Tag Archives: Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia

It Is Time to Be Honest About Our Historical Legacy

When I again felt restless and wanted to explore Philadelphia, I turned to Esther Klein’s Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia. This time I used the guidebook to lead a walking tour around Colonial Philadelphia with a friend who had never seen this side of Philadelphia before. My walking tour left me thinking about how the countless guidebooks I read this summer present Philadelphia’s history, and how the city’s history has always been up for debate, including today.

Before I dive into the bulk of this post, which is about my time at Independence Square and the Liberty Bell Center, I would like to take a few moments to gush about a few of the other stops on the tour. One of my favorite stops was Elfreth’s Alley. This street is the oldest colonial road in Philadelphia, and the preservation of the homes along the street as well as the cobblestone and brick walkway is remarkable. While I stood in the middle of the street and gazed around, I couldn’t help but feel removed from the present and transported back three hundred years ago. Christ Church and its burial ground was another noteworthy stop if only because it was a constant in most of the guidebooks I read this summer. The final stop I loved was the Walnut Street Theatre which is the oldest theatre in the United States. While viewing this storied house of entertainment, I was struck by how important entertainment has always been to society as a way to both escape from and confront the problems we face. Independence Square, however, is the place that grabbed my attention the most and left me thinking for days about how we still understand and represent our collective history.

The walking tour began at Independence Square, a location that is presented as one of the most historic areas in the country. It is undeniable that all of the buildings in Independence Square played a role in the birth of the United States of America. In fact, if you can remember back to the days of elementary school, there is a good chance that you not only heard the names of some of these buildings countless times, but also learned about their role in establishing liberty. After all, there is Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed;  Congress Hall where the United States Congress met before the country’s capital left Philadelphia; Old City Hall where Philadelphia’s city government met daily until the construction of the City Hall in Penn Square; the American Philosophical Society which is a library and institution founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 that continues to serve the public today; and Carpenter’s Hall where the first Continental Congress met. I did not remember much from my only prior visit to Independence Square in seventh grade so I was unsure of what to expect when I arrived. I was curious if there would be a rejection of critical thinking regarding the buildings and the people who inhabited them as I found was a consistent practice in the guidebooks from decades ago. I wondered whether or not there had been a shift away from the rose-tinted view of Philadelphian and American history that I read this summer. 

The long lines and heat outside were simply too much for us to wait in line to see the inside of every building in Independence Square, but we did wait to see the Liberty Bell Center. As I waited in line to get into the Center, I was able to read informational signs on the wall which detailed the history of slavery in the United States and Philadelphia. This was quite the divergence from the guidebooks I read this summer, as the topic of slavery rarely came up during my research so I was initially quite impressed with the Liberty Bell Center. To put it in perspective, during my research slavery only surfaced eight times out of 318 pages of annotations that I typed covering the guidebooks I read at the Temple Library and at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Bear in mind that these 318 pages of annotations represent thousands of pages. These eight references looked at one location where slaves had been regularly sold, the African Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and also where the first (white) protest against slavery was held in 1688. I will let you guess which one of those discussions of slavery dominated the conversation in the guidebooks. Needless to say, I was interested if the rest of the exhibit at the Liberty Bell Center would present a bland apolitical approach to the United States’ history of slavery, offer a rousing criticism of the United States’ past and the way it affects the present, or fall somewhere in between.

The first sign that caught my eye on my way into the center was a display simply titled “Memorial.” I found the message on this sign to be the most powerful of the entire exhibit despite it depicting our founding documents as pieces of history removed from the white supremacy and violence against marginalized bodies that was endorsed and practiced by the Founding Fathers and solidified in our government’s framework. 

The sign reads: “This enclosed space is dedicated to millions of men, women, and children of African descent who lived, worked, and died as enslaved people in the United States of America. They should never again be forgotten. One of two smokehouse rooms in which three enslaved men slept – Giles, Paris, and Austin – once stood in this area. The close proximity to the Liberty Bell Center reminds us that liberty was not originally intended for all. It is difficult to understand how men who spoke so passionately of liberty and freedom were unable to see the contradiction, the injustice, and the immorality of their actions. Enslaved Africans and their descendants endured brutality and mistreatment for over 200 years as their labor built and enriched the nation. The struggle for freedom and political, social, and economic equality continued even after the legal ending of slavery. The devastating effects of slavery continue to affect race relations to this day. Yet, we must continue to strive for the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. The African symbols, words, and quotations on the exterior and interior walls speak to the spirit of hope, the resilience of the human spirit, and the determination of a people to arise out of bondage to freedom.”

