Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Growth and Development

The following panel discussion took place during the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join in the discussion by adding your thoughts below.

Walter Licht of the University of Pennsylvania, who chaired the panel, provided an overview of the purpose of the discussion and elaborated on the diverse background of each of the presenters.

Philip Hopkins from Select Greater Philadelphia opened his remarks by covering many of the strengths and weaknesses which must be factored into development decisions in Philadelphia. The location of the city along the heavily populated corridor running Boston to Washington, as well as the facts that the Greater Philadelphia area has a large population and comparatively high income levels, need to be emphasized in the Encyclopedia. Hopkins argued that the region has cost advantages over New York and Boston, and this is especially true with respect to rail, highway, and marine transportation costs. A unique situation has arisen over the years, however, in that Philadelphia has developed a reputation as an area where few inventions are made; rather, it is the city where inventions from other areas are perfected and many applications are found for these imported discoveries. Associate or more advanced degrees are awarded by ninety-two educational institutions in the region, which can be a tremendous asset for the growth of the area. Progress is hindered in the region by the inordinately high number (392) of municipal/school governing boards which must be navigated by those seeking to improve the area.

Joseph N. DiStefano of the Philadelphia Inquirer opened his comments by pointing out that many of the largest service companies in some major contemporary industries are located in the city and its immediate suburbs. While the city has lost big employers like the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baldwin Locomotive, and Philadelphia National Bank, the region is now home to Comcast cable TV, Vanguard mutual funds, SunGard financial software, the two dominant U.S. credit card companies, and a dozen major pharmaceutical companies. However, unlike the old locally-focused employers, these giant service companies are focused on national and world markets, and the region has lost its powerful, tight local business elite. The audience was further reminded that this city served as the nation’s financial capital as well as the seat of government in the nation’s infancy. While Philadelphia doesn’t experience the rapid growth of some areas of the nation, the diverse nature of its industries makes it less likely to be as adversely impacted by recessions which might occur during expected business cycles. He speculated that the current economic crisis might have been much less dramatic had that pattern prevailed in other parts of the country. DiStefano closed his presentation by concurring with Mr. Hopkins that the areas growth is stymied by too many levels of government bureaucracy and reminded the editors that the success of the Encyclopedia will hinge on its editing.

David Thornburgh, Director of the Fels Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that the Encyclopedia needs to recreate the context of the times when covering historical events as “nothing was predetermined to occur.” Two of the important moments in the growth of the city, according to Thornburgh, were the 1854 consolidation and the highly successful Centennial celebration. Similarly, the creation of Fairmount Park, the Center City District, and the Convention Center as well as the development of Society Hill marked great progress in the city. Each of these advances was accomplished with tremendous citizen input and involvement. Thornburgh asked that the Encyclopedia consider the economic typography of the region as a legacy of the city’s role as the “workshop of the world.” He described the areas as a “great forest with small trees.” By this he meant that many of the nation’s cities are dominated by a single corporation employing in excess of 30,000 people, whereas Philadelphia is much more diversified and the largest private employer has a payroll of only 12,000. The term “mini-cities” more aptly describes the outlying areas of Philadelphia as the concept of suburbs does not accurately apply to this city as it does to many other metropolitan areas. Any study of the city would be incomplete if it did not consider the impact of the “50s era” airport, I-95 which cuts the city off from the Delaware River, and the Blue Route and the impact each of these has on growth and development. The significantly adverse impact of the public policy to implement the “wage tax” needs to be fully explored as it proved to be “very damaging.” Finally, immigration patterns to Philadelphia are much different than to other cities in North America. This includes the movement of African-Americans into the region.

Guian McKee, from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, discussed his recent study of deindustrialization in Philadelphia and concluded that it pointed out the need to challenge existing assumptions about the nature, process, and inevitability of economic change. He stated that he hopes the Encyclopedia will similarly encourage readers to challenge their own preconceptions about the city’s history and the implications of that history for the present. He also pointed out the many connections between this and other panels at the workshop. He observed that it is impossible to separate historical issues of growth and development in Philadelphia (and elsewhere) from the history of immigration and ethnicity, the built environment, race and rights, and politics and public policy, and noted specific points of overlap between areas. The Encyclopedia should strive to contextualize growth and development within these sorts of relationships. McKee suggested that the Encyclopedia can serve as a repository of valuable historical statistical information about the city’s economy that is currently not centralized in any single source. This data could be explored using GIS capabilities, potentially allowing users of the online version to map the city’s economy over time. It could also be linked to various spatial information about the city’s historical development – Sanborn maps, census maps, PhillyHistory.org’s GIS-linked photographs – to create a multi-dimensional historical portrait of the city and facilitate users research into the history of specific places within the city.

Rutgers University historian Philip Scranton pointed out that the institutional base for the industrialization of Philadelphia is grounded in the nineteenth century. He argued that the foundation of this project should involve several intellectually significant questions re American history, urbanization and Philadelphia, which this work will help its audiences understand and address: Why has Philadelphia seemed so fragmented, socially/culturally/economically? Was it always so? If not, what changed it? Why has Philadelphia been a center for family-owned firms across the centuries? Possible formats of the Encyclopedia could be: Emblematic—make certain to cover all icons; Thematic—Philadelphia pictured within larger dynamics; Distinctive—what about Philadelphia is unique ? Resonance—how can readers find themselves in the Encyclopedia? This panel emphasizes growth and development but we will need to address other dynamics, like displacement & decay, and perhaps revival through restaurants/consumption. Several other important areas to consider are dimensions of the larger project. We have long focused on production and consumption: what was made here, how were goods purchased and how did people shop? But we should pay attention to a least four other dimensions of the urban process. Environment—how did the topography, landscapes, and rivers impact the way in which the city developed? Infrastructure—how did sewers, the water system, and transportation such as the trolleys assist in the economic growth of the city? Professions and Services – the significance of law, finance, medicine, merchantry, real estate, and construction to the city’s growth. Last, the value of the colleges and universities to the evolution of the city was echoed by Dr. Scranton who further pointed to the Franklin Institute, the Merchants’ Club, Wagner Institute of Science, Central High, the Union League, DRPA, and SEPTA as organizations that have been critical to the city.

Walter Licht closed the panel discussion by reading his succinct entry on Philadelphia from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History.

Dialogue: At this point a lively interchange with the audience began. Among the topics addressed were the ways in which companies in the region have recruited personnel and what attractions have led to the economic development of the city. The suburbs are certainly impacted by events in Philadelphia, and this needs to be examined. A number of audience members mentioned the “rules” which are passed from generation to generation and which govern much of the social, economic, and cultural activities of a region. These “rules” are different in each city, and there are specific rules in Philadelphia which either nurture or thwart change. There was some consensus that some of the most successful people in Philadelphia’s history were “rule breakers” who shunned conformity and thought “outside the box.” A final discussion centered on the age demographics of the city and whether the popular perception that the region’s most educated youth tend to move elsewhere.

What are the region’s information needs in the area of growth and development? Add your thoughts below.

One Comment Comments

  1. Oh boy…….an area that would be of some interest, showing Philadelphia’s impacts beyond Philadelphia. As suggested by your panel, re: location of business that reach beyond, possibly something like…….Philadelphia and Pittsburgh comparisons, contrasts and commonality in Penns. ?

    This might demonstrate differences and as well as shared regional features for Philadelphia ?
    Many Thanks,
    Wyatt Reader

    Wyatt Reader Posted May 26, 2009 at 3:46 pm

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