Finding Philadelphia’s “Wow Factor”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Construction of the Sesquicentennial Bell at the base of Broad Street, 1926

Philly history is telling us something: We lost our sense of humor at the bottom of Broad Street.

Consider the new spine of lights proposed for a stretch of Broad, the 2 ½ miles from Spring Garden to Norris. These 29, 55-foot tall stalks of light are meant to restore North Broad Street’s long-absent “wow factor,” according to the folks at the Avenue of the Arts. But history suggests otherwise.

Want to find Philadelphia’s “wow factor?” Go back to Broad Street and Oregon Avenue in 1926. That was the real deal: a monumental, iconic claim of Philadelphia as the nation’s “Cradle of Liberty.” Sesquicentennial designers installed a giant sculpture right in the center of Broad Street on what’s now Marconi Plaza. Never before or since has the city seen something so bold, so apt—so much fun. Visible for miles, the giant Sesqui bell seemed to be in a kind of conversation with the 38-foot-tall statue of William Penn on City Hall. “Make no mistake,” these two sculptures seemed to be saying, “you’re in Philadelphia, and there’s a message to share. We’re saying it here and we’re making it come alive—with light.”

Long before the invention of the electric bulb, light had been the city’s best metaphor. Philadelphia was created around the central Quaker belief in an “inner light,” that divine spark in everyone so essential to the idea of equality and community. Later came the notion of the light of Liberty, something worthy of a new and independent nation.

Purchase Photo
View Nearby Photos
The Sesquicentennial Bell lit up the night, June 1, 1926.

How to make these metaphors come alive on the street? Cue the electric light. For more than a century, Broad Street, the founding city’s longest, widest public avenue, has been a light laboratory, a stage for meaningful illumination. At the end of the Spanish American War in 1898 lights adorned the temporary arch at Broad and Walnut. Lights draped from City Hall celebrated Philadelphia’s 225th birthday in 1908. Powerful spotlights permanently illuminated City Hall’s tower in 1916. And as recently as 2005, wild light play continued at City Hall. But nothing topped Broad Streets convergence of form, meaning and light more than when the gargantuan, sheet metal blow-up of the Liberty Bell was switched on in 1926, for the nation’s 150th birthday.

We don’t know what creative genius proposed this 80-foot sculpture covered with 26,000, 15-watt light bulbs. (We do know D. W. Atwater of the Westinghouse Lamp Company designed the illumination.) Switched on May 31, 1926, the Sesqui Bell predated Pop Art by a long shot: Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg weren’t even born until the late 1920s. Warhol painted his Campbell’s soup cans 36 years later; Oldenburg installed his giant Clothespin 50 years later. “I am for art that is flipped on and off with a switch;” wrote Oldenburg in his Pop Art manifesto, considered avant garde in 1961: “I am for the blinking arts, lighting up the night.”

We’re convinced: Philadelphians in the 1920s were way ahead of the curve. They knew how, where and with what to light up Broad Street. They were in touch with Philadelphia’s “wow factor.”


Philadelphia as Athens of America: More than Skin Deep

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
The Merchants Exchange Building by William Strickland at Walnut and Dock Streets, ca. 1859.

Philadelphia’s façade of choice used to be one bedecked with columns—and the more the better. Greek and Roman orders ruled from the late 18th century clear through much of the 19th century. Whether you had a bank, a church, a town hall, a school or an asylum, classical features conveyed the “right” message as visitors passed your portal. Want to convey a sense of wealth? Go Greek. Need to speak the language of civic importance or educational authority? Say it with a stack of stone cylinders. Folks were even willing to forgive their pre-Christian origins as they prayed behind pagan porticoes.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe gets the credit for giving Quaker Philadelphia permission to lose the red brick and cloak everything in white marble. And he practiced what he preached in 1811 when he orated that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western World.” Latrobe’s own Philadelphia commissions: the Pump House in Center Square and the Bank of Pennsylvania were (literally and figuratively) classics.

