After six years and 200 posts here at PhillyHistory, I have a handle on what’s in the archives, at least the portion of it that’s online. So now’s a good a time as any to take a moment to reflect on what it means to delve into thousands upon thousands of images and write the better part of 175,000 words. To consider what’s next and what’s likely to never be the subject of posts.
Yes… I’m asking, what’s it all mean? For what earthy reason do I persist in researching and writing? And why do you continue reading?
First a little background. This blog was underway long before I got here. It started in 2006, May 30th to be exact, a year after the launch of its parent site, PhillyHistory.org. I was working then as head of WHYY’s Arts & Culture Service. About the same time, web manager Rich Baniewicz urged me to start a blog about the city’s creative culture. An opportunity soon presented itself with the 45-day deadline to keep (or lose) Thomas Eakins’ painting, The Gross Clinic. On November 16th I published the first in a series entitled “Eakins Countdown” in an effort to help keep the painting in Philadelphia.
I liked to think the name of that blog, The Sixth Square. was resonant in a city with five original, physical squares. The stated upfront purpose: to “serve as a convener of ideas, a framer of issues, and a source of facts relevant to this important civic conversation.” A few others agreed with this mission. When I left for Temple University in 2008, WHYY kept The Sixth Square alive—for a time.
In 2010, Jonathan Butler invited me to write a weekly column at the Philadelphia clone of his successful Brownstoner Blog in Brooklyn, New York. Thirty-four columns later that project came to an end, but proved again that we had more than enough material, and sufficient interest, to share discoveries about Philadelphia.
Then the folks at Azavea offered me this gig. I jumped right in and got to know many of the city photographers. Some were identified only by partial names: Thum, Primavera, Madill in the 1920s. A few others: D. Alonzo Biggard, Andrew D. Warden and Julius Rosenberg (also in the 1920s). Wenzel J. Hess in the 1930s, Francis Balionis and Atheniasis Mallis in the 1950s. I got to know and appreciate work by Haag, Ebba, Cuneo, and Abuhove. And then there’s the unnamed and immensely talented photographers whose identities may be lost to history. I’m partial to the anonymous master worked on North 7th Street (and elsewhere) in the first decade of the 20th century, producing images that always stand out. The “Row of Houses” illustrated above is more than a document, it’s a testament to architecture, to the poetry of frontality and symmetry.
I got hooked. There’s a rich, wonderful and still untold history to those photographers and their fantastic work. Someday they’ll get their due.
The images are more than illustrations. I’d be adrift without the photographs, just as I’d be lost without the foothold of historical research. Where the books and articles help me grasp what I’m looking at, the images offer an aesthetic connection more emotional than informational. When the photographer made a connection with time and place, we get to “feel” the scene, the moment, the time and the place. The images ground the stories, making them readable beyond the words. They enable us to connect place, space and story with an emotional grasp; they are the glue that morphs information into meaning. From my point of view, experiencing that burst of discovery again and again makes the search all the more exciting. When a connection is made, when a nugget of visual realization joins historical narrative, we’ve accomplished something special.
There’s nothing like the combined power of images and narratives.
Which is why blogging has worked (mostly, I think) for a couple of hundred times—and why Rutgers University Press will publish 95 in a book to be entitled Insight Philadelphia. (More on that another day.)
What’s next for me during year seven here at the PhillyHistory Blog? I’ve kept a running list of ideas, a list that I started with every intention of ticking off the topics, and shrinking the list, one by one. But darn if it doesn’t grows longer every time I look at it. And then there are image files I’ve compiled. They grow, too. There are hundreds awaiting research. I have no doubt, if I was so fortunate to write another 200 posts here, or even 400, that there’d still be a long and promising list for the future. That’s the kind of collection the City Archives is. That’s the kind of city Philadelphia is.
I am looking forward to publishing posts on subjects from displacing the pig farmers of South Philadelphia to the manufacturing of subway cars and the evolution of street games. And then there are those images that don’t easily attach themselves to any narrative. Those images can be powerful in what they project, yet weak in that not much can be found out about them. These I keep in a growing file entitled “Too Good To Ignore.” It includes the “Row of Houses” of 1904 (illustrated) and others by the same photographer. And then there’s another file entitled “Word on the Street,” my compilation of signage, painted walls, etc. Pictures just too good to let go of. “West side of 7th Street,” also by the 1904 photographer (illustrated above) is a stellar example. Call it urban visual vernacular. Call it worth the effort.
Turning to the “VOID” photograph (below) as metaphor, I’m pleased to report there’s much more out there in the void. Only some of it is in hand, other of it is yet to be found. But when it is uncovered, I am absolutely certain, there’ll be no shortage of images and stories to reconnect.
That’s the kind of collection the City Archives is. That’s the kind of city Philadelphia is.