The Time is Now: Philadelphia's Future Lies in Its Past

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

In his luncheon speech, Gary Nash recalled that eighteen months ago in an address marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, he called on Philadelphians to launch new projects to create a documentary film and an encyclopedia of the city’s history. He recounted his arguments for the encyclopedia, including the availability of a wealth of recent scholarship and the potential for such a project to unite the city’s diverse population and neighborhoods. He called for a process of civic engagement that would build upon the lessons learned from the controversies that surrounded the placement of the Liberty Bell Center without regard to the history of slavery on the site of the President’s House at Sixth and Market Streets.

Nash noted with approval that the Encyclopedia project had gained “astounding momentum” and was fulfilling his call for wide-ranging participation. But he cautioned that controversy could lie ahead as the project tackles sensitive subjects such as race, religion, gender, and class. For those who may wish a only a triumphal story, the project needs to show that history can be complex, ambiguous, and thought-provoking. The overhaul of exhibits inside the Liberty Bell Center has shown that this is possible and desirable, Nash argued.

Nash concluded, “If ever there was a chance to tell this city’s story in all its complicated past and its many meanings to so many people who washed up on the Delaware’s shores and who sank their roots through good times and the times of sorrow, then now is the time.” Echoing the language of the Gettysburg address, he concluded that the Encyclopedia will be “of the people – all of them; for the people – all of them; and by the people – by as many as will step forward to contribute.”

Dialogue: The Q&A session was dominated by discussion of a need for greater diversity among the editors. One participant suggested that, because of this, the project was in danger of forgetting or omitting various Philadelphia communities. Nash answered that the editors should be seen as simply putting pieces together that were created by others. Another person in attendance offered that perhaps a larger board was needed to create sections of the encyclopedia, such as a editor for religious articles, etc. It was then said that the project should avoid making the mistakes of the book Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, which was written by elder scholars who were essentially reflecting back on the previous twenty years of scholarship. Instead, the current project should look forward by leaving authorship to young scholars that represent the future of their respective fields.

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy