As long as I’m at this, I may as well point to a few Philadelphia web sites that I visit on a fairly frequent basis. (You’ll also find these under “Philadelphia Links” in the right-hand column of the page; I’ll add to this list on occasion.) The list is far from complete, but I do recommend these sites to anyone in or outside of Philadelphia who wants to maintain their relationship to the city, even in this increasingly virtual world.
Billy Penn: Philadelphia news from a project supported by public broadcaster WHYY. I find this by far one of the best aggregators of Philadelphia news and opinion, produced with wit and skeptical panache, a truly Philadelphia characteristic.
Elfreth’s Alley: Life along one of America’s oldest residential streets. A museum, tours, and more.
Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia: Billing itself as “the most comprehensive, authoritative reference source ever created for the Philadelphia region,” this project from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers-Camden is not comprehensive quite yet (what, nothing on the history of the city’s newspapers?), but it’s getting there, and there’s plenty to explore in the meantime.
Hidden City Philadelphia: The inside story on some of Philadelphia’s most interesting places, and a continuing call to preserve them. The organization also offers tours and a nice selection of merch for holiday and birthday giving.
Each of these has associated Twitter and Facebook links; many of them, too, maintain newsletters. It’s worth signing up. And if you have a personal favorite or two you’d like me to know about — well, that’s what the comments section is for.
Many thanks to all of those who offered their own additions via comments and email to my impromptu “Philadelphia Bookshelf” over the past few days. I was gratified by the response, and the little men who keep track of these things tell me that the post last Wednesday was surprisingly popular, perhaps meeting a previously unmet need.
A special note of thanks to Billy Penn, a web site and daily newsletter from Philadelphia’s public broadcaster WHYY. It was a mention on their newsletter that drew all of these excellent suggestions, and I should note that the Billy Penn project itself deserves your attention and support. As a current exile from the City of Brotherly Love, I find that it keeps me generously up-to-date on current events in my old home town. (For meditations on Philadelphia history itself, you can’t do better than Hidden City Philadelphia.) If like me you’re a former Philadelphian but remain one in spirit, you should sign up for the newsletter and drop a few pennies their way. I plan on doing so today.
In my occasional Googling I’ve been unable to find a good list of books about Philadelphia — a city that once described itself as being “not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” — so I leap into the arena with my own below in the hopes that others may find it valuable. Certainly cities like New York and London have generated libraries, and Philadelphia has generated a few shelves as well — and in both cases, it’s hard to know where to start to dive into them. No doubt I’ll be able to add to this list with time, but this is enough to go on for now.
Roger D. Simon’s Philadelphia: A Brief History (Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2017) is a short (156 pages), breezy tour through the city that should be your first stop for Philadelphia’s history. Simon manages in these few pages to highlight the dynamics and contradictions that have been a part of the city’s life since its founding in 1682 by William Penn; he focuses particularly on the working classes that were instrumental in establishing the tenor and atmosphere of Philadelphia life. I reviewed it in a little more depth here.
Simon relies fairly heavily upon the now out-of-print Philadelphia: A 300-Year History (W.W. Norton/The Barra Foundation, 1982), which stretches comprehensively to 842 pages. Because each chapter was written by a different expert, it does have its ups and downs, but sometimes the devil is in the details, and you’ll find a lot of them here. The volume itself was a herculean effort, stretching over more than a decade in its composition, but it wound up being more than equal to Gotham, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace’s monumental history of a city 100 miles to Philadelphia’s north.
About ten years after the publication of the above book, Edward G. Rendell was elected Mayor of Philadelphia, and Buzz Bissinger’s chronicle of his first term, A Prayer for the City (Random House, 1997), brings the reader up to speed about Philadelphia history after 1982. Rendell was one of the city’s most charismatic mayors, but as Bissinger points out, the city was in fiscal, racial, and political crisis, and there was only so much charisma could do. But the book is far from being merely a treat for urban affairs policy wonks. Philadelphia’s problems are also exemplified in Bissinger’s profiles of four “typical” Philadelphians: a welder whose job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard is in jeopardy; a policy analyst working with Rendell; a criminal prosecutor; and an elderly woman from one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods.