None of Latrobe’s major works survive in Philadelphia, although you can see his marble magic in other places. Latrobe went on to Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Richmond before succumbing to Yellow Fever while on the job in New Orleans. (There’s an excellent hour-long documentary about Latrobe at PBS online.)

Where Latrobe left off his students and their students picked up and carried on. There’s William Strickland’s Merchant’s Exchange (illustrated here) and his Second Bank. There’s Thomas U. Walter’s Founder’s Hall at Girard College and many others, including the Mercantile Library, U.S. Naval Home, U.S. Mint, Jefferson Medical College, and the First Independent Presbyterian Church.

Philadelphia as the Athens of America was always more than skin deep. The very idea that Philadelphia would inherit Greek arts and ideals goes back to the very beginning, when Penn named his city in Greek. That Philadelphia would become the New World’s center for democracy, arts and learning might have been pushed aside for a few busy decades, but it wasn’t ever entirely forgotten.

In the early 1730s, founders of the Library Company of Philadelphia had written of Philadelphia as “the future of Athens in America.” A few years before that, Philadelphia poet George Webb, who David S. Shields calls “the first major prophet of the America of Athenaeums, civic temples, and ‘new Romans’,” wrote a poem that concludes with a few relevant lines:

Stretch’d on the Bank of Delaware’s rapid Stream
Stands Philadelphia, not unknown to Fame:
Here the tall Vessels safe at Anchor ride,
And Europe’s Wealth flows in with every Tide:

Who (if the wishing Muse inspir’d does sing)
Shall Liberal Arts to such Perfection bring,
Europe shall mourn her ancient Fame declin’d,
And Philadelphia be the Athens of Mankind.

Webb had plenty of company believing in this big idea for small Philadelphia. No, Latrobe didn’t invent the idea of Philadelphia as the rightful heir to ancient greatness. He only reminded Philadelphians what they had long known—and urged them to put the Greek out where everyone might actually see it.


A Challenge for Philadelphia: What Should Our 9/11 Memorial Look Like?

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
Public memory fails us at Second Street, Walnut to Chestnut Streets.
Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess, August 13, 1936.

America has another 9/11. September 11, 1777 also resonated with pain and sadness and was long remembered as a failure of freedom at the heart of the American cause. On that day, 234 years ago, a would-be nation embracing a vision of democracy forgot what the fight was all about.

But this story is remembered nowhere on the streets of Philadelphia. There’s no monument, no sculpture, no mural, no words in bronze to help us know and remember. This original, American 9/11 is now all but forgotten. It’s as if that day never happened.

Lucky for history, lucky for us, libraries and archives hold documents that tell the tale. The papers of Henry Drinker at Haverford College and the Brown Family at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and others that augment them are preserved and accessible. And thanks to Google books, a 300-page account of the event originally published in the 19th-century is also available. From these documents, as well as a more recent article, we can know and share what took place in Philadelphia on September 11, 1777.

What happened? Quaker Philadelphia became wartime Philadelphia. With the British advancing on land and by sea to occupy the city, loyalty and trust were no longer measured in shades of gray. By late August, Congress ordered those who were “notoriously disaffected…be apprehended disarmed and secured.” There was no ambiguity when it came to Philadelphia’s Tories. But what about the Quakers, who would neither participate nor contribute to the revolutionary effort?

Wartime leaders tended to agree with John Adams, who believed Philadelphia Quakers “love Money and Land better than Liberty of Religion.” Then reports of treasonous Quaker documents appeared – never mind that they were fabricated. Congress immediately recommended the arrest of Quakers who “evidenced a disposition inimical to the cause of America.” In early September, American forces began to “seize and secure” some of the city’s most upstanding citizens, nearly all of whom were Quakers. Without charges, and with nothing more than a list of targets and orders from Congress, armed guards broke into civilian homes and rounded up 41 men. When elderly John Pemberton refused to go “they removed him bodily from the house and took him forcibly into custody.” He and others pleaded their “affection for America,” but to no avail. All the prisoners were taken to the Masonic Lodge on Lodge Alley just west of Second Street, north of Walnut Street.

