The idea of ruins — archaeological, architectural, cultural, even psychological — lies at the center of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, published last November by Temple University Press; it’s a philosophical meditation masquerading as a coffee table book.
A handsome book it is, too. Photographer Joseph E.B. Elliott provides contemplative perspectives on a variety of public, semi-public, and commercial spaces in Philadelphia, many of them off-limits to the casual flâneur in the City of Brotherly Love; the accompanying text, by Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall, eschews a straightforwardly historical approach by considering the relationships between these spaces, their history, and their current uses and disuses.
Most books of Philadelphia history like this, boasting glamorous and unpeopled photographs of interiors and restored exteriors, concentrate on the colonial and early national eras of the 18th and early 19th century. The Hidden City authors turn their attention instead to the later 19th and early 20th centuries, finding the objects of their contemplation in churches both formal and informal; sewers and abandoned subway stations; municipal buildings, some like Philadelphia’s City Hall still abuzz with activity and some like Germantown’s Town Hall in disuse; and prisons like Eastern State and Graterford, designed on the long-abandoned idea of the panopticon as a means of moral punishment.
The “ruin” in this book, though, is considered less as an attractive fragment than as an object with a life of its own. “For Philadelphia seems to possess an exceptionally large number of places that have disappeared elsewhere — workshops and small factories, sporting clubs and societies, synagogues and theaters and railroad lines — like endangered species that have managed to stay alive in some remote forest or swamp,” Popkin and Woodall muse. Among the more telling passages are a visit to the remains of the International Peace Movement community that Bible-thumper Father Divine founded, along with the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street; the Church of the Gesú, site of a depressing and violent civil rights controversy in the 1940s; and a peek into the John Stortz and Son tool factory, founded in 1853 in Philadelphia’s Old City and, somewhat miraculously in this day and age, still flourishing and providing employment to machine workers and small craftsmen. An additional pleasure of the book is a long-overdue consideration of the monumental contributions that people of color and women made to the economic and cultural life of the city over the past 150 years.
As Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City peels back the layers of the past, it reveals more than ruins of buildings; it also reveals the ruins of certain habits of mind, of shared community values, reminders of the stresses and anxieties that made and continue to make Philadelphia a unique place in the world. Film directors like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch turned some of these same settings into nightmares, but that didn’t do them justice. The book gives them a new and glowing life. Every city has a different flavor, hard to define precisely and, because cities are always changing, always provisional. Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is an essential bridge between past and present. Sure, it belongs on your coffee table. But make sure you read it, too.
NOTE: The book is the product of the ongoing Hidden City Philadelphia project; you can find its website here.
Today is the ninth anniversary of my father’s death. He was born on January 4, 1931, in his parents’ bedroom at 451 Fairmount Avenue in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. (That’s the second-floor front in the photograph at right.) He would have died there, too, most likely, if he hadn’t required hospice care at the end of his life in 2008. The house had been in the family since my grandfather Max purchased it for his small but growing family back in the 1920s, and by the time my brother and I sold the place not long ago, it had been in the family for about 80 years.
If I’ve been writing about Philadelphia more in the past few months — here and here, for example — it might be because of the nostalgia you feel for the places of your childhood as you grow older. I spent a lot of the time in that house, in that neighborhood, too. Though by the time I came along in 1962 my parents were living in Feasterville, a suburb of Philadelphia, we came into town almost every weekend to visit my father’s parents in Northern Liberties; my brother and I played in the small garden and cobblestone-paved alley in back of the house, much as my father, his stepbrother, and their friends must have done when they were children. I was baptized in the St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral just around the corner. My godmother and a close family friend, Anna Shopa, lived next door to the cathedral. (And it has something more of a history, too; see Harry Kyriakodis’ 2012 book about the neighborhood, Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward.)
By 1981 I was living in the house myself (my room is the top floor in the above photograph) with my father, my grandfather having died in 1972 and my grandmother eight years later. Both of them had jobs in the neighborhood, my grandfather having operated his business as an electrician on the first floor and my grandmother as a charwoman in a local elementary school. They took in boarders in the 1950s and 1960s to help pay the bills. I still remember the mess of electronic and electric material in the shop, wires and lightbulbs and other detritus, that my brother and I played with on our frequent visits in the 1960s. (My grandfather had installed the electric wiring in the nearby St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on Seventh Street, just a few blocks away, in the 1920s.)
