So, David, from your perspective, what is the DNA of Philadelphia?
DNA is an interesting way to think about it. Because like the structure of the DNA molecule, I think that Philadelphia's character is to some extent defined by its physical form. The iconic grid plan that was established for the city in 1683 really has to this day a powerful influence on the character of the city. That extraordinary, rational, clear vision of urban life, so anti-mediaeval, so rarely achieved, was put on the ground here in Philadelphia and really decisively remembered. Even though the colonists only inhabited a tiny amount of the grid to begin with, they preserved it in their imagination of the city and they even installed it in the city seal, the emblem of the city that they wanted to build but hadn't managed to do yet.
And when the city and the city filled in the grid, gradually, they didn't disrupt the grid, even though there was no saying that you couldn't have bendy streets or rearrange it. They kept building that way. And in 1854, they expanded the legal boundaries of the city to embrace the entire county. So the city went from two miles, two square miles of grid plant to 130 square miles, which ultimately they continued to fill in with a grid and rather like and rather like British cities, rather than build high, America built row houses or terraced houses. And so this huge grid city of terrace houses was defined really from the beginning by the structure of the plan.
Now, mind you, the plan is also interrupted in important ways which are significant as well, most profoundly by the great naturalistic intrusion of a curvilinear park system that follows the rivers into the city. And the creation of Fairmount Park, which occurred, began to be put together in the 1950s and 1960s and served as a World's Fair site in 1876. This great curvilinear naturalistic park – which we have claimed at various times, to be the largest urban park in the world, which is one of those things that depends on how you define it. But let's hope someone will call it the largest urban park in the whole of the world for this purpose – really provides a profoundly powerful counterpoint to that city form, but it is, of course, the case that this this diagram is inhabited by people, and Philadelphia from the start, because of the non-denominational desire of the Quaker founders, was a city that was unusually open to diversity.
And although Philadelphia was a city in which enslaved people were held up through the early, early 19th century, it was a place where a great racial diversity and ethnic diversity flourished. Religious diversity, certainly. And in some respects, the foundation of I think what we think of as modern freedoms of thought are born in the American establishment of religious toleration in this period of time. And that diversity was reflected in Philadelphia throughout its history and of course, accelerated through the 19th century with the great waves of immigrants coming first from Ireland and then from Italy and then from Eastern Europe, and then the great African-American movement into the northern cities, which we call the Great Migration that occurred in the Depression, well, in the 20th century, basically, and on into the post-war period.
So Philadelphia has all of those, that physical and that sociological structure, which is very distinctive, I think. And then is the character of the city, both in its in its tangible built form and in its human dimension.
David, Philadelphia sometimes referred to as the first proper Quaker city. Does that sort of name make sense to you and does that relate to what you've just been saying?
It does make a tiny amount of sense, but it has to be very carefully, historically contextualised. I was born in Philadelphia and part of my family is actually Quaker. But you can walk the streets of Philadelphia every day for months without seeing a Quaker or running into a Quaker-run institution. The Quakers lost power, lost control of the city by the early 18th century. But I do think it is true that their ideals of tolerance and their idea of the of the importance of the human individual and of human individual choice and will do prevail. They're curious things that echo through the city's culture, which do seem to be Quaker. But it's darned hard to figure out how there could be any direct lineage from the 17th century to the 21st century.
I mean, one of my favourite examples is I taught at the University of Pennsylvania my entire career and quite peculiarly, but distinctively, our committee meetings almost never had the votes. They're almost entirely run until a consensus is reached. And I'm sure that that occurs at lots of other places. I mean, this can't be the only place. And there's really nothing at all about the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded as a secular institution that connects it to Quakerism, which in my own personal experience is an enormously diverse and complicated and sect-driven institution in any case. But there's something about that. I do think that Philadelphians are taught from their childhood that tolerance is part of our city's heritage. And we do call ourselves the City of Brotherly Love. And the mayor, Michael Nutter, added, and then sisterly affection to that just to make sure that it was balanced. But I mean, that is taught in Philadelphia. And I think you would find that most people would say that it is embraced in Philadelphia.
