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  • At first glance, the stairs of the First Presbyterian Church are nothing special. Though they sit in front of a beautiful building, the steps themselves are gray, and hard, and cold. They overlook Walnut Street, only to offer an obstructed view of their more attractive neighbor, Rittenhouse Square. Rectangular and straight, there are no quirky dimples to note, nor any charming features to observe. To an unknowing visitor, they are ordinary, concrete steps.

    Yet they speak a unique language to passersby, and I found myself puzzled by the constant rhythmic flow of guests. I spent hours trying to decipher this language, and here is what I have learned:

    If you visit on a Sunday morning, you’ll undoubtedly catch the arrival of churchgoers. Men and women dressed in suits and blouses talk to one another about their children, their work and the happenings of the week. People gossip, then listen, then gossip again. One woman twirls the cross that hangs around her neck, just eavesdropping on the company nearby. Many simply linger, getting their last words in before being confined to the silence of mass.

    The stairs were social.

    If you visit one afternoon, you might find that a man has decided to take residence there. When I arrived, he was covered with a blanket and a baseball cap, tucked away from the sun. I couldn’t see his face, but it was clear he would not move in the near future. He blocked all access to the church door, yet no one came to disturb him, no one questioned his presence.

    The stairs were respectful.

    If you visit in the evening, you might find a few scattered people seated just moments before their Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. All shapes, sizes, incomes and personalities sit together on the steps, waiting for the doors to open. Few speak; I suppose they would share their stories inside.

    The stairs were nonjudgmental.

    At any given point in the day, you might find a tourist taking pictures of the architecture, a jogger taking a break from his run, or a mother stopping to tie her daughter’s shoe. You might find a priest, or an artist, a writer, or maybe just a quiet observer. You might find anyone. You might find no one.

    The stairs were shared.

    They were shared among the residents of Philadelphia - delightfully unpredictable, yet humbly ordinary. They welcome their residents without complaint or criticism, and, as a result, bring a level of excitement to the most commonplace of structures. They are public in the most basic, comforting sense, and though they speak a unique language to each passerby, they convey the same message: come as you are; stay as long as you like.
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