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How a meeting with Fidel Castro made me appreciate Philly — and the world | Michael Smerconish

Michael Smerconish: what being a World Heritage City means to me.

The Liberty Bell is the top attraction in Independence National Historical Park, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors to glimpse the bell and its famous crack.
The Liberty Bell is the top attraction in Independence National Historical Park, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors to glimpse the bell and its famous crack.Read moreMarisa Fischetti/ Visit Philadelphia

On Thursday night, there was a celebration of Philadelphia's World Heritage status, a designation bestowed upon the city in 2015.  A key prerequisite for a city's recognition is to contain a World Heritage Site approved by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Independence Hall fits the bill.  Philadelphia was the first city in the United States to join the elite status already afforded to more than 250 cities throughout the world, including: Paris, Vienna, Florence, Rome, Berlin, and Istanbul.   When invited to speak at the gathering, I decided not to harp on our hallmarks, but to instead share an anecdote about the night I was able to ask a world leader about a matter of local lore.

In 2001, Sen. Arlen Specter called me at home.  He told me he was soon traveling to Havana and expected to meet with Fidel Castro.  If my media credentials were in order, and I had interest, he was inviting me to attend. That explains how I came to be part of a small group who spent nearly seven hours in the company of Castro and Specter.

Most of the night was spent watching the two of them joust.  "The DA vs. the Dictator," I wrote in my notes.

But at a certain point, Specter surrendered the floor to me.

So, what do you ask Fidel Castro?  I figured he'd answered everything imaginable in his (then) 43 years as the Cuban leader.  Where we were four months removed from 9/11 with Ground Zero still smoldering, I began by asking him to condemn Islamic terror.  On the second attempt, he did so.  But then I asked him what most interested me.

"Mr. President," I said to him. "I'm from Philadelphia.  There was a mayor in Philadelphia in the 1970s named Frank Rizzo, who once said something that was perhaps inappropriate. Mayor Rizzo said that his police force could invade Cuba, and win. I am wondering, Mr. President, whether you were aware that such a claim had been made by Mayor Rizzo, and whether his claim was true?"

What can I say, I'm a homer.

All roads for me have always led through Philadelphia, even when questioning a notorious dictator.  Just 10 of my 56 years were spent living within the city limits, the 46 others in the surrounding suburbs.  But anytime I've traveled, whether it's Cuba or California, should someone ask where I'm from, I instinctively say, "Philadelphia." That's why I used a fleeting moment on the world stage to ask a Philly-centric question about one of our originals.

After an interpreter explained my question to Castro, he paused, stared me in the eye, stroked his beard, and said: "No, I never heard that.  But I can tell you that while the first part may be true, the second half is definitely false." His laugh then broke up the room, and the conversation returned to more serious matters.

It's vital to promote preservation and appreciation of our geographical, historical, and cultural heritage through this World Heritage designation. We are the city of Independence Hall.  And the Liberty Bell.  And the National Constitution Center.  And the National Museum of American Jewish History.  As well as the Museum of the American Revolution, and so many more landmarks.  But what we have here transcends any edifice.  I'm thinking of our distinct residents.

I love our "characters" — a compliment when I use the descriptor.  The men and women who give this city life.  There are some with exalted Pink-, Madonna-, or Cher-like status: Meek, Doc, Croce, Cataldi, Questlove, Geator, and M. Night, to name a few.  I've never lived anywhere else, but I have a hard time believing there's another American city that can match the talent and color you  get from Jennifer Weiner, Ed Rendell, Steven Singer (I don't hate him), Gamble & Huff, Steven Starr, Camille Paglia, Jay Wright, Jack Bogle, Bill Hite Jr., Sid Mark, Marc Vetri, and the inventor of crab fries, Pete  Ciarrocchi.  And they're just the famous ones.  Those without household names are similarly a passionate and opinionated lot.  And having watched Jason Kelce's speech last February at the Eagles victory parade, I'm thinking it's contagious.  You can be from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, come to Philadelphia, and become a character.

We are a region of diverse and unique neighbors who reside in a collection of urban neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs.   No one can be rougher on us than ourselves, but deep down we know we have a good thing going here.  That's why we stay and raise our children here.  Five-year-old census data show that 68 percent of people who live in Philadelphia were born in Pennsylvania, and that doesn't include South Jersey or Delaware, or the number would be higher. Compare that with 59 percent for Chicago or 49 percent for New York City.

That's something the world should know. It's what being a World Heritage City means to me. Somebody tell Jeff Bezos.