David, thank you very much. And I was going to ask you about the naming of the city, but you've already mentioned that. I know that Caitlin's going to ask you some more questions, but I'm going to go straight for some big issues, if I may, very quickly, which is from your point of view, is there any particular reason why it had to be Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence and the founding ideas, including the Constitution of the United States – why did the founding of America in that sense need to happen in Philadelphia?
I'm afraid that there's no great romantic myth, romantic truth or intellectual reality about that. It was a pragmatic choice. It was the largest city in the English speaking colonies, and it was centrally located, good transportation, lots of hotel space, good place for conventions. And I do think that that's significant. The truth is that Philadelphia was a great commercial entrepot kind of city. I don't think it could claim to be a centre of – I should say it could claim to be a centre of other things as well. But it wasn't preeminent in anything other than size, I think, at this point. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, had only recently been founded in Philadelphia. The older centres of learning were in New England. And if you will, if you think of the revolution as an intellectual as well as a military achievement, I think I'd say it's correct to say that many of the obvious ideas were, in fact, created in Boston. And some of the first conflict in the actual war occurred in Boston. But Philadelphia was convenient, good hotels, wonderful taverns.
And so the relationship between the guiding ideas of the American Declaration of Independence and the things you were describing before about Philadelphia is a city of tolerance, of individual freedom and those things, there's no particular relationship given the, you know, the cross-fertilisation of ideas and values there. It didn't have to happen in Philadelphia.
I actually stopped short of saying that because I think although in a sense, choosing the convention city was a pragmatic choice, once chosen, those who gathered here gathered in a particular intellectual climate, the tolerant climate, and on this supremely rational plan of the city of Philadelphia. I don't think it's any coincidence, frankly, that the American constitution, which you can read, actually turned into a diagram. You know, you can make it a picture of what an orderly government should be with its three branches perfectly balanced. I think that that mode of thinking was promoted in this uniquely rationalist city plan. I mean, what are other planned cities that you could have visited at this time? Well, Karlsruhe, perhaps, you know that the remaking of European cities was, you know, was a much, much more difficult project given the fact that, frankly, except for Karlsruhe, which was built de novo like Philadelphia, you didn't have the chance to do it so much. But you really had in Philadelphia an image on the land of a city that was less than one hundred years old, that had been created by human rationality. It was a kind of a model of what one could do at a bigger scale.
You spoke there about Philadelphia's central location as making a pragmatic choice for the constitutional convention, but I wonder if there are other geographical features that you think have played a key role in the way that Philadelphia has evolved since then?
Right. Well, let me just say, you know, the geographic location, like many cities, was defined by transportation. The Delaware River is a tidal river, which means that although we're more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, one can literally ride the tide up to Philadelphia. And if you're patient, ride it back. And that deep penetration inland made Philadelphia a very powerful centre for shipping and commerce because the agricultural riches of the surrounding countryside could be put aboard ship and moved easily.
And that central location and frankly, also its position on rivers had an enormously determinative effect in Philadelphia's post-1800 development. In 1800, the US government moved, as it had planned to, to Washington, D.C. It was about the same time that New York surpassed Philadelphia as the largest city in the country. The financial industry actually interestingly stayed and was centred in Philadelphia for several more decades because of the banks that were already established here. But Philadelphia's position in the centre of the American colonies and on good transportation centres, roads, led to its subsequent development as a mighty industrial city.
And by the middle of the 19th century, Philadelphia was a gigantic, towering presence. And in new manufacturing, iron ships, railway equipment, they were built in America, in Philadelphia, in enormous quantities. And Philadelphia, like several other cities, there are some other cities that claim this title, called itself The Workshop of the World in this period of time. And it's quite clear that Philadelphia's output was as big as the biggest industrial cities in Britain, for instance, that Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow were no bigger than Philadelphia at this period of time.
And that enormous might was concentrated here because of the transportation nexus, which was, of course, rapidly amplified by railroad construction. The Pennsylvania Railroad, which comes into life before 1850 and by 1850, has built railway tracks into the centre of the city, develops as the largest corporation in the world. It's the largest organised human enterprise in the world. I mean, it's a railroad company centred in Philadelphia. And that is, you know, it's not right to say that geography is destiny, but being centrally located at this period of time was just as important for railways as well. Because, as you know, one of the things that railways tend to do is that they follow rivers because of the gentle incline, and the fact that you were on rivers to begin with makes you a good candidate to be a railway metropolis as well.