By then, Northern Liberties had changed from the years in which my father played in those streets as a child. When my grandparents arrived in the neighborhood, it was a heterogenous community of recent poor and working-class immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, Jewish and gentile, African-Americans as well; my father’s playmates were from a variety of backgrounds including his own Ukrainian heritage; for years he picked up a nickel or two on Saturday afternoons as a neighborhood shabbos goy. In the 1960s, when I first saw Northern Liberties, it had fallen into some decrepitude. There were empty buildings everywhere, boarded up; five blocks to the east, fronting the Delaware River, Front Street was an avenue of mysteriously dark storefronts, single bare lightbulbs glaring out of a window here and there; poorly maintained public housing had sprung up just west of the neighborhood, poverty-stricken ghettos to the north, and abandoned warehouses and factories to the south. It was a dangerous place. My grandmother continued to scrub the marble stoop in front of the house every other weekend, as others in the neighborhood used to do before Northern Liberties fell into a period of decline. The low rowhouses that lined the empty streets, lit at night by dim yellow streetlamps, weren’t inviting.
When I lived in Northern Liberties in the 1980s, things had improved somewhat with the onset of gentrification. A few bars opened up; artists and young professionals were buying houses at rock-bottom prices with an eye to renovation. Ortlieb’s brewery at Third and Poplar had opened a bar where jazz musicians used to congregate after their gigs in the tonier joints of other parts of town.
In the 1990s I moved to New York, followed not long after by my brother, and when my father died nine years ago we thought about gut-renovating the place (it would have been unliveable without that renovation). But we had lives away from Philadelphia now, the renovation would have been exorbitantly expensive, and neither of us wanted to oversee it from a hundred miles away. So we sold it, and indeed, it was gut-renovated soon after, the entire interior torn down for redesign. You can see what it looks like here, and it looks like most contemporary rowhouse gut renovations. “They did an excellent job gutting the building of all of its character,” my brother grumbled when he saw the video, and he’s right.
But all things pass, including building interiors. Northern Liberties — now yclept “NoLibs” by the real estate mavens, who apparently don’t have time for more than two syllables — still retains a place in my heart, like the city itself. And if there are such things as ghosts, a few Hunkas are among those who haunt the neighborhood around Fifth and Fairmount. A lifted glass, then, to my father.
Earlier this month a thonkingly huge history of New York in the early twentieth century, Greater Gotham (Oxford University Press, 4.6 pounds), landed in bookstores. Suitable for pressing leaves or dropping upon large cockroaches from a great height, the book is the long-awaited sequel to the 1998 Gotham (Oxford University Press, 5.8 pounds), the history of New York from its founding to 1898. These are, obviously, substantial works about the history of the city, and regardless of its quality the new one is destined to end up, like its predecessor, imposingly displayed on bookshelves in apartments around the city, spine unbroken, unread because, given its length in these distracted times, unreadable. If you’re not keen on a multi-year commitment to 1,000+ page narratives about New York, you can turn to the less daunting The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis (Basic Books, 1.2 pounds).
Philadelphia had one of these too, though unlike the New York books it’s now out of print. Back in 1981, W.W. Norton released the 2.9-pound Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. The City of Brotherly Love has, for all its historical interest, taken a back seat in recent years to other metropolitan histories from major publishers. Slimmer journeys through the history of Philadelphia, from its founding to the twenty-first century in which we find ourselves, can be hard to locate.
I raise a hosanna, then, for Roger D. Simon‘s revised and updated Philadelphia: A Brief History, the first edition of which was published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association in 2003 and the second edition of which was released a few months ago (Temple University Press, 9.9 ounces). A history professor at Lehigh University, Simon cites the Norton volume a great deal in the 15 pages of notes attached to his slim, 123 pages of text; this is very much a “just the high points” survey, but it fills a profound need for a Philadelphia history of this kind, and it’s likely to be the go-to brief history for this generation.
As the editors write in their foreword, “The book’s central premise [is] that Philadelphia’s story is about residents’ attempts to sustain economic prosperity while fulfilling community needs” — and so it’s a case study, really, in what every city attempts to balance. Through his chapter subtitles, Simon makes explicit his approach: “Establishing a Community/Building an Economy” (Beginnings to 1800), “Industry Triumphant/Civic Failure” (1865-1920), “Economic Decline/Community Turmoil” (1930-1980) all point to the quite American dilemma of civic ideals running dead up against business interests. And he is especially attentive to the racial and socioeconomic tensions that this dilemma produced.