Other displays throughout the exhibit examineed some of the conditions of slavery in the United States, actions taken by abolitionists to end slavery as well actions taken by slave owners and the government to keep the brutal system of slavery intact, and the symbolism of the Liberty Bell. After seeing the “Memorial” sign’s strong condemnation of slavery, I hoped to encounter displays throughout the exhibit that looked at the reasons behind slavery and race relations in the United States instead of information solely focused on numbers and the timeline of slavery. Learning and understanding the history of slavery and race in the United States is much more than just knowing how many Africans were forcibly stolen from their native land, when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed into law, or that the Underground Railroad existed. I believe that learning these aspects of the history of slavery and race in the United States is an important first step in understanding the reasoning behind why, as the “Memorial” says, “The struggle for freedom and political, social, and economic equality continued even after the legal ending of slavery. The devastating effects of slavery continue to affect race relations to this day.” But by not offering more than a surface deep analysis of slavery and race, the Liberty Bell Center is reduced to presenting a number of fun facts on the way to see a centuries old Bell. Rather than being a source of forward progress and deep introspection, the exhibition chooses to play it safe and act as little more than a reinforcement for the very systems that allowed such violence to take place in the first place.

Yet, we have made progress, albeit not the monumental strides some claim we have made. The bulk of the guidebooks I read this summer were written and published at a time when Jim Crow laws were in effect throughout most of the country. Black Americans were ignored as an audience by the majority of published guidebooks as well as the government at the local, state, and federal levels. When the black community had the attention of the United States government, at any level, it was because they aimed to further reduce the rights and livelihoods of members of the black community. We may have moved past the days of blatant Jim Crow discrimination, but racism and white supremacy continue to form the basis of our government’s, and many American’s, daily decisions. It should also be noted that we have not left the fight for historical honesty behind us; a quick walk around the city will demonstrate what I mean. In Philadelphia there is a monument to “charismatic leader” Christopher Columbus whose “discovery” marked the beginning of an era of rape and genocide for Indigenous communities that has lasted centuries. Philadelphia proudly commemorates Police Commissioner and Mayor Frank Rizzo with a statue and a mural, but his time in power was remarkable only for the constant terror he enacted on the black and gay communities of Philadelphia during the 1960s and 1970s. The Liberty Bell Center extols the virtues of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which not only authorized slavery when the nation was founded, but also continues to authorize slavery today, so long as one has been convicted of a crime. These tributes serve as tacit approval of their honoree’s role in upholding systems of white supremacy and tell anyyone who bothers to look that we are proud of our history of white supremacy rooted in racism and xenophobia.

Despite claims to the contrary by some who wish to return to a period of national consensus so that America can be made great again, Philadelphia and the United States has never experienced a period of mass agreement  We can not return to a period in the past that never existed as American history always has been and continues to be a constant struggle to expand the notion of liberty to all people. This is why what we choose to revere and remember matters. This is why a statue is more than just a statue and the words on a sign are more than just a string of random words. They tell us, as a country, who we respect and whose views we align with. And while some people may continue to try to sweep racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy under the rug, these objects and ideas will always be evident in our public policy and public discourse to anyone who bothers to look. Some Americans may have moved from outright racism to coded language, but the damage is just as real now as it was centuries ago, regardless of how well one hides their intolerance. 

This is why I find the conscious choice to divorce the United States’ Founding Fathers and founding documents from their steadfast belief in white supremacy and racism as a form of governance so concerning. It does not matter where this shallow analysis of American history is to be found, be it in decades old guidebooks or in modern day exhibits and monuments, it has left many with little more than a collection of fun facts about the history of Philadelphia and the United States of America. And while fun facts are great to make oneself appear interesting in a conversation, they are of little significance if we do not understand how the fun fact plays into our historical legacy. Many Americans may only be left with an assortment of fun facts, but others find reinforcement for their ideas of hate and intolerance. This means that until we confront our historical legacy head-on and with honesty we will continue to put the most marginalized individuals of our society directly in harms way. This is unforgivable. Our cowardice to be honest about our history has real world consequences as seen through the murder that took place in Charlottesville less than two weeks ago or through the domestic terrorism committed by a white man in the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston two years ago. If we truly believe in expanding the notion of liberty to all people then it’s high-time we become honest about what the United States’s historical legacy of white supremacy and work to change it.

It’s All About the Little Things

I’ve spent the last two months reading sources in a number of different libraries, but more recently I began to step outside of the libraries of Philadelphia and explore the city as written about decades ago. I first turned to Esther Klein’s Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia and utilized her Walking Tour of Center Philadelphia to lead myself and some friends around downtown. While we had a lot of fun during our afternoon we were also left with plenty to think about on the way back to our apartment.

The route of the Center Philadelphia tour was originally published in 1965 so I was unsure what my friends and I would find on our first walking tour of the city. While the Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia is the most complete source I have found detailing the historical legacy of the Jewish community of Philadelphia I was curious to see how many of the historical landmarks would still be standing today. I wasn’t concerned that buildings like City Hall or the Academy of Music would have vanished since I had last seen them, but if locations like the Philadelphia Jewish Times still stood proudly.