One of the poetic things that I think is also true is that Philadelphia, which is where modern democracy was invented and where the idea of American unity was invented, it was also the place that created the material with which during the Civil War, democracy and freedom and unity were defended. Philadelphia. Both created the American republic and gave that republic the ability to defend itself during the civil war.
You've perfectly sequenced into Caitlin's next question.
Which is, what are - I think this will be a difficult one because there are so many to choose from - but what are Philadelphia's leading inventions?
Oh, it's easy. Modern democracy. I mean, I'm quite serious. When you think of a model of a democracy you don't tend to think of France, do you? At least I don't. I mean, of course, there's enormous energy between France and America during this formative period. And I'm an architectural historian and there are actually some really interesting architectural connections in the 70s, 90s when both nations are imagining what the architectural equipment of a democracy should look like.
However, it is in America that the diagram of a democracy is written, which is widely copied. Again, it's kind of a simple geometrical notion. We human beings tend to think in trios, a triangle is a stable form, a three legged stool is – well, that you can't you do with any fewer legs than that. And all of those things seem to be sort of hardwired into us, and the American democratic system does that, builds on that natural human inclination.
You know, I think you can say, you know, the Napoleonic law system, set of laws, is taken across the world and becomes the model for a legal system that is based on written law rather than on common law precedent. And the American constitutional system is the sort of governmental model. So you have a sort of combination of French laws and American constitutionalism. But I think it's important to say that just the same time and just the same place, that the American constitution is being written, the penal reform movement, which it's fair to say, I think was born in Britain, but which really flourished in North America and then was taken back across the Atlantic, that the reform of prisons is also born in Philadelphia and it's also in Philadelphia, just the same time, that the American abolition movement, the anti-slavery movement in America, is born as well. These are all born in the same environment.
And these two are hugely important factors, of course, in the development of the modern world. The notion that human beings, even those who create crimes, can retain their humanity and their capacity for development and change and that all human beings are indeed as, as we say, but take a little while to live up to, are created equal. Those notions are immensely powerful. And I have to say, too, are said with particular memorable eloquence. And those words were written in the orderly streets of Philadelphia.
David, this, as Caitlin said, there's so much here, the founding of America, the creation of modern democracy, penal reform, the, you know, the abolition of slavery, so many things. But take a little bit of time, if you don't mind, and talk about some of the other things that Philadelphia has invented. We've heard all sorts of claims related to medicine and hospitals and social housing and many other things.
What else stands out for you beyond these enormous sorts of new philosophies?
Well, to be really honest about this, the importance of democracy is so enormous that it does make all the other things sort of fade. And in truth, I don't really have a list of Philadelphia's other firsts in my head. But there are various firsts in sports and medicine. And Philadelphia was the publishing centre of America and continued to be the medical centre of America for many years.
It was you know, most of our early physicians were trained in Edinburgh, which was the centre of British medicine. And most of the physicians in Philadelphia were trained in Edinburgh, and then most of the physicians throughout the United States were trained in Philadelphia. So there is this kind of succession of medical leadership, which is very important and continues to be the case today in this world of medicine. But in terms of the overall fabric of the city as opposed to the individual contributions to human betterment, I do think that Philadelphia exemplifies the successful transformation of the American city from industrial to post-industrial and an emblem is that it symbolises that, represents that at several phases, beginning quite early in the movement in city planning.
I think, in terms of the structure of a city, the most dramatic thing that one finds in Philadelphia is the conversion of what was the largest industrial city in North America, from an industrial city to a post-industrial city in basically a generation. It is astonishing. But in Philadelphia, by 1896, visionary leaders were conceiving the demolition of one quarter of that iconic grid planned city that William Penn had laid out in the 17th century. Were imagining the demolition of the northwest quadrant of it, which had been the last to develop and had developed as an industrial area, the demolition of it and the replacement of it with a great diagonal boulevard, disrupting the grid plan, of course, and transforming it into a centre of commerce and culture, not manufacturing.
