Updated: Sep 29, 2022
Exceptional places afford us an opportunity to interpret the collective struggles and successes of ordinary Americans.
David W. Young in The Battles of Germantown, makes this clear: it is our responsibility as professional historians to serve the fuller public. In Germantown, colonial house museums were established in hopes of preserving the legacies of affluent Philadelphians in the wake of industrial disinvestment. Their public history was largely tied to architectural preservation. Yet, by the early 2000s, the landmarks had become increasingly irrelevant and insolvent.
Through collaborative practices that lower "barriers to participation" and "expand input to include non-experts," residents and museum professionals have remade the neighborhood institutions like the Cliveden House -- an estate built for enslavers in 1767 but remembered as a 1777 battleground -- into a place with the potential for restorative justice. "I have this crazy idea that our site’s history can bring people together, even if they're disagreeing," Young shared in a 2012 interview with WHYY.
Planning processes matter more than exceptional architecture. But we might expand upon Young's insights to think through the public histories undergirding ordinary neighborhood infrastructure.
When officials at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) make surprise announcements, most recently replacing the iconic green PCC cars on Girard Avenue with buses, Philadelphians have good reason to doubt the public agency.
In 1992, the world's longest trolley route was "abruptly" cut from Chestnut Hill along Germantown Avenue toward South Philly as a "temporary" measure until SEPTA could procure new vehicles. SEPTA failed to meet their 1997 deadline, and even after PennDOT laid new rails in 2008, the local agency made no specific plans to restore trolley service.
Although replacement buses may cost less to operate per passenger mile, the "improved efficiencies" are part of the much longer pattern of public-sector disinvestment in the people who call Germantown home.
Transportation infrastructure, on the whole remains, comparatively well funded by the federal government and SEPTA is proceeding with a 2.1 billion dollar rail line to King of Prussia. The new suburban line will, however, very likely underperform century old projects, such as the shovel-ready, yet unfunded Roosevelt Boulevard subway in Northeast Philadelphia.
Public historians should join community organizers in discussions about ordinary, but historic infrastructure. Politics are an organized contest for finite resources, and local transportation planners are required to solicit "community input" before allocating federal funding for roads, rails, sidewalks, or just about any other public right-of-way.
Urban planning is still a "data driven" field. While community engagement specialists within the public agencies aspire to understanding the intergenerational struggles for equal access to city services, public historians and their allied stakeholders should join this conversation.
Germantown is a good example. Historians have learned how to listen, learn, and execute the will of a much fuller public.
This blog post was written for the 2022 seminar on Managing History at Temple University.