The tour began at City Hall and, rest assured, it was still standing; although William Penn’s statue is receiving a little bit of a makeover this summer. However, our second stop, the First Pennsylvania Company – Yellin Gate, no longer stands as it did in 1965. We were unable to determine if the facade of the building still remained or if it had been demolished in favor of the upcoming W and Element hotel tower. Parts of the building may live on as the Staples, Wells Fargo, or Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, but we stood no chance of guessing which building, if any, held remnants of the past we were searching for. Even though the second stop of our tour was already consumed by the city’s forward progress, we continued onward to landmarks like the Academy of Music, the Philadelphia College of Art, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), and even a brief detour into the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP).

The HSP and the LCP were both fantastic stops as we made sure to go in and explore both of the historical displays offered to visitors. The HSP was displaying a document collection called “A Place Called Home: Immigrant Communities from the Ground Up,” as well as a display that highlighted President James Monroe and his fifteen-week tour of the northern states during 1817, which included a stop in Philadelphia. The display highlighted various immigrant communities of Philadelphia which was a refreshing reminder that the history of immigrant communities lives on in the present even if authors of the past often omitted their legacies and contributions. The exhibit takes less than twenty minutes to fully see, but the newspapers and other sources on display offer important reminders of the strength and resilience of Philadelphia’s immigrant communities in the face of relentless oppression. It’s also important to remember that the reason the display exists is because marginalized communities took the time to record their own history while prominent figures and authors in Philadelphia actively ignored them. The LCP exhibit was also well worth the stop as we had a chance to see a number of fascinating books from centuries ago, as well as more eccentric titles like pop-up books. These titles gave us a chance to look through their cut-out window and see the interior of a building as it was imagined years ago and reflect on how literature has evolved, and stayed the same, over the course of centuries. The exhibit left me excited to return to the LCP to actually conduct research in the Reading Room.

While on our tour it soon became clear that each stop wasn’t the only sight worth seeing around us. As we traveled from landmark to landmark seeing each of the twenty-four locations laid out by Esther Klein we marveled, not only, at the locations we were led to, but also at the side streets, storefronts, and other facades that caught our eyes. It’s easy to forgot that tucked behind many of Philadelphia’s corners are stunning little reminders of where Philadelphia came from as a city and of the lives of the past. These little reminders came in a variety of forms during our walking tour; but, whether it was an apartment complex from the 19th century, a narrow street not meant for cars, or a store that has served their patrons for decades I couldn’t help but contrast these little reminders with the historical landmarks that were included on our tour, but had since been destroyed. As we got further into the tour we continued to find new apartment complexes in the place of the historical landmarks we sought and each time this happened we found ourselves reflecting on what may have stood before us decades ago. Our reflections led me to see an inherent contrast between the little reminders and the historical landmarks lost to time and I find that this contrast acts as a testament to the dangers of unceasing progress and modernity.

Perhaps these little reminders stuck out to us because they existed in-between the buildings of today and the construction of tomorrow, but still continued to thrive. Perhaps they stuck out to us because we were already thinking about historical loss after we discovered the First Pennsylvania Company had been demolished, as well other landmarks on our itinerary. Regardless of why these little reminders seemed so prominent during our walking tour I’m grateful they were; because, they allowed me to see what is lost when we discard our past in favor of writing a new future. They also helped remind me that exploring the guidebooks of Philadelphia’s past yields interesting insights into how Philadelphia reached the present.

After we made our final stop at the War Library and Museum we began to head back to City Hall to get food and catch the subway, but on our way back we had one last encounter that stressed the importance of historical landmarks. We were passing the Young Men and Young Women’s Hebrew Association when a family stopped near us and began excitedly talking and pointing at the building. As they started to take pictures they explained that they loved to travel to cities and take photos of any building that was related to Jewish heritage in America. I was thrilled that the family had found the Young Men and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, but as we parted ways I couldn’t help but feel tinges of sadness that they would discover countless other Jewish landmarks had been lost forever, like the Philadelphia Jewish Times headquarters. At the very least, locations like the Philadelphia Jewish Times headquarters and the First Pennsylvania Company will live on in the pages of guidebooks like the Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia, but what about landmarks that were never written about and have long since been destroyed?

The Depths of Paley Library

Hi there, I am Nate Hubler and I am spending the summer as a research assistant exploring Philadelphia guide books. The goal of the research is to determine how historical value fluctuates and changes depending on the time period in Philadelphia and on the people represented in the guide book. We are specifically looking from the time of the Centennial to the Bicentennial in Philadelphia, or roughly the 1860s to 1980. I have spent the last two weeks tucked away in random corners of Paley Stacks and Temple’s campus as I have been diving into the guide books available on the shelves in the Stacks and a few that have been delivered from Ambler Stacks and the Library Repository. I quickly became lost in the pages in front of me as Philadelphia’s past consumed me, but now I am taking a brief pause to shine a light on the selection of guide books I have found so far. These pauses will be a regular part of my research this summer and I hope that they will provide a window into the fascinating world of Philadelphia guide books that we are working to reveal.