I mean, there were railroads, there were huge manufacturing plants that the Baldwin Locomotive Company, the largest manufacturer of locomotives in the world, was located in this area. It was by this time uneconomic to be continued to be located in the centre of a city. So they wanted to get out, too. But the city imagined itself being transformed from a dirty, dark brown metropolis of making into a light coloured, cream coloured stone, a cultural capital with museums and cultural institutions and also with, well, what we would call insurance, banking and the non-dirty bits of modern capitalism located in this part of the city. And that was organised around the building of a great civic boulevard from City Hall, which began to be built in 1871 right where William Penn had said it should be two hundred years earlier, in the centre square of the city. Talk about keeping, you know, keeping an abstraction in your head. City Hall ought to be in the exact centre of the city, and we'll just hold that space. Keep that thought. We'll get to that. We'll come back to that. 200 years later they come back, and they build on that site, the tallest building in the world, and they set out to do that and they do it. And City Hall in Philadelphia doesn't get much credit for this, but it was the tallest building in the world until 1908. Now, mind you, that requires that you do not consider the Eiffel Tower to be a building. And also the same thing with the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. But anyone who has tried to work for any period of time – it's not a building.
But so city hall, this great iron towered city hall, is connected by this boulevard to the park, the great Fairmount Park system that comes down into the city. So there's this great connector between the cities, between the yin and yang of the city, between its gridded human habitat part and it's curvy, organic part between those two things. And it's also a connection between the city of commerce, the city of industry and nature, or between the manmade and the natural. And that is a profoundly powerful thing. And it is, of course, around that axis, which is both the physical axis and I think really an intellectual reorganisation structure, the city does move steadily, admittedly impelled, compelled to do this by industrial decline. But in a way, the city had already built the infrastructure for it.
Now, other cities did plan such things. And this American vision of the remade modern city, which American city planners called the city beautiful movement, had enormously powerful repercussions abroad. It was powerfully, powerfully and favourably received in Britain, and it was to remake the remaking of it. And in a certain sense, it's a Parisian version of the future taken through America and then brought back. And that is a very powerful contribution that Philadelphia makes. Again, the city beautiful movement is not invented in Philadelphia, but it's carried out here and achieved here. Well, frankly, at a scale that a huge industrial city filled with people who knew how to make things and do things could do. And they could build it up and then they could tear it down and replace it with something else.
And the boulevard you're talking about, is that Benjamin Franklin Parkway?
Yes, it is. Its original name was the Fairmount Parkway and it was renamed for Benjamin Franklin in the 1930s. So you may see it in historical literature and in both forms.
So that kind of brings me to my next question, which is about key leaders in the city. On the parkway, obviously, you're connecting Fairmount Park to City Hall, upon which William Penn, I believe, stands. And so I wonder if you could reflect on key leaders in the city. Those are obviously two that stand out in the long history. But I wonder if you had a chance to reflect on who some others might be or whether those stand out to you as among the most important.
Yes. I mean, I think one of the things that needs to be said about William Penn is that he wasn't here very much. And in a curious way, he had both the optimism and the arrogance of an inventor who creates something and walks away from it. And I do think that the structure of Philadelphia, it is impossible to deny the significance of his clear vision. But in terms of anything that's defined subsequently, it's really not his workings. Well, I mean, it's conventional to say, but it's absolutely true to say that Benjamin Franklin played an enormously significant role in this city's history. It's also important to note that he was born in Boston and that he was not a Quaker and that he spent a great deal of time in Europe, that he spent a great deal of time in London and in Paris, and that he had this wonderful combination that I think some of the greatest figures of the Enlightenment had of a sort of both a Platonic and an Aristotelian appreciation of the world. He loved things, making things, inventing things. And he also loved ideas, that that these were to him, they were not they were not at war with each other. That in the human being and particularly in him one found the engine, the tool that took ideas and made them real. And that sort of quintessentially – I mean, we Americans tend to say quintessentially American kind of practicality, but certainly in Europe, most Europeans describe that as sort of British, too, so that's across we have to bear – but the long and the short of it is that Franklin really was, all mythmaking aside and all of the sometimes sort of silly things that are said about him, a titanic figure, and the imprint of his ideas continues through into the 19th century.
