The Great Experiment

Unlike New York, which was founded as a trading post — it still is, in many ways — Philadelphia was founded as a bold experiment in religious freedom, liberty, and tolerance. As the city in which both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted and ratified, Philadelphia is at the center of the conflict between what we say we believe as Americans and the way we actually conduct ourselves. This tension defines, within Philadelphia’s borders, this national dilemma. Its history is a microcosm of the country’s.

New York’s history has been explored in film by Ric Burns; Philadelphia has its own Ric Burns in the producers of Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a series of 13 half-hour television documentaries, masterfully directed by Andrew Ferrett. Very recently, the 11th episode of the series, “World Stage: 1872-1899,” was broadcast on Philadelphia’s WPVI-TV; now, like another ten episodes (two are still in production), it’s available for viewing online. The new episode is a portrait of the city’s Gilded Age, featuring familiar and less-than-familiar names such as Caroline Le Count, Dr. Rebecca Cole, Susan B. Anthony, John Wanamaker; a brief history of the 1876 World Fair; and, perhaps inevitably, Philadelphia’s fin de siècle slide into corruption. The series boasts gorgeous photography and insights from a variety of historians and personalities, with a special emphasis on racial conflicts and the important roles that marginalized communities played in the development of the city.

An ongoing project of History Making Productions, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment is the brainchild of Sam Katz, and the senior writer and co-producer of the series is Nathaniel Popkin, whose book Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City I recently reviewed. As Mr. Popkin’s book suggests, much of Philadelphia’s physical past still exists through a combination of deliberate planning, benign neglect, and dumb luck, which means that many of the documentary’s re-enactments could be shot on location. It’s a splendid accomplishment, both inspiring and sobering; those of us who already love the city will be reminded of just why we do so. You can watch the entire series here; you can watch “World Stage” below.

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