The late historian John Lukacs, who lived for much of his professional career within 20 miles of Philadelphia, wrote primarily about world history, but he was also the author of a charming series of essays about Philadelphia in the early 20th century, Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines, 1900-1950 (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981). As his subtitle suggests, Lukacs provides portraits of several mostly-forgotten Philadelphians such as publisher Edward Bok, writers Owen Wister and Agnes Repplier, and politician Boies Penrose, all of whom made lasting contributions to Philadelphia’s patrician (and philistine) culture. Lukacs is witty and far from objective about their personalities and achievements (if you could call some of them that).
Out-of-print but worthwhile if you can find a copy, Herbert Kupferberg’s Those Fabulous Philadelphians: The Life and Times of a Great Orchestra (Scribner, 1969) covers the history of the Philadelphia Orchestra and, in part, its former home, the landmark Academy of Music. More than just a paean to the orchestra in its heyday under the batons of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, the book is also instructive in how the patrician class built and supported the orchestra, detailing both successes and failures in its outreach to patrons and audiences both wealthy and otherwise.
If you’re as interested in early American and colonial history as I am, you won’t want to be without George W. Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia (Westholme Publishing, 2016). Despite its title, it’s more than a tourbook; it’s an in-depth, well-illustrated survey of some of the most and least famous historical buildings and locations in the Philadelphia area, many of which have been restored and are still publicly accessible. It’s as readable as a novel and worth carrying about as you make your own investigations into the streets of the city.
For more recent excavations of Philadelphia history, you couldn’t do better than Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple University Press, 2017), a lovely coffee table book — and more — from photographer Joseph Elliott and essayists Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall. They visit many 19th- and 20th-century historical, domestic, and business sites upon which the dust of the past has drifted, often obscuring them from public sight, but these sites even now reveal a stratum of Philadelphia history that informs the city’s present and, quite possibly, its future. I review it in a little more depth here.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of two biographies that provide idiosyncratic insight into the city and those who populate it. Franklin himself is an inescapable presence in Philadelphia’s historical district, and rightly so: in many ways, and to many minds, he represents the practical, realistic spirit that is so much a part of the Philadelphia character. The Autobiography covers his experience as a youth and young man in Philadelphia, and perhaps the most charming passages come early in the book, when he walks up Market Street from the edge of the Delaware River, observing the personality of the city circa 1723. Thanks to restoration efforts, you can do so yourself now and get a good idea yourself of just what it was he observed. Among the best of the brief biographies about the man is Edmund S. Morgan’s Benjamin Franklin.
My idiosyncratic choice for the second exemplary Philadelphian is W.C. Fields, the subject of James Curtis’s excellent biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003). When I was in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, a tour guide wryly observed, “Philadelphians tend to listen politely to authority, then turn around and do whatever they want” — certainly a trait of Fields’ characters in films like The Man on the Flying Trapeze and It’s a Gift, put-upon middle-aged men with a fondness for the occasional mid-day nip. Unlike his con-man persona of his later films, Fields’ middle-class characters here are modest and humble (sometimes to the point of self-loathing), but capable of a grumbling, misanthropic wit which, I’ve found, is a specifically Philadelphian trait.
Finally, to round out the list, a little fiction. Philadelphia has produced few novels about itself to rank with, say, Edith Wharton’s about New York. But it has, like New York, produced a slew of excellent newspaper columnists — Pete Dexter, Clark DeLeon, Stu Bykovsky (who recently left the fine Philadelphia tabloid the Daily News — at least, it was fine during its heyday a few decades ago). Some of these columnists have gone on to write novels as well, and among the best is Third and Indiana (Viking, 1994), a bleak novel about Philadelphia’s drug-ridden Badlands by former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez. Lopez is faultless in portraying the life and argot of Philadelphia’s working and petty criminal classes, as well as the defeated neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. A second highly-regarded Philadelphia novel, currently on my bedside table, is Dexter’s 1984 God’s Pocket, a somewhat lighter portrait (I understand) of South Philadelphia.