There would be no charges, no hearings, no appeals. The prisoners, their families and others protested these actions as a “stretch of arbitrary power,” “illegal,” “unjust,” and “contrary to the Rights of Mankind.” All complaints fell on deaf ears. A guard threatened to shoot a visitor attempting to talk to a prisoner through a window. Day by day, tensions grew in the streets around Lodge Alley.

A few men suffering illnesses were released. Others were let go after signing an oath swearing allegiance to the Revolution. The rest remained locked up.

On September 11, the twenty remaining men were loaded onto wagons in the midst of a crowd one witness called a “deeply emotional.” Passions rose. Someone threatened a guard, promising to “thrust his hands down his throat and pull out his heart if he dared abuse a Prisoner.” Another witness wept as the loaded wagons sat for hours, attempting to wait out the crowd. When the citizen-prisoners finally trundled away in the early evening, African-American acquaintances of John Pemberton managed to grasp his outreached hand. By then, Philadelphians just lined the way in silent protest.

These citizen-prisoners, victims of this original 9/11, were held for more than six months, out of sight but hardly out of mind in Winchester, Virginia. Two, Thomas Gilpin and John Hunt, died there. After many protests and appeals the rest were returned and released in April 1778. No charges were ever filed.

Today, the Masonic Lodge is long gone. So is Lodge Alley. This episode is forgotten. Over time, the place lost its connection with memory.

Should the site of Philadelphia’s 9/11, the site of “one of the gravest violations of individual rights…during the War of Independence” NOT be marked? Of course it should.

The real question is, what should Philadelphia’s 9/11 memorial look like; what should it tell us? How best can we restore this lost episode to living public memory?


Time For Rocky To Step Aside?

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
The Rocky Statue at its original location, July 29, 1982. Five years ago, the statue was
installed at its current location near the base of the Art Museum’s steps.

Rocky’s been in place for five years now, and it’s been 35 years since the film character gave Philadelphia a boost and Sylvester Stallone a brand worth $1.2 billion. But eventually, possibly sooner than later, Rocky will have to step aside as a Philadelphia story that has outlived its time.

Born during a recession in a place with an evaporating manufacturing economy, Rocky’s day job as bill collector speaks to the lack of opportunity in a city of homes and a paucity of jobs. In the 1970s, Philadelphians still believed they still had a shot at bringing the factories back. It took several decades more for the leadership (by then Ed Rendell in the 1990s) to openly admit industry as Philadelphia knew it was gone and a constellation of emerging economies (Eds, Meds, Tourism & Tech) would have to replace it.

Philadelphians have come to their senses and moved on, except, it seems, when it comes to Rocky.

Like Archie Bunker’s Queens, Rocky’s Philadelphia is now mostly gone, though not entirely. The spirit of the ’70s occasionally finds traction. In 2006, the same year as Rocky returned to the Parkway, Joey Vento posted a sign at his steak joint on 9th Street: “This is America, when ordering ‘Speak English?’” Vento spoke his mind, as Tom Ferrick put it in a recent Metropolis column: “And what was in that mind? A heavy dose of macho. One primal scream. Several tablespoons of jingoism. A half-cup of xenophobia. A dash of hate.”

When Joey Vento died last month, so did a little bit more of that Philadelphia, Rocky’s Philadelphia. Vento clumsily said what Stallone’s Rocky artfully implied. “Outsiders” were changing the hue and cry of the workplace, schools and streets. Vento, Ferrick points out, targeted Philadelphia’s Mexican immigrants. Rocky’s enemies were African Americans: first Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, then James “Clubber” Lang, played by Mr. T. Of course, Rocky’s racism was neatly tempered by Hollywood, but it was significant in Rocky’s persona as well as the brand’s success.

The Rocky story is one of personal victory, rather than any kind of civic victory. In the 1970s, Rocky couldn’t begin to turn around a city still steeped in mid-century noir, but he could, bouncing at the top of the Art Museum’s steps at dawn in grey sweats, realize personal success.

