Funeral for a Home

[This post comes to us from Patrick Grossi, Project Manager for Funeral for a Home and a student in Temple’s PhD Program in History. Click here to hear an excerpt from his interview with Lyell Funk about the meaning of “community” as it figures in public history practice.]

In Fall 2013 students at the Center for Public History participated in a unique neighborhood history/public art /community outreach project titled Funeral for A Home. Managed by Temple Contemporary, the exhibitions and public programming department at Tyler School of Art, Funeral for A Home commemorates the slow decline of Philadelphia’s housing stock, and the lives those homes contain. This year in collaboration with local residents, Mantua Civic Association, Mount Vernon Manor, Inc., Mantua Community Improvement Committee, HUB Coalition, People’s Emergency Center, artists and historians, Temple Contemporary will share the life and passing of a single home in Mantua, West Philadelphia. Over the course of the year all will contribute to a neighborhood history, one which places private reflection within a deeper historical context.

"Members of the Young Great Society painting the outside of a property on the south side of Reno Street as part of camp work program," 1979; George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Resource Center, Temple University
“Members of the Young Great Society painting the outside of a property on the south side of Reno Street as part of camp work program,” 1979; George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Resource Center, Temple University

Students in Seth Bruggeman’s Managing History graduate course conducted in depth interviews with nine of the project’s principal participants, among them local artists Jacob Hellman and Billy and Steven Dufala, who originally conceived of and will be designing the memorial service, Robert Blackson, Director of Temple Contemporary, and various representatives of city agencies and participating community non-profits. Though originally intended to have students interview the Mantua residents and community stakeholders lending their voice to the project, time constraints and the difficulties of securing an appropriate home forced Temple Contemporary and Professor Bruggeman’s students to reconsider their role. Rather than contribute to the historical narrative at the core of the project, the interviews instead offered an invaluable opportunity for internal assessment and sophisticated conceptual thinking. Students were able to tease out the most crucial, and controversial, aspects of the project, and forced Funeral for A Home’s practitioners to think seriously about the work they are proposing and the multiple ways in which it may be perceived. Moreover, students were offered an intimate backstage look at the varying levels of work that go into multidisciplinary programming of this kind.

At bottom, Funeral for a Home involves the commemoration and demolition of a structurally compromised home. Every year nearly 600 homes are demolished in the City of Philadelphia. As in most large post-industrial cities, the trends of depopulation dating to the mid-twentieth century have hit Philadelphia especially hard, and Mantua was hardly immune. Though Mantua was never much of an industrial sector, maps extending back to the 1870s and even as recent as the 1960s reveal a solidly residential row home neighborhood. Explicitly or not, Funeral for A Home and projects like it brush against issues of deep significance to the post-industrial urban environment, namely a much needed corrective toward preservation justice, a model for historians to engage more directly with “emotional labor,” and an opportunity to engage audiences across geography, race, and class. How to balance that often romanticized past with the harsher realities and positive redevelopment energy currently underway in Mantua is one of the core challenges to Funeral for A Home’s successful and ethical completion. The questions posed and answers offered via each student’s interview will do much service toward achieving that end.

 “Funeral for A Home” is made possible by a generous grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. For more information please visit or contact Temple Contemporary via phone 215-777-9138 or email 

Doing Community History in Philly

[MA student Erin Shipley reflects on her volunteer stint with History Truck.]

As a classmate of Philadelphia Public History Truck mastermind Erin Bernard, I agreed to help collect oral histories at the East Kensington block party last weekend. I’d never formally interviewed anyone before, so I arrived nervous and not sure what to expect. The day started off slowly, but soon neighbors began to arrive, curious about what was going on. The food and music drew them in, but once they realized what the event was about, many people stuck around to share their memories of East Kensington.

Young and old alike were excited to talk to us about life in their neighborhood and share their objects for the future exhibit. To help out, I interviewed residents at a bistro set in the back of the History Truck—how fun is that? One of the men, in his late sixties, has lived his entire life in East Kensington and was especially keen on sharing how the neighborhood has changed over the course of his life. He shared very personal memories with me, and I was awed at his honest, genuine thoughts.

The second man spent a few minutes wandering around with his pit bull, Samantha, greeting and chatting with neighbors. He approached the truck and asked if I would be interested in hearing some stories passed down by his father, who lived in East Kensington in the 1920s and 30s. I told him I would be elated to hear his stories, so he and Samantha hopped in the truck. He was a well-spoken and practiced storyteller, and shared each story with such enthusiasm. His eagerness in passing on his family stories really struck me.

I hesitantly left the block party early because of a prior commitment, but continued thinking about the event and the people I spoke with for the rest of the weekend. The work of the Philly Public History Truck is so important—collecting and sharing stories from lesser-known areas will be a meaningful contribution to that community and to all of Philadelphia. It’s important that every individual in Philadelphia knows that their memories are significant and should be shared with future generations. Kudos, Philly History Truck—can’t wait to work with you in the future!

Welcome New Faculty

The CPH welcomes three new faculty members this year.  Hilary Iris Lowe joined the HIstory Depatment this semester.  She holds  a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Kansas. Her book, Mark Twain’s Homes and Literary Tourism (2012), is part of the Mark Twain and his Circle Series at the University of Missouri Press. She is currently co-editing a collection of essays concerning American literary tourism, which explores the history of literary sites in the U.S and their connections to authors and their writing.  Hilary is at work on a digital humanities project that explores and documents Literary Philadelphia.  Upcoming public history courses include the History of the National Park Service for undergraduates and Material Culture for graduate students.

Also, Ken Finkel and Deb Boyer will be joining us during spring to introduce two new course: Non-Profit Management and Digital History.  Learn more about them here.

Thanks, Marty!

As we begin a new academic year, the Center for Public History looks forward to a yet another year of transformation and collaborative history making.  Most notably, we bid farewell to Dr. Martin Levitt, who has led our widely-renowned archives training program since 1995.  Marty, who will be staying on as librarian of the American Philosophical Society, has trained hundreds of archivists, many of whom work in Philadelphia and many more beyond.  His imprint on our program will be deep and lasting.  We encourage those of you who have studied with Marty to share news of your accomplishments and to extend thanks for his many years of service.  Although the archives program will be on hiatus during the current academic year, we look forward to introducing its next phase, which should be in place by fall 2014.