Alas, the inner conflict continues. Over this past weekend, Philadelphia magazine posted “A Challenge to Our Most Influential Philadelphians,” an essay by Tom McGrath urging that Philadelphia’s business community take a harder look at its civic responsibilities to the city. With a sigh, I note that McGrath’s remedy seems to be, like that for other cities, a greater emphasis on “innovative entrepreneurism” or “entrepreneurial innovation” — meaningless marketspeak that seems to refer to a new emphasis on technology and the service industry — which promises no clear solution to Philadelphia’s problems with public education and infrastructure. This new emphasis may attract new business to the city (for example, the establishment of Amazon’s second national headquarters there), but that attraction will be founded on things like tax abatements and other gifts to business and corporations. Good for the upper-middle and middle classes of course; not so good, though, for most of the rest of the population, which will continue to be economically squeezed until those tax abatements expire. It would be better for Philadelphia if Amazon established new distribution warehouses in the city instead of a shiny glass corporate tower; at least then the company would create hundreds if not thousands of jobs for unskilled labor, jobs profoundly necessary for the health of urban neighborhoods and the marginalized formerly working-class workforce. There is enough warning in Simon’s book that such band-aids as McGrath proposes will create less, rather than more, affluence in the Philadelphia communities and neighborhoods that desperately need it.
The history of Philadelphia uniquely reflects the nation’s. Neither arose organically like the cities and nation-states of Europe; both were deliberately founded in the contexts of rebellion and escape from religious prejudice, and no other country in the world defines as one of its primary concerns in its founding documents the “pursuit of happiness” — a happiness that, perhaps inevitably, remains frustratingly out-of-reach for most of its citizens. For this reason alone, as well as for many others, the city’s history retains its relevance for the rest of us.
Simon’s writing is pellucidly clear, and the text is graced by several well-chosen illustrations and photographs, as well as a few instructive population tables at the end of the book. That said, Simon concludes with an ambivalent envoi:
[In 2016] more than four hundred thousand people survived on incomes below the poverty line. While the city became more diverse in the aggregate, it remained as segregated as ever at the neighborhood level. … The city had limited options to address community needs, particularly for its large impoverished population. … Business leadership seems preoccupied with Center City and reducing the taxes on business, but Philadelphia will be a successful community in the twenty-first century only if public and private capital invest in education, social welfare, and housing needs beyond the glamour of Center City.
From Simon’s book to the ears of Tom McGrath’s “Influentials,” one hopes. Not investment in technological innovation, but investment in innovative urban and community planning, will provide for a renaissance in Philadelphia, as Simon’s history suggests. In the meantime, lovers of Philadelphia can trace the historical possibilities of this renaissance — as well as more than a few cautionary tales — in Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History. It’s available now from Amazon.
And for more about the history of Philadelphia, I must recommend Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a series of video documentaries about the city scheduled to be completed some time next year; many episodes are online now.
I often note here that I enjoy spending my Friday afternoons at Cafe Katja, the lovely Lower East Side Beisl owned and operated by my friends Andrew Chase and Erwin Schrottner. I haven’t seen much of Erwin lately, but he’s been busy with Erwin Cooks, his new show for PBS39 dedicated to Central European cuisine and culture.
And more recently he was apparently in Pennsylvania, picking up his Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award for “Lifestyle Program – Feature/Segment” for the Erwin Cooks episode on schnitzel and reisling (scroll down to #47 here). Not bad for a first-season show, and I must offer him congratulations and kind wishes on his well-deserved win. You’ll agree; the Emmy-winning episode is below. I’m hungry (and thirsty) already.
When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” It’s hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan’s launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. “The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners’ expectations,” Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. “Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor’s reaction to them. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotel’s air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires.” Local wags inclined to punnery called the city “Filthydelphia,” and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it “the Surekill Distressway.” We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us” was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo — and a Philadelphia native.
I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and remain one, though I’ve lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia’s slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York’s “I Love New York” advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city’s self-image, if little else; New York’s population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe their own bullshit.
Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it’s a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it’s New Yorkers. The sentence “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.
The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus.1 He envisioned it as a “greene country towne,” a “city of brotherly love” that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he’s hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there’s no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.
That “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is” also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be “friends” with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other’s real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.
About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan “The Place That Loves You Back.” This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York’s “I Love New York,” which doesn’t love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love.2 “The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal,” Dilworth noted. “If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place.” Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn’t.
According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city’s Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. … Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city’s perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. …
Since the city’s antisocial reputation also defined some of the city’s perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.
“The Place that Loves You Back” suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we’re going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.
But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn’t care?
There’s a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.
The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I’m not blind to its many deficiencies. I’m glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there’s enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia’s urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic’s — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture’s — that’s worth preserving. Perhaps that’s the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it’s the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.