Connecting Philadelphia’s past to the present

This article was written for my Multimedia Storytelling class at Temple University.
Sign outside of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Candice Monhollan)

Sign outside of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Candice Monhollan)

It’s never hard to miss the gleaming skyscrapers that make up Philadelphia’s skyline. A closer look reveals treasures hidden among them.

Sprinkled within these lofty buildings are the frameworks of not only the City of Brotherly Love, but the nation itself.

“If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going,” said Kay Connors, a tour guide with Centipede Tours.

It’s a lesson she tries to instill upon visitors as she shows them the historic places around the city as, on this particular day, she guided a group of kids and chaperones from Michigan around Independence Hall.

“Think about the reality of it and who was here and how it all shapes everybody’s life,” Connors said. “Not just ours in the United States, but actually in the world.”

Employees who work around these places bear witness daily to how momentous the events that happened here were.

“It’s the history of the nation,” said Eric Knight, a park ranger at Independence Hall. “I’m in a position in this job [where] I can educate, I can entertain, I can inspire. It’s also a job where you’re constantly learning.”

A fellow ranger shares Knight’s sentiments.

“You get to experience where history actually happened,” Terry Papavasilis said. “The great thing about being a park ranger is you get to read about it and teach people about it.”

Not all the historic sites around the city are in good shape.

Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971 after 142 years in operation, but the roughly 40 years since haven’t been so kind to it as deterioration has left it in ruins.

“What our main goal is today is not to fix it, but to stabilize it,” said Nick Gillette, a tour guide at Eastern State. “We’re just trying to keep it from falling apart any further.”

Despite its unwelcoming-looking, desolate interior, Gillette takes joy in being there.

A horse and carriage strolls by Independence Hall. (Candice Monhollan)

A horse and carriage strolls by Independence Hall. (Candice Monhollan)

“I remember in the first few weeks of working here, just being completely fascinated with all of it,” Gillette said. “It’s not just another old building. It’s a phenomenal example of early American architecture and ingenuity. So many of the ideas we have in our prisons today have to do with it.”

Even the more obscure historic places have organizations that strive to find them and bring them to light.

“One of the things we try to do is reveal places, particular interiors of buildings, that people don’t get to go into,” said Nathaniel Popkin, the editorial and research director at Hidden City Philadelphia.

Hidden City Philadelphia has opened the public’s eyes to sites otherwise forgotten and left abandoned, like the Metropolitan Opera House.

“[We] strive to reveal the connections between the past, present and future [and] the tensions that exist that help us think about what was, what is and what might be,” Popkin said. “Another thing is getting people to explore their city. Get out of your neighborhood, think, look, walk…in the idea of exploration.”

One thing they all agree on is how important history is and the factors it played in making the city and the nation what it is today.

“Having a place that is extraordinarily rich and has all these layers is vitally important,” Popkin said. “It tells us who we are and it makes life more interesting.”

Many of the documents signed in Philadelphia are still in use to this day and continue to be the guidelines to how we run the United States.

“It’s important for this country because this is how it got started,” Knight said. “We’re still operating this country on what they put down on paper during the Constitutional Convention. It’s also important to go forward, to see how far this country has come, what it’s overcome and it helps you to understand a lot of the struggles that we have today.”

Though history may be behind us, there is still more to learn with each passing day from experiences in the past.

“You figure by now you’d know everything you’d ever want to know about Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the Delcaration [of Independence], the American Revolution,” Knight said. “But there are always new books. You’re constantly challenged to look at what you thought you know, re-think it [and] look at things a little differently at that time.”

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Categories: Community, History

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