Today, Philadelphia offers more. Yet, thousands of folks visit the Rocky statue every year, admire themselves with arms raised in souvenir images again, again and again. There’s a connection here with a 20th-century Philadelphia story that has survived into the 21st, but how meaningful is it now? Isn’t this statue, whether it’s considered a movie prop, a franchise logo, or even art, just an artifact of 20th-century American popular culture, along the lines of Archie Bunker’s chair? Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History see that artifact behind glass.

Someday, the Rocky statue will be framed by a similar narrative. When that day comes, Philadelphia will have something to offer about what the city is, not what it was. But first, we’ll have to get past the idea that Stallone has done more for Philadelphia’s image than anyone since Ben Franklin, as Commerce Director Dick Doran put it in the 1980s. We’ll still be moved a little (or a lot) by the Rocky story, and the artifact will always be with us. Only, in the future, we’ll think of it as on the shelf, rather than on the pedestal, along with many other compelling stories out of Philadelphia’s past.

The question is, when Rocky steps aside, or is forced aside – and this should happen sooner than later – what will take his place? That we have yet to figure out. But the time is coming for Rocky to become history – and in Philadelphia there’s nothing wrong with that.


Philadelphia Department of Records Wins 2011 Award of Merit!

We’re excited to announce that the Philadelphia Department of Records has been awarded a 2011 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) for the work on!

Now in its 66th year, the Leadership in History Awards from AASLH are awarded annually for projects that demonstrate excellence in the collection, preservation, and interpretation of state and local history. The awards will be presented at a banquet held on September 16 as part of the 2011 AASLH Annual Meeting in Richmond, Virginia.

We are delighted to receive this award and appreciative of the recognition from AASLH. The photographs and maps on enable users to discover more about the history of Philadelphia and its many neighborhoods and communities. We hope that it provides people with an opportunity to remember and explore our city’s past in a fun and innovative way.

Thank you to all the users for supporting the project, and thank you to the American Association for State and Local History for the wonderful award!


Words, Not Pictures, Tell Philadelphia’s Earthquake History

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
“View of the ruins caused by the great fire northeast corner of Sixth and Market st. which began on the night
of Weds. April 30, 1856 – From the northwest.”

In case you were wondering (and many in the wake of the recent earthquake that shook the East Coast are) holds no images of earthquake damage. Sure, the city has a long history of shocks and tremors, but earthquakes around here have been little more than curious.

If it’s pictures of devastation you are after, you’ll have to change your search term from “earthquake” to “fire.” Now, there’s a search term with teeth.

Just a few weeks after the city installed a fire-alarm telegraph system in 1856, a fire broke out at the Jessup & Moore rag and paper warehouse. It spread to destroy 44 buildings near Sixth and Market Streets. The conflagration killed two firefighters and threatened Independence Hall, the tower of which can be seen through the smoke in this photograph by James E. McClees.

Philadelphia fires have an iconography all their own; earthquakes do not. But earthquakes passing through Philadelphia did produce a steady trail of tweet-length comments that predate the many online observations and comments of August 23, 2011.

“Clocks ran down and china shaken from shelves,” marks the first time Philadelphians noticed the earth shake on October 17th 1727. (We have Joseph Jackson to thank for his “Earthquake Shocks in Philadelphia” entry in Volume II of his Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, published in 1931).

A local printer recorded a “smart shock” after “a soughing noise was heard” December 1, 1737. A few Philadelphians even claimed the shock threw them to the ground. Aiming to capitalize on this new market of interested readers; Franklin attempted to explain the phenomenon in the subsequent issue of his Pennsylvania Gazette.

Philadelphia’s only earthquake described as “ominous” struck on October 30, 1763, just as the ship carrying John Penn, grandson of William, landed at the Market Street Wharf. As it turned out, the “very loud roaring noise” accompanying a “trembling of the ground” was only that.

The shocks kept coming and so did the descriptors. On December 8, 1811 folks felt “a sensible undulation” and in the November 1840 earthquake was “accompanied by a great and unusual swell on the Delaware River.”

“Buildings shook perceptibly, sashes rattled and bells rang” from tremors on August 10, 1884. Two years later, on August 31, an earthquake produced “undulations in houses” and more bell ringing. An early morning earthquake on September 1, 1895 shook buildings, broke crockery, damaged walls of houses under construction, but not much survives that’s Twitterworthy.

