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America250: We Can't Shortchange the Celebration

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

Philadelphia is poised to take center stage on July 4th, 2026, the semiquincentennial celebration marking 250 years since the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously to sever ties with Great Britain.

A blue-ribbon panel -- authorized by the United States Congress and backed by Pennsylvania's leading political and economic power players in the Union League -- has set an ambition goal: a 2.5 billion dollar banger of a year around Independence National Historic Park. This is certainly a golden opportunity for some good PR.

But how much will the upcoming stunt benefit working class Philadelphians? If the history of the National Historic Park is any indicator, not near enough.

The manicured lawns and museums that stretch four blocks from William Penn's original Franklin Square to Washington Square were imagined in 1948 as a fix for the postindustrial economy in Philadelphia. Officials thought heritage tourism might bring postwar suburbanites back into the city center.

Edmond Bacon -- yes, the father one degree removed from Footloose famous Kevin Bacon -- oversaw the imaginative master plan clearing workshops and tenement houses to make way for a restored Independence Hall and nostalgic reproductions of the 1790 Library Hall, featuring a statue of Ben Franklin dripped out in a Roman toga, among others.

More than five million people now visit Independence National Historic Park annually, and Bacon's nearby Society Hill became the most exclusive neighborhood (and inspiration for theories of gentrification), landing the city's chief planner on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964.

The 2.5 billion dollar semiquincentennial will likely attract a record number of visitors. But who will share in the prosperity? Tour guides might see a few more tips on top their part-time wages. Drexel University -- the inheritor to Philadelphia's once public collection of priceless colonial artifacts -- is positioning itself at the center of our shared history. And our venerated institutions, like the Library Company and American Philosophical Society, will hopefully secure handsome donations for their endowments.

Yet, the tourist draw has never replaced Philadelphia's industrial base.

Since 1950, the population of Philadelphia has fallen from a high of 2.1 million down to 1.6 million souls in the 2020 census (the city is on a modest rebound since 2000). Philadelphia also leads major American cities with a poverty rate approaching a quarter of all documented residents.

History is important. But for the majority of Philadelphians, jobs and wages matter most.

Employment growth is highest in the leisure and hospitality supersector. Beds are made, shirts laundered, and continental breakfasts served. Somebody is going to sling twelve dollar cheesesteaks for 7.25 an hour, Pennsylvania's minimum wage since 2009, while tipped servers will make as little as 2.83 an hour from their employers.

Heritage tourism has offered an alternative to job loss in steel, shipyards, and textile mills. But the life-affirming wages with benefits never came back.

If we want Philadelphia to make history in 2026, we must collectively ensure that all workers earn their fair share from the semiquincentennial celebrations.


This blog post was written for the 2022 seminar on Managing History at Temple University.

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