As part of our mini-vacation in Philadelphia last week, we treated our girls to a twilight “Ghost Tour” of Olde City and Society Hill. A jovial guide led us around the narrow streets of these, among the oldest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, pointing out historical locations such as cemeteries where ghosts have been reported in the past. And, because this is Philadelphia, the guide was able to slip in some historical information as well, not only about the Powel House but also about public health in the 18th century (which was just as scary as any ghost story I can think of).
We didn’t see any ghosts on this tour, but I was reminded that the idea of ghosts, whether you believe in them or not, seems to be something encoded in the human consciousness. Ghosts are not merely spectres, a metaphor for our desire for an afterlife, but a metaphorical reminder that the past infuses the present. In Philadelphia, whether you’re on a ghost tour or not, you’re constantly reminded that you’re walking the same streets as generations past have walked, reaching back not merely to the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but also to the Quaker community that founded Philadelphia upon a set of ideals that were the product of Reformation and finally Enlightenment thinking.
At about the same time as we were lollygagging around on the lush green lawn of Independence Mall last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Evangelical Christian and conservative, unveiled a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” snatching up a phrase that was incorporated into the Declaration of Independence in 1776; he also appointed Mary Ann Glendon as the chair of that commission. Glendon is described by Politico as “a social conservative who has been a prominent anti-abortion voice, which could lend credence to the concerns among human rights activists that the commission is a ploy to undercut LGBTQ and women’s rights under the guise of religious liberty.” Somehow I doubt that Pompeo and Glendon ordered up Simone Weil’s study of rights and obligations, The Need for Roots, during Amazon Prime Day.
In announcing the commission, Pompeo said something that gave me considerable pause. “Is it in fact true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts,” he said, “that as human beings we — all of us, every member of our human family — are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights?” It may be that the commission was established merely as a rhetorical platform through which the U.S. can condemn the human rights abuses of other countries. But it also sounds like the commission is seeking, one way or another, to define what those rights are: to legitimize some claims to a political right (say, to gun ownership and the inviolability of private property) and delegitimize others (say, to abortion, free expression of speech and religion, and the ability to define one’s own sexual and gender definition, and hence one’s own inmost identity and conscience).
Shelves of books have been written about how the Founding Fathers and other Americans defined “our creator” or “rights” in the 18th century, and Pompeo’s confidence that he and his commission will be able to ascertain precisely those definitions is just a bit delusional. But what is certainly true is that the Founding Fathers believed it was not the role of governments to bestow those rights on its citizens; it was the role of governments to protect them. Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest of them did not create these rights out of thin air. They intended instead to conceive of a form of government that would most adequately lay out the basis of political governance in the context of the natural law philosophies of John Locke and others, which themselves had their origins in a study of the Western liberalism represented by certain strands of thought going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans (not to mention, in some opinions, the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine) — in short, to conceive of a government appropriate to the 18th century Age of Enlightenment. In Europe, at about the same time, Kant was doing the same thing in his investigations into moral philosophy and the idea of the Categorical Imperative.
In the 1920s, Progressive Era historians like Charles Beard and Carl Becker dismissed all this; it was a muckraking time, and the Founding Fathers were the muck that they raked, charging that the stated ideals of the framers of both the Declaration and the Constitution were so much lip service to their genuine concerns, which were the preservation of their own property rights and economic self-interest. Later studies by people like Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and Pauline Maier, however, established that many Americans of all persuasions and classes shared the ideals of the framers: that, indeed, Americans of the time, including the framers, meant what they said.
Among the ghosts that I thought I saw in Philadelphia last week, I’m afraid, were the ghosts of those ideals, which are becoming thinner and thinner in the Trump era. Rights, in Pompeo’s conception, are to be given and selectively protected by governments, not by God or nature, and in the end, what difference does it make anyway? As Russian President Vladimir Putin said at around the same time as the creation of Pompeo’s commission, “[Liberals] cannot simply dictate anything to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Of course, Putin, as usual, was sowing discord, deliberately conflating the long history of Western liberalism with annoying contemporary politicians who call themselves liberal by contemporary ideological standards. But most Americans — especially those who support Trump — may not care about the distinction. Which is the best way to whittle the memory of those ghosts to nothing.
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 a few years ago, it had been in the family for 80 years or so.
If I’ve been writing about Philadelphia more in the past few months, 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.