Publication Date

December 1, 2005

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting


State & Local (US)

Philadelphia is known as a city of neighborhoods, with all the local color and friendliness that such a sobriquet implies. But knowledgeable visitors with a sense of history, even after just short explorations into the winter streets, can quickly see that neighborhoods reflect both the ethnic and racial conflicts and the civic celebrations that shaped the city. Public spaces and public art reveal the depth and breadth of the complex mix that make up the city of “brotherly love.”

In 1682, when Quaker William Penn conceived Philadelphia to be a “haven for those low in the world,” he welcomed Native Americans, Anglicans, and of course his fellow Quakers who, within a generation, were outnumbered by non-Quakers. After some initial hesitation, Penn opened the community to Jews and to Catholics, reasoning that anyone who lived “peaceably” and agreed to follow the colony’s laws should be viewed as one of God’s children. Ambivalent about the role of Africans, Penn used slave labor on his farm near Philadelphia, but later freed his slaves. Thus Africans and African Americans soon joined the multivariate and enterprising populace who vied for a place in Penn’s city of opportunity.

By 1790, Penn’s colony had a population of German, English, Welsh, Irish, Dutch, French, Swedish, and African descent. Individuals like Quaker financier Robert Morris, of British background, who worked with Jewish refugee Haym Salomon to help raise money for the Revolution and prosperous African American sail maker James Forten, who teamed up with ex-slave Richard Allen to protest the American Colonization Society’s schemes to send Africans “back” to Africa in the early 19th century, combined their skills and resources to advance the city’s political life and economy.

In Invisible Philadelphia: Community through Voluntary Organizations, Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gallam chronicle the dozens of religious and civic organizations that blended the city’s sub-groups into “communities” and neighborhoods that reflected their distinctive tastes and cultures. By the 1880s, Polish, Greek, Italian, Armenian, Hungarian, Chinese, African American, and Ukrainian groups had churches, clubs, community centers, and economic networks catering to their unique interests. 19th-century public celebrations also reflected the city’s cosmopolitanism. After the 1830s, African Americans often took over the southeastern public square to celebrate West India Emancipation Day (August 1). Cosmopolitanism co-existed with fragmentation, and co-existence fed contention. Between 1800 and 1850, Philadelphia regularly experienced race riots, political riots, and anti-Catholic and nativist riots. During the next century these were joined by labor riots as well. But the ideal of shared space endures. Modern interest groups have made sure that Center City streets carry names that represent the variety of ethnic, racial, and religious groups that have contributed to city pride.

A continuing reflection of this heritage of shared spaces can be found by looking up at walls all over the city. Over 2,000 murals have been painted since the 1980s, initially emerging on the walls of poor neighborhoods, union halls, churches, and schools as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. With Jane Golden at the helm of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, this intensely democratic public art has expanded its reach—from once-industrial villages like Manayunk to the walls of Center City. The key to the nation’s most successful mural arts project is that the murals have remained the expression of the local communities whose participation is central, and reflect the public space in which they are painted. Explore the murals and you explore the history of the city. Two examples within walking distance of the meeting hotels capture the essence of the “City of Murals”: stand at 12th and Vine to see Colors of Light: Gateway to Chinatown, or look up at 17th and Arch and view the Symbolic Building of a City. For more on the project see

Emma Lapsansky (Haverford Coll.) and Marion Roydhouse (Philadelphia Univ.) are members of the Local Arrangements Committee.