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2005 ASA Annual Meeting . . . Our 100th Meeting!

Michael Zuckerman, author of this first article in the Annual Meeting series, is one of the nation's best colonial historians. He is a Philadelphian, born and bred, the author of such classics as Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century, and Almost Chosen People: Oblique Biographies in the American Grain, as well as many articles and edited collections. He has generously accepted to revise for us the loving and lovely presentation of Philadelphia that he wrote for his fellow historians over two decades ago. We are grateful, and delighted. More specifications and details about walks, monuments, and great restaurants that demand advance reservations will appear in the coming months on the ASA web site, in announcements in Footnotes and in the package you will receive when you arrive at registration. Don’t forget to open it!

2005 ASA Annual Meeting Host Committee

Philadelphia: The City

The first article in a series highlighting ASA’s upcoming 2005 centennial meeting in Philadelphia

by Michael Zuckerman, University of Pennsylvania

Noted urban historian Sam Bass Warner once called Philadelphia a private city. He meant primarily to emphasize, without using the word, the capitalism that aligns Philadelphia with every other American city. But his phrase also captured a certain secretiveness that distinguishes Philadelphia from most other American cities.

Philadelphians have never quite gotten the hang of the assertive civic boosterism that seems so imperative elsewhere. They have never been so pathetically provincial as to suppose themselves the Hub of the Universe. They have never even been so bent on braggadocio as to proclaim themselves pridefully the Second City.

And yet the world has always come around to Philadelphia and its distinctive ways. In the 17th century, when the essential issues of the western world were religious, Philadelphia was practicing universal religious liberty before most other cities were even imagining it. In the 18th century, when the essential questions of the Atlantic community were political, Philadelphia was embodying the ideals of the Enlightenment in institutions while republican visionaries in other countries were still whispering them conspiratorially in coffee houses. In the 19th century, when the essential energies of America were economic, Philadelphia led the nation in elaborating the techno-logic and the organizational logic of the industrial revolution. Even in the 20th century, when the cities of the sunbelt have surged to the fore, Philadelphia pointed the path of city planning and urban renewal to which the decaying urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest continue to cling.

Most Historically Significant

Quite simply, Philadelphia has been and remains to this day the most historically significant city in the country. So far from being merely the birthplace of American freedom, it has exhibited a continuing cultural creativity across the three centuries of its existence to which no other city can even come close. An utterly implausible proportion of the constituent elements of contemporary America originated in Philadelphia. The earliest American bank, insurance company, business school, and stock exchange all appeared in Philadelphia, and so did the first labor union and the first strike. The daily newspaper debuted here, and so did the typewriter, the telephone, and the large-scale electronic computer. The first hospital in America opened its doors here, and so did the first public library, the first learned society, the first art museum, and the first non-sectarian university. The first modern skyscraper was built here, designed by George Howe—it has now become the Loew’s Hotel where the ASA will hold its meetings—and the first modern shopping mall went up a few miles outside the city. The first savings and loan association was established here, as well as the first federally funded housing project. The first wage tax was collected here. That quintessentially modern institution, the insane asylum, began here. (Of course, Philadelphia has not always been busy inventing America in all its ponderous modernity. An endless array of American indispensables such as the circus, the ice cream soda, the merry-go-round, the comics, and the Girl Scout cookie sale also originated here.)

There are museums to mark much of this inventiveness and its residues, dozens upon dozens of museums, devoted to everything from Swedish history to antique toys, soup tureens to submarines. Most of them are within easy reach of the convention hotels. Most of them are among the premier institutions of their kind in the country and indeed in the world. But for all the majesty of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, all the scientific pizzazz of the Franklin Institute, all the splendor of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology or the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and more, the grandest museum remains the city itself.

In almost any direction a vagrant sociologist might meander from the hotel, in this most rewardingly walkable of American cities, she will find effluvia of Philadelphia’s more than 325 years of creativity. A few blocks to the west, for example, at the College of Physicians, she will find one of America’s extraordinary libraries of the history of medicine and, far more fun, an intact Victorian chamber of medical monstrosities (one of two in the city, actually; the other is on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, at the Wistar Institute, which houses not only the formaldehyde embalmed phantasms of the 19th century but also one of the supremely sophisticated cancer research facilities of the 20th).

A few blocks to the south, the strolling scholar will come upon the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the finest collection of manuscripts in American history outside the Library of Congress. Also, a few blocks to the south sits the Rosenbach Foundation, the townhouse of the greatest book dealer the world has ever seen, and the most genteel as well as fascinating place I know to do research. And if these are of interest mostly to historians, sociologists may easily meander a mile northwest to Eastern State Penitentiary, once the most visionary prison in the world, now a vast rotted ruin partially restored for tourists, and still the best embodiment on the planet of the panopticon aspiration to social control. [The ASA Annual Meeting Host Committee hopes to offer a guided tour of this very interesting site. Watch for the announcement!] Or they may even more easily stroll a block north to the Reading Terminal Market, once the most genteel and still perhaps the most sophisticated of all American farmers’ markets.