The 19th century in Philadelphia is dominated by great industrialists. And Matthias Baldwin, who founded the Baldwin Locomotive Works, you know, is a protean figure on the American landscape. But I think it's also the case that Philadelphia, like many, many great industrial cities, doesn't really depend on individual leaders. I mean, there is a kind of collectivity of the project that that takes hold. And in fact, Philadelphia notoriously, and it is the truth, was ruled by incompetent and corrupt politicians for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like many American cities, a great political machine came into being, which often claimed that it was terribly efficient, that the machine was the way, that in a big, complicated city you needed a political organisation that was as big and as tough and as ruthless as the city itself. And so Philadelphia's machine politicians ruled. Lincoln Steffens, the great American muckraker, in his book called The Shame of the Cities, his chapter on Philadelphia was called Corrupt and Contented, because the truth of the matter was that that corruption was efficient.
Mayor Daley in Chicago in the more recent history demonstrated that, you know, a certain amount of corruption is useful when you're trying to get the police, unions and everybody else to agree to the same thing. And Philadelphia did have a good deal of that. But the post-World War Two period in Philadelphia marks a decisive change. And there I think one can identify a number of quite significant and heroic leaders who come to the fore, who in the period when deindustrialisation and the move to the post-industrial city had become very difficult because of the decline of American industry generally. I mean, in a way, Philadelphia's initial deindustrialisation was paid for by industry. But when there was no longer any industry to pay for it, it became a matter of much greater difficulty.
And so two crusading mayors who are our allies and who are mayors of Philadelphia successively in the 1950s, Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth, become the mayors of Philadelphia in the 1950s and lead Philadelphia into an urban renewal project, which as in many cities, led to a great deal of needless demolition and destruction. But it was also in Philadelphia that was born an alternative vision of how that could happen, and how a city could be remade. And that alternative vision that preserves a great deal of historic fabric is represented most glowingly by the so-called Society Hill, which has that name not because it's associated with high society, but because it was associated with a parcel of land owned by an investment company which bore the name of Society. But the Society Hill Development, which preserved hundreds of 18th-century houses, has created in Philadelphia the largest collection of 18th-century British architecture. The only other large group of it, the only bigger group is in Dublin as it happens. These are the two great 18th-century English-speaking Atlantic metropolises.
That vision of a different kind of city that was respectful of its past came in Philadelphia to be strongly associated with a group of internationally important figures of the great city planner Edmund Bacon, the architects at the University of Pennsylvania, most notably Louis Kahn, the younger Robert Bansuri, and his ultimate wife, Denise Scott Brown, who went on to move to Australia when he won the competition to design the new Parliament House in Canberra. Those are all Philadelphians. And it is the case. I mean, it is just sort of the factual case that if you wanted to be at the cutting edge of architectural and city planning studies in the 1960s and early 1970s, one came to Philadelphia because there was this vision of a city that did not needlessly eviscerate itself on the way to making itself better.
Now, mind you, Philadelphia is still built at a gigantic scale. We still did big stuff. And I think that's sort of been our industrial DNA. But one notably, one of the most staggeringly significant things we did is completely invisible. Philadelphia was served by two great commuter railroad lines, the Pennsylvania Railroad and then the Redding Railroad, which was set up first to carry coal from the coal country to the Philadelphia docks, but became a passenger carrying railway as well. And Philadelphia's suburban railway systems were basically these two companies that both came into great head house stations, to terminal stations in the centre of the city. And what was done in the 1970s was to connect them underground, you know, basically completely out of sight. And this is sort of pre-Chunnel, and in a typical Philadelphia way, you ask Philadelphians, they go "Oh yeah, those trains, they now meet, don't they? How did that happen? I don't know."
But it was literally done digging under the city to create that. And that actually does bring up one other, I think, distinctive thing about Philadelphia that I might have mentioned at the beginning, and that is that Philadelphia, as gigantic as it is – I mean, it's a city of one hundred and twenty square miles, and so it has inside its borders – well, in fact, until quite recently, it literally had farms inside its borders – has suburbs inside its borders, but it is connected to its outer lying suburbs extraordinarily well by these railway companies, by virