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Philadelphia Preps For The Pope's Visit, Its Biggest Event Ever


Here in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis has been drawing rock star-sized crowds on his first visit to the U.S. And this weekend the crowds in Philadelphia are expected to top that, likely the largest in the city's history. From member station WHYY, Katie Colaneri reports on the preparations that some residents think are a bit excessive.

KATIE COLANERI, BYLINE: The tree-lined boulevard is already famous for the movie "Rocky." But this weekend, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will become an open-air venue for a popular pontiff. On Saturday, Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli and other stars will perform for him here. And on Sunday, the parkway will transform into a sanctuary where Pope Francis will celebrate mass. 40 jumbotrons lining the roadway will show it all to the more than 1 million people expected to gather. Not everybody is looking forward to it.

RYAN CROWNS: I feel like I'm in an alien movie. Yeah, like we're about to get caged in.

COLANERI: Ryan Crowns owns a juice bar just a few blocks from the parkway. The U.S. Secret Service is putting up 8-foot high fencing right in front of Crowns's building. And that's not all. The city has also begun towing cars to be make way for a nearly 5-square-mile security perimeter encompassing most of downtown. Major highways around Philadelphia will shut down, and public transit will start running on heavily modified schedules. That's frustrated even those who are excited to welcome Pope Francis, like Catholic resident Richard Popielarz.

RICHARD POPIELARZ: To me, it's - basically takes the flavor out of it. I think it's like there's too much focus on security and not spontaneity.

COLANERI: Papal apoplexy in Philadelphia reached its peak last month. That's when pregnant women started calling the mayor's office asking how they were going to get to downtown hospitals to deliver their babies. And business owners grew anxious about whether they'd be able to receive food deliveries and get their employees to work. When hotels in Philadelphia that had been booked solid for months suddenly had vacancies, Popielarz started wondering whether visitors had been scared off.

POPIELARZ: Christians are about peace. That's got to be said. So that message is being lost in all of this talk about security.

COLANERI: In response to the outcry, the city has relaxed some restrictions and set up a hotline for businesses to answer their questions. Papal event organizers have also rebranded security zones as the Francis Festival Grounds. Aldo Salazar is the manager of Food on First, a diner close to the papal events. Last month, he had a lot of unanswered questions. Now Salazar has a plan.

ALDO SALAZAR: They're going to give us till Friday to bring everything we can. So we're just going to load up whatever we can, you know, to the store and work and do the best we can. Yeah, but we are excited.

COLANERI: Salazar says he's already getting customers from all over the world who are here to take part in the World Meeting of Families, the Vatican-sponsored conference drawing Pope Francis to Philadelphia this weekend. Emelda Madondo and her friend Silvia Duri traveled from Harare, Zimbabwe, to be here and to get a glimpse of their pope. Waving a Zimbabwean flag and wearing a bright, orange hat, Madondo says they've gotten a warm welcome.

EMELDA MADONDO: We are enjoying staying in Philadelphia. Yeah, we are. It's a dream come true.

COLANERI: From the huge smile on her face, it's clear the only emotion she feels about the papal visit is joy. For NPR News, I'm Katie Colaneri in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.