Although Philadelphia seemed to be spared for much of the 20th century, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) “History of Earthquakes in Pennsylvania” tells of December 27, 1961, when residents in neighborhoods of the Northeast experienced rattling dishes and “loud rumbling sounds.” On December 10, 1968 toll booths on the Benjamin Franklin and Walt Whitman Bridges in Philadelphia “trembled.”

The moral of this story, of course, is that some stories can be told with pictures; others can’t. We work with what history leaves us. And when we’re lucky, we encounter descriptive gems as “soughing.” For that vintage word alone (soughing, by the way, means murmuring or, in this case, moaning) we are grateful.


Continuing the Civil War at the Centennial Exhibition

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
“The American Soldier” at the Centennial Exhibition, Centennial Photographic Company, 1876.

Our understanding of Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876 suffers from an ironic condition. The first American world’s fair was so thoroughly documented that the sheer amount of material keeps better understanding at bay. To come to terms with the significance of the event considered one of Philadelphia’s shining moments, researchers too often drown themselves in information. There’s just that much of it. Consider what’s online here at the Free Library of Philadelphia and here at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Offline, these and other institutions preserve even more. At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania there’s 30 vintage volumes and as many boxes listed in this 17-page finding aid (see the .pdf). Last year, added the Free Library’s collection of 1,600 images, mostly all by the Centennial Photographic Company. These document the Centennial’s hundreds of buildings and thousands of exhibits.

With such multitudes of stuff, forays into this rich corner of the past tend to leave us out of balance, thrilled by discovery but still wanting discourse. And who could blame us from enjoying the simple sledding through the archival avalanche?

But there’s more here than stuff. So how do we get at the deeper meaning? Let’s parse the narrative of 1876, looking at less to see more. After all, here’s a defining event in the life of the city and one that remade the idea of the nation after a devastating Civil War. Only a decade before, the nation and the American people were rent asunder; the war killed or wounded nearly one in thirty citizens. Since surrender at Appomattox, there hadn’t been an event of national healing. Philadelphia and the celebration of the nation’s birth in 1876 finally offered a chance. Here and now, 10 million visitors would gather to see the new, post-Civil War America.

So we have to ask: why was a colossal, granite figure of a Union soldier posted at the entrance of the Main Building? To the company that produced the monument (and others like it) this 21-foot tall, 30-ton statue titled “The American Soldier,” “The Volunteer Soldier” or sometimes “The Private Soldier Monument” was about patriotism, but it was more about business. James G. Baterson and his New England Granite Company were developing a lucrative niche in the Civil War monument market. Inside the Art Building, now known as Memorial Hall, Commissioners had forbidden references to the Civil War. In reality, that taboo had been violated several times in the American displays, especially with Peter F. Rothermel’s huge depiction of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. But here, outdoors, stood a Union soldier for all to see. He stood at rest, but still he was armed.

After the Centennial, Baterson shipped the American Soldier Monument to Sharpsburg, Maryland, where it stands at the center of the Antietam National Cemetery. It marks the bloodiest single-day battle in American history: 4,000 dead and 19,000 wounded. Physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. visited Antietam in the raw days after the battle to search for his wounded son, who had left Harvard to fight. “The slain of high condition, ‘embalmed’ and iron cased, were sliding off the railways to their far homes,” wrote Holmes, “the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth.”

Holmes the younger, though shot through the neck, survived to return to Harvard and later served as a justice on the U. S. Supreme Court. But thousands of other families lost sons and couldn’t afford to either find or return their bodies. They had only one option: burial at Antietam. And there, on September 17, 1880–the 18th anniversary of the battle—families that could travel gathered to dedicate the “Private Soldier Monument.” But every last one of those families that showed up was from the North. Confederate causalities were banned from burial at Antietam National Cemetery.