Ornate Civic Pomp

Two blocks west on Market Street hulks City Hall. Surrounded by plazas and fountains, it centers the city in every symbolic way and more than a few real ones as well. Thirty years in the building, City Hall still cuts an imposing figure among the skyscrapers that only in the late 1980s started to look down on the statue of William Penn that crowns City Hall. “No taller than William Penn’s hat” was for a long time the enforced norm of the city’s planners. City Hall is still bigger by far than most of the new structures in the city. It was, in fact, bigger than any building in America before the Pentagon. Situated at the very center of the city William Penn planned, it is the one building in the only city in the country that embodies visually the fiction so fondly cherished by so many generations of social scientists, that politics stands at the center of our social life. In a milieu strewn with architectural triumphs from the time of Latrobe, Haviland, Strickland, and Walter to our own day of Kahn and Venturi, it is the city’s ultimate treasure. Inside, its courtrooms are gilded fantasies of grandeur (and have to be, to stand comparison to the outrageous politicians who ply their trade in the chambers and the Damon Runyon types who crowd the corridors). Outside, its walls are adorned with more carving than any building ought by rights to bear (though far less than they bore in its original ornate pomposity). And at the top stands the immense sculpture of Penn by Alexander Calder I, commanding a multitude of marvelous views of the city, including one down the Parkway past the monumental Logan Circle fountain sculpted by Alexander Calder II to the Art Museum’s grand stairway and its huge dancing mobile done by Alexander Calder III. All about City Hall stand other monumental sculptures, by Oldenburg, Moore, Lipschitz, Indiana, and Dubuffet, to mention but a few. And all around the city stand others that compose the finest collection of outdoor sculpture in the country.

Across the street from City Hall to the east is the building designed by Daniel Burnham of Chicago that once was John Wanamaker’s, one of the great department stores of the land, and that now houses Lord and Taylor’s. Across the street to the north is the Masonic Temple, with some of the damndest construction set-pieces you ever saw. And between the Masonic Temple and City Hall runs a small portion of one of the most dazzlingly audacious constructions of our time, a $400-million flimflam known as the center city commuter tunnel. Designed ostensibly to connect the city’s two commuter train systems and actually to fuel an old political campaign of our famous (or infamous) former Mayor Rizzo with jobs for the building trades unions, it required a vast trench bored beneath 35-story skyscrapers with sufficient brute strength to keep those towers from crashing down and sufficient finesse to keep an intricate profusion of telephone cables, electric wires, gas pipes, and water mains from snarling the central business district in a different kind of catastrophe.

Un-American Cosmopolitanism

Besides being a marvel all in its own right, the tunnel is a marvelous emblem of the intertwining of vision and its corruption that has lent dynamism to the city since its founding. Penn projected a religious haven for all people and expected his refuge to turn a tidy profit as a real estate speculation. The men who made the American Revolution enunciated enduring republican ideals and sold grain to the British whenever they offered higher prices than the army encamped at Valley Forge. To this day, the city displays an almost un-American cosmopolitanism alongside an almost suffocating neighborhood clannishness and ethnic antagonism.

But if emblematic tunnels seem a bit arcane for a casual visit, you will find all manner of other entertainments more accessible. The new and flashy Kimmel Center as well as the old and distinguished Academy of Music regularly host the greatest musicians in the world including classical and popular, and myriad comedy, jazz, dance, theater, and musical stages complement those two main venues.

Eagles in the Super Bowl

If music is not your number, sport may be. The Phillies will still be licking their wounds by August, but the brilliant new stadium, already acclaimed as one of the grandest in the land, will be full anyway. The Riversharks will be playing their own delectable brand of minor league ball at the Campbell’s Field, at the New Jersey foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge in Camden; it’s easier to get there than to the Phillies’s stadium in South Philadelphia, and the games are more fun, besides. There is also great minor league baseball half an hour away in Trenton and Wilmington, an hour away in Atlantic City and Reading, and a bit further away, for the diehards, in Scranton and Harrisburg. The Eagles will be heading for training camp, where ten thousand a day head out from the most passionate sports city in America to watch them practice ... and just imagine if they had won the Super Bowl!

Culinary Adventures

Or, if sport is not your cup of tea, you can indulge in a well-developed Philadelphia pastime and go out to eat. Since the end of the 1970s, the city has continuously been gifted with some of the most adventuresome and accomplished restaurants in the country. Virtually every food and travel magazine has written of the restaurant renaissance by the banks of the Delaware, and virtually every gourmet group has made its pilgrimage. Former New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne called one local dining shrine, Le Bec Fin, the best French restaurant in America. The Washington Post concluded a rapturous survey with the opinion that there were four great cuisines of the world: French, Chinese, Italian, and Philadelphian. In more eccentric locations, new and charming restaurants have turned Pennsylvania’s notorious Blue laws into an advantage: you can “bring your own booze” and be pleased by the amount of the bill.

Urban Renewal & Brotherly Love

The new restaurants are strewn through every quarter of the central city, and some of the finest are in Society Hill, where the very streets and structures that first gave form to Penn’s founding vision now stand richly reclaimed as the first visionary urban renewal enterprise in the nation, and in many ways still the most satisfying. It would be hard to imagine a nicer way to wind up a fine meal than with a stroll through the area where the country was born, perhaps to end at Penn’s Landing, where the river itself is being recovered for sailboat marinas, sculpture gardens, and skateboard runs, even as the great freighters and oil tankers glide by in the wake of the doughty tugs, and a still unfinished and perilous experiment in diversity proceeds where it began, in a dream of brotherly love, three centuries ago. This is, after all, a city that gave a 400,000 votes advantage to the Democrats in 2004 and colored Pennsylvania blue. The turnout was high, and more than four fifths of the votes were for John Kerry. Some of the extraordinary feelings of togetherness and solidarity that blossomed in last fall’s electoral mobilization are still in the air.