Philadelphia: A Brief History

Not long ago the 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, spines unbroken, unread because, given their length in these distracted times, unreadable.

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 metropolitan histories from major publishers. 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), but 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 in 2017 (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. A few years ago, 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 seem to refer to a new emphasis on technology and the service industry — which promise 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 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 sets as one of its primary concerns the “pursuit of happiness” in its founding documents — 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.

Hide and seek

The idea of ruins — archaeological, architectural, cultural, even psychological — lies at the center of Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City, published in November 2017 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 a living 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 to read it, too.

NOTE: The book is the product of the ongoing Hidden City Philadelphia project; you can find its website here.

Coming in 2020: 1776

1776 at the 46th Street Theatre, New York, c. 1968. Forty-seven years later, Hamilton would also open on Broadway there (the theater had been renamed the Richard Rodgers Theatre by then).

I was delighted to hear a few weeks ago that the 1968 musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, 1776, will be revived on Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater in 2020 in a production directed by Diane Paulus. I first became familiar with the show through the 1972 film version, which I saw when I was ten years old, and I’ve been an enthusiast for early American history as a result since then. It helped that I spent much of my youth and young adulthood in Philadelphia, living not far from Independence Hall (indeed, I was born only a few blocks from it, at Pennsylvania Hospital). Although the film was not shot on location, it was very hard for me to walk through that neighborhood later without remembering the musical and the story that it told. Perhaps the time has come around for 1776 again; the threat of tyranny in America, it seems, has never really gone away.

1776, as a musical about American history, has been somewhat overshadowed by the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, and I’m not sure that many critics — or audiences — would agree with me in giving 1776 the edge. No matter; but I’d like to direct your attention to this conversation with Miranda and William Daniels, who played John Adams in both the Broadway premiere and the film of 1776, in which they discuss the salutary influence of 1776 on Miranda’s own work. Said Miranda: “1776 created such an iconic, indelible image of Adams that we just know who that is now. It’s also, I think, one of the best books — if not the best — ever written for musical theatre … ” There are a few interesting parallels between the shows (see the caption for the photo at the top of this post, for example), and, though you wouldn’t think it a controversial show, 1776 also ran afoul of then-President Richard Nixon, as Daniels discusses.

You can find the full interview here.

Awakening

Philadelphia, circa 1900.

New York may have had its Ric Burns, but Philadelphia has its Sam Katz. Since 2007, Katz, his son Philip, and their History Making Productions has been producing Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a multi-part history of the city, which is also accompanied by excellent educational materials. It has been a long effort, and it’s still not yet entirely complete, but recently HMP released its latest episode, “Awakening (1900-1920),” in which I’m particularly interested, primarily because this was the period in which my father’s parents arrived in Philadelphia, settling in Northern Liberties. It’s a splendid series, beautifully produced, and quite explicit about the challenges that the city and its people have faced through the more than three centuries of its existence.

This new episode — featuring segments on Shibe Park, the employment of children in textile mills, immigration, race issues, Albert Greenfield, and Marian Anderson (with an underscore of music by Scott Joplin) — can be seen below.

Dr. Shock

The youngsters out there won’t remember this, but up until around 1975 or so there wasn’t any such thing as cable TV. Instead, we had the three major networks, PBS, and then something called UHF — smaller local stations located up beyond channel 2-13 that carried syndicated talk shows, reruns, and various forms of lower-budget local programming. Philadelphia boasted three of these in the early 1970s: Channel 17 (WPHL), Channel 29 (WTXF), and Channel 48 (WKBS). Many of these stations featured children’s programming, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

One of the more absurd children’s personalities that wound up on Channel 17 was “Dr. Shock,” the nom de cheap television shows of Joseph Zawislak. (Channel 17 also ran a local children’s show featuring the somewhat more conventional Wee Willie Webber.) From 1969 through 1979, Dr. Shock hosted a Saturday afternoon program (variously titled Scream In, Mad Theater, and Horror Theater) featuring a library of Grade-Z horror films that Channel 17 had somehow picked up; the films themselves were interspersed with wildly comic skits, magic tricks, and comments from Zawislak, along with wildly incongruous appearances from his young daughter Doreen and other children.  After a 13-week tryout period in 1969, Channel 17 cancelled the show, only to unleash a storm of 10,000 protest letters. Once Dr. Shock was back, he was back to stay.

Born in Philadelphia himself, Zawislak was a resident of Roxborough, and his resume reveals that prior to his television debut he had been a devoted amateur magician, a deli worker, an insurance salesman, a pinball arcade manager, and a gas cylinder truck driver. Alas, Dr. Shock died all too young of a heart attack at the age of 42, and his show died with him in 1979. There’s more information about Dr. Shock and his career here, and Channel 17 ran this feature during their 50th anniversary special:

I vaguely remembered watching him as a child, but the below tribute documentary put together by his longtime producer and collaborator Rick Fox reveals that my memories of this genuinely absurd show were sadly incomplete. Dr. Shock and other local television personalities like him inspired Joe Flaherty’s wonderful Count Floyd creation for SCTV later that decade; I’m sorry that we don’t have shows like this any more: budget-basement local programming propelled mostly by extraordinarily enthusiastic local amateurs, who in time became beloved professional entertainers. I suppose we have YouTube videos, but as you’ll see below, YouTube videos are no substitute.