In the sorrowful days and weeks after the battle, the Union first took care of its own, identifying and burying. Meanwhile, as Alexander Gardner’s photographs at the Library of Congress so graphically illustrate, the Sharpsburg landscape remained strewn with Confederate bodies. After quick and dirty burials where they fell, these bodies were later dug up and carted a dozen miles away to a Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, where nearly every soldier was laid to rest without name or monument.


Why Remember Edison High School?

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
Edison High School, originally Northeast Manual Training School, October 16, 1912.

Nearly every high school in America sent graduates off to the place we nervously called “Saigon U.” In the late 1960s, we knew all too well that some would return in body bags. But no high school in America suffered as many casualties as Philadelphia’s Edison High. This school at 7th and Lehigh lost 54 young men in Vietnam.

Today, the Edison/Fareira High School occupies a much newer building at Front and Luzerne Streets. Sacrifices of the original are remembered there in a large, memorial plaque listing the names each one of the 54 casualties, Addison through Zerggen, cast in bronze above a large bas-relief of the school’s distinctive Lehigh Avenue façade.

The days for the building that was once home to Edison (and Northeast High School previous to 1957) are numbered. Last week, fire roared through its crenellated towers and we saw spectacular images, including this one of smoke seeping eerily through mortar joints. The fire on August 3rd, 2011 quickly grew to four alarms and makes for a dramatic final chapter in a century-long story. While the cause of the fire remains under investigation, there is much we know for certain about the place.

“Collegiate Gothic Revival,” best known from examples throughout the Ivy League, “reached its full flower in Philadelphia public schools in the Thomas A. Edison School (1903-1905),” according to its National Register nomination. (See a .pdf of the 57-page document here.) Outside, architect Lloyd Titus reached back in time with his use of gargoyles and towers; inside he designed for the present and projected the future. No earlier school extant in Philadelphia had an auditorium and Titus’s innovative plan mixed classrooms and shops that were designed for very specific purposes. The goal: a school aimed not only to educate but to train a large workforce. The building’s first iteration as the Northeast Manual Training School assured graduates be not scholars or soldiers, but workers ready for an industrial city packed with job opportunities.

It was about training, but it was also about location. A century ago, 7th and Lehigh had grown into the nexus of Philadelphia’s industrial production. Within a mile, fresh graduates would and did find employment in scores of foundries, factories and mills. Among the largest and most famous was the nearby Quaker Lace, which opened in 1880 at 4th and Lehigh as the Horner Brother Carpet Company. As the new school’s doors opened, sounds from all manner of factories, but especially the clatter of more than 100 Nottingham lace curtain looms filled nearby streets. This sound is something like what can be heard today at the Boote Mill Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts—only more so. (See and listen here.)

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
Miniature Breech-Loaded Cannon fabricated at Northeast Manual Training School,
later Edison High School, October 22, 1907.

That Philadelphia is long gone, and so are the mills. And if last week’s fire on Lehigh Avenue sounded a bit familiar, it’s for good reason. On September 19, 1994, local drug dealers hired school-age children to set fire to the Quaker Lace building. Mill operations had ceased seven years earlier and the police found a corner in the empty, block-long building a convenient outpost to observe drug traffic. An eight-alarm fire (twice the alarms of the recent fire at Edison) destroyed the police outpost, but also the entire factory, 20 nearby properties and 11 cars. A special report on trends in teen arson for Homeland Security documented the incident. (See the .pdf.)

Philadelphia’s hulking, empty buildings are poignant evidence of the city’s deindustrialization. Places like Quaker Lace and Edison High School had become popular destinations for vandals and, more interestingly, for urban explorers such as photographers Tom Bejgrowicz and Urban Atrophy.

As these authentic sites disappear, one by one, what do we have left? We have memory, of course, and we have the photographic record, which documents layers of time and good intent, including the ideas of educators who taught young people how to make everything from the finest lace to miniature weapons of war.


Travels In The Unpretentious City

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
View From Temple University, “Progress – Permanent Paving – Broad Street East Side of Berks Street. August 17, 1926.”

Philadelphia is my city. That’s for better and for worse, which can make living here inspiring or infuriating. But if I had to pick a single word to describe the real Philadelphia, it would be “unpretentious.” The real city challenges the notion of pretense and embraces ideas of community and comfort. So, yes, Philadelphia is more than my city, Philadelphia is our city: an unpretentious, shared place.

