PHILADELPHIA — It was an eerie way to start the day.
At 3 a.m., I started the trek from my Center City Philadelphia hotel to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where I would catch the bus to the airport to watch Pope Francis' arrival in the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday morning.
It was still dark, of course, and it had the look of a war zone. There were barricades everywhere. There were security checkpoints. There were fences making some streets completely inaccessible. And everywhere there were police, and TSA agents, and all other flavors of law enforcement personnel.
Hours later, I was at Philadelphia International Airport, where delighted students from the band from Bishop Shanahan in suburban Downingtown serenaded the pope with the theme from Rocky and Don't Stop Believin'. "It's a once in a lifetime experience. I'm so excited," one of them, piccolo player Kristen Loughlin, told me.
And there you have it, the two sides of the Philadelphia pope coin. It is a wonderful opportunity for people, from the city and the suburbs to all across the nation and beyond, to experience firsthand a pope who has electrified the world with his humanity, his humility and his love. His very presence was another step, an important one, in Philly's impressive progress toward becoming a world class city.
People walk toward a security checkpoint before entering an area under tighter security to attend Pope Francis events on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia. (Photo: Michael Perez, AP)
At the same time, the city's draconian security measures — closed bridges to New Jersey, a massive "traffic box" that cars couldn't enter, shut-down streets, towed cars, public transit restrictions, schools and courts and public offices closed for days — seemed to many a major overreaction, and were no doubt a huge inconvenience for many residents. Nothing remotely comparable took place in Washington, D.C., or New York City, the two other cities on Francis' U.S. itinerary.
While there is no shortage of people who are either sublimely happy about the Popefest or busy grumbling about the lockdown, Ray Ullrich perfectly encapsulates the ambivalence about what's happening.
"There's no doubt it's an inconvenience," says Ullrich, a stonemason who lives in the city's Northern Liberties section. "I understand it's better to overcompensate than undercompensate, but they really did overcompensate quite a bit."
That said, he adds, "It's only a weekend. We'll bitch and moan. But nothing (bad) will happen (to the pope). That's good." He likens it to the city being shut down by a big snowstorm.
Ullrich says he has seen quite a few huge crowds assemble for events in the city, and the pilgrims coming to see the pope and attend the World Meeting of Families he's addressing make up "the least hostile crowd I have ever seen in Philadelphia. And as pleasant as it is, I can't wait until they get out of town."
But Tim Murtha, a building engineer who lives across the river in Collingswood, N.J., is completely cool with the whole thing.
"They had to shut it down," he says. "The pope is a logistical nightmare, the way he stops and talks to people. I think it's awesome."
While there had been warnings of people walking many miles from New Jersey to get to see Francis, Murtha says he took the PATCO high-speed line and was in the city in 15 minutes. Murtha, who was raised Catholic but says his family fell away from the church, is a huge Francis fan.
"This man is progressive," he says. "He's a man of the people, he's not a deity. People of all religions are affected by what he says, and everybody should be."
But I'm not sure Murtha's enthusiasm would placate the business owners and restaurant and bar employees who took a big hit, or the people who felt they had to get out of Dodge because of some of the apocalyptic predictions. Celebrity restaurateur Stephen Starr, who has more than 20 in the city, told The Philadelphia Inquirer the lockdown "affected business worse than Hurricane Sandy."
There's no doubt that Pope Francis' safety has to be paramount. But could he have been protected in a less disruptive way, as he was in D.C. or New York? Yes, he had a couple of very public events in Philly. And certainly the city has far less experience hosting world leaders than those other two cities. But it's hard to see why keeping cars out of areas far from papal appearances and shutting down bridges was essential
I'm no expert on security, and I don't know precisely what the Secret Service insisted on. But common sense suggests there had to be a better way.
Here's a suggestion: After it's over, the city should undertake a major examination of how things played out. Even better, a panel of outside experts should be launched.
Next time something remotely similar happens in Philadelphia, or anywhere else for that matter, it would be good to have as much guidance as possible on how to maintain security while doing as little damage as possible to the lives of the citizenry.
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