Travels In The Unpretentious City


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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.

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