You know what I mean? Christopher Morley did. Morley captured the spirit of this shared place in his newspaper column, Travels in Philadelphia, collected and published in book form as he went off to New York in 1920. Before going, Morley absolutely nailed the character of the city. More than sixty years later, Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies explored the idea in Philadelphia: a 300 Year History: “Nowhere were the rich richer or the poor poorer.” Yet, that Philadelphia didn’t define itself by the “great empty gap that yawned between rich and poor.” Rather, folks here built something more interesting and more dynamic: a “vast, spongey, interwoven social medium of infinite gradations.” According to Burt and Davies, whether you lived in a house of “three or thirty rooms,” Philadelphia had something to offer.

Philadelphia can be anyone’s, but it is everyone’s. This notion of a shared city is even built into the name. The meaning of Philadelphia may be cloaked in ancient Greek, but we’re the “City of Brotherly Love.” Community is in our very DNA. That seems to keep us humble; it’s meant to keep us honest.

Question is: in our new century, will the shared city survive? That’s one of the things I consider in my position on the American Studies faculty at Temple University. It’s what I wondered about in earlier stages of my career (all in Philadelphia) which began in the late 1970s at the Library Company of Philadelphia. There, as curator of Prints and Photographs, I had the challenge (and the responsibility) to collect, care for and make sense of the city through its images: maps, lithographs, engravings, and photographs, especially the photographs.

Now, I’ve found my way to this space to continue the quest. This time, I’m fortunate to have at my fingertips (as do you) a vast pool of what is now known as “content.” My plan is to travel the unpretentious city and, on a weekly basis, share it with you in words and images. Let’s hope for an interesting, informative and occasionally enlightening ride.

New Features Uncategorized

Selecting Images for Augmented Reality

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos

Work continues on the augmented reality project, and we’re having fun testing and tweaking the project to make it as useful and enjoyable as possible. While the software developers write code and discuss spatial issues (including geometry and the calculation of angles at one point), we’re busy with our own projects over at the City Archives.

As Hillary mentioned in her last blog post, the augmented reality application will provide access to almost every image in that is connected to a location – a total of nearly 90,000 images. From those 90,000 images, we’ve selected 500 photos to receive a bit of special attention. Each image has been “pinned” in 3D space so that it’s easier to see how the angle and view shown in the photo match the current landscape. The result will be a group of images that are oriented properly, meaning that the building in the photo lines up with the same building seen through your smartphone. Hopefully, this should prevent you from having to dramatically maneuver the phone to align the images. Selecting the photos was both overwhelming and gratifying as we got to spend some time exploring the huge collection of images. For more information on the image selection process, read “Something New in Your Neighborhood: Augmented Reality.”

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos

Choosing 500 photos wasn’t the last curatorial decision we had to make though. We also needed to select twenty images for which we would provide historical information about the places and activities shown in the photos as well as links to additional resources. To select those images, we teamed up with Dr. Charlene Mires and Dr. Howard Gillette, two of the editors of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, and Dr. Amy Hillier, the project director for Mapping the DuBois Philadelphia Negro. Together with researcher and writer, Doreen Skala, and the rest of the team, this advisory group selected images that touched on a few of the memorable historic locations, people, and events in Philadelphia history. The selected photos cover a variety of topics and locations. An image of the Italian Market in 1954 and another of Gimbels Department Store in 1966 connect to upcoming Encyclopedia essays on the history of the Italian Market or Center City department stores. A photo of Engine House #11 relates to events in African-American history, and an image of high school students visiting a pretzel vendor gives insight into the history of formal schooling in Philadelphia.

While these twenty selected images certainly do not cover the entirety of Philadelphia’s rich history, we hope they will provide more details about a few events and locations. Due to the small screen size available on a mobile phone, we had to limit the text to only a short paragraph. With each image, however, we also included a list of sources and links to possible sites for more information. We hope you enjoy the chance to learn more about these amazing photographs!