on Independence Mall, though at that time, there was no sign to mark it.
Twelve years later, in 1988, as I traveled to upstate New York to work on an organic farm run by two gay men, my bus drove through Philadelphia. All I remember is the electric company building, its top flashing a message in thousands of bulbs of light. The message read “Conserve electricity.”
About ten years later, in ’98, I rode with some friends south from New York, dropping off one of the passengers in some poor neighborhood of Philadelphia. There were no trees and the city looked cold and deserted. I sat in the back of the car, thinking, “This is one place I never want to live.”
Then, in 2005, I landed a job teaching in southern NJ. I tried to settle near the college, but it was too isolated, though I loved being in the countryside. Finally, though it was an hour away, I decided to move to Philadelphia.
I knew it was the right choice when I discovered the Wissahickon Creek Valley, one of the largest urban parks in the country. Its wooded hills have been mostly undisturbed for over a hundred years. I bought a house ten blocks from the park, which always reminds me of the woods where I grew up.