This blog post is going to focus on a handful of the more interesting sources I have come across so far in my research, of which there have been several noteworthy entries. I was lucky that the first book I began reading, Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia: History, Landmarks, Donors of the Jewish Community for the Life of Philadelphia, 1703-1965, was written from a Jewish historical perspective because I read about locations that would not make an appearance in many of the other guide books I pulled off of the shelves at Paley. I read about the brilliance of Rebecca Gratz and the storied history of the Mikveh Israel Synagogue; both which would only return with the briefest of homages in other guide books, if at all. But besides giving me a preemptive break from the seemingly endless number of guide books written through a primarily White Anglo-Saxon Protestant lens the Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia also provided a number of well-crafted walking tours with accompanying maps. I have yet to have a chance this summer to explore any of the walking tours of Philadelphia that I have read about, but when I do the walking tours featured in the Guidebook to Jewish Philadelphia will be where I begin my travels.

Another day I looked through two very different guidebooks, The Philadelphia Tradition of Work: Things to Do & Places to See and Magee’s Centennial Guide of Philadelphia. The two guide books were slightly more than a century apart with The Philadelphia Tradition of Work releasing in 1979 and Magee’s Centennial Guide releasing in 1875, but this century long gap allowed for some fascinating comparisons of locations examined within each book. For example, The Philadelphia Tradition of Work dedicates a large amount of space to memorializing the Frankford Arsenal which it describes as “[having] produced munitions for every American war since the war with Mexico…” ( Cybriwsky and Hanson 36), but Magee’s Centennial Guide carries a much more reserved tone simply calling the Arsenal “famous for its war supplies” (Magee 40). Despite over a century passing between the publication of the two guide books they both rely on the Frankford Arsenal’s production of American munitions to assign it its historical value. The justification for including the Arsenal on one’s day trip around Philadelphia boils down to a roughly identical argument; this suggests to me that historical value and patriotic value are often considered one and the same regardless of time in Philadelphia’s history. I am interested to see if this trend continues in the other guide books I will explore this summer and how will it might change in relation to the identity of the author or the intended audience.

(I didn’t even get to mention the map that folds out of Magee’s Centennial Guide to Philadelphia which is at least five times as large as the book itself!)

I also had the opportunity to look over two guide books that completely blew me away because of how different they were from the rest of the guide books I had been seeing. The first was Man-Made Philadelphia: A Guide to Its Physical and Cultural EnvironmentMan-Made Philadelphia was obsessed with the idea of presenting Philadelphia from the eye of the pedestrian walking down the street and that obsession produced amazing results. The guide explored individual squares or stretches of Broad and Market Street with gigantic full-page maps which presented the buildings of interest on the map as one would actually see them from the street. Each section was mainly comprised of the map of the area and countless pictures of noteworthy sites and buildings which was quite the break from the typical written assault on display in most guide books. While Man-Made Philadelphia gave relatively little space to the written word I could make interesting assumptions about the authors’ priorities based on what was featured in the map, photographs, and written explanations and the combinations therein.

The last source I really want to talk about is the Handbook for Soviet Jewish Immigrants in Philadelphia. This guide book largely focused on helping new Soviet Jewish immigrants adapt to the changes between the Soviet Union and Philadelphia which meant that the bulk of space in the book was dedicated to explaining places to go for legal trouble, necessities, and support groups. However, towards the end it begins to explore how their audience can spend time having fun at Philadelphia museums and in places of historic value in Philadelphia. While other guide books I have read included the price of admission, the Handbook for Soviet Jewish Immigrants made it clear that it was only including locations that the authors knew their audience could afford to go to. This makes it the first guide book that I have encountered so far that was actively aware of having a lower class audience and worked to incorporate that into their guide. The Handbook for Soviet Jewish Immigrants also featured a number of (not so) subtle digs at the Soviet Union. My favorite of which was when the authors made it seem that the Soviet Union offered nothing in the way of cultural education for its citizens while Philadelphia, and most other major American cities, offered near constant free or low-cost cultural education for all citizens regardless of race, religion, or gender.

Needless to say I’m excited to dive even deeper into the world of Philadelphia guide books and see what surprises await. My first two weeks yielded a number of fascinating finds so I have little doubt that the coming weeks will continue to impress. This coming week I will be branching out from the Paley Stacks and spending as much time as possible in the Special Collections Research Center in Paley Library to explore some sources closer to the Centennial and from some different types of authors . See you in the next post!