The Armory at Drexel University near 33rd and Market streets has long pre-dated the school. Founded in 1747 by Ben Franklin, this outpost for the military has served in a number of capacities over the years: The National Guard recruits from there, but Drexel leases out the space for athletics.
On a typical Friday, there’d probably be dozens of students at the Buckley Courts at the Armory playing tennis or shooting hoops indoors. But this weekend while Pope Francis is in town, about 500 National Guardsmen have cots set up inside. It’s where they’ll sleep while they’re in town assisting local police and the Secret Service.
“The only thing different about this,” said Maj. Edward Shank, “is that it’s not a tent in the Middle East.”
This is just one faction of the officials and soldiers roaming the streets of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania National Guard — which has trained for this event for months — has about 4,000 servicemen and women from Erie to Punxsutawney to Philly stationed around town this weekend for the Papal visit. Their main goals? Control crowds, provide direction and support local authorities in assuring that everything goes safely and smoothly.
“This is about community service,” said Lt. Col. Kurt Nielsen, “and that’s the real mission of the Guard.” But still, as Col. Desiree Morasco put it, “we’re always prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
Drexel students began seeing the National Guard set up on Monday. Things stayed quiet for a couple of days but by Wednesday afternoon, barely five minutes would pass without a military vehicle barreling by on 33rd or Arch, as the Guard congregated on campus. It came as a shock to Drexel students, who (despite being notified by the university on its website) had no idea the military would be stationed there.
“We were walking by to get some lunch,” said sophomore Prem Patel, sitting next to his friend Eli Brown. “I’m like ‘Eli, look on your right.'”
Rory Fisher, who is from the United Kingdom, is studying at Drexel this semester. The sheer amount of camouflaged personnel and vehicles provided a cultural change as extreme as he’s seen during his time in America.
“The whole thing is quite an experience,” he said. “I don’t mind it.”
The Pennsylvania National Guard has two stated roles: One is to serve the federal government, a la being shipped overseas in times of war. But they also serve the governor of Pennsylvania, who deploys them when needed during other types of situations that are peaceful, whether it’s natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or more benign events like the Pope coming to Philadelphia.
While they’re here, the guard technically has no power to arrest anyone — that power can only be given by the governor, and would likely be instated should things go sour. But for now, Nielsen said, the guard is working to direct people where they need to go and work with law enforcement like Philadelphia Police if a situation requires it.
And they’ll be here until the city says they’re clear to leave. City officials and the Secret Service will make a game-time decision about when to re-open the streets to public use, which will be almost entirely dependent on how long the majority of people stick around after Pope Francis’ public mass on the Parkway on Sunday.
But they say the goal is get out as soon as possible and get Philadelphia operating normally.
“For now, thousands of people have to be in place,” Nielsen said about why residents are seeing a heavy military presence in the area. “But it will be open again quickly.”
Not far from the sleeping and eating outpost in University City is the Armory of the First Cavalry Troop in Center City where National Guard officials have taken over and created a central nerve center where they pull in information and data from across the city and deliver orders from there.
The Armory, bounded by 23rd, 24th, Armory and Ranstead streets, is a massive fortress built in 1901 that’s complete with a huge doorway along 23rd Street and a large, open area in the front. It used to be used for horses. Today, it was used for military vehicles like small Humvees and gators that officials used to get from point to point in the city.
Steve Radulski, the 56th brigade commander who’s in charge of soldiers posted up in the Armory in Center City, said main goals of the men and women working within the security perimeter in the area is to establish safe walking routes for pedestrians and man traffic control points, AKA telling unauthorized vehicles to get out of they’re in the wrong.
“We’ve got a lot of guys here,” he said, “who all have a keen interest in a positive interaction with the public.”
Upstairs at the Armory is where dozens of officers are stationed — this is the mess hall, which has art, trinkets and historical items that represent the origins of the First Cavalry Troop that formed prior to the American Revolution. It also has flags from the original troop that were used for practical means in the 1770’s.
Now, card tables are set up complete with laptops, projectors, in-depth schedules and maps spread across the room that show where different law enforcement agencies are stationed throughout the city.
The most serious threat they’ve fielded so far? A fire in a manhole. It all turned out OK.
On campus in University City, things are bound to be quiet. The National Guard may be settled in for a busy weekend, but the same can’t be said for Drexel students. The school gave them Friday and Monday off from class, and many will take advantage of the long weekend. Fisher said several of his friends planned on taking a pope break and visiting Chicago.
He added, “I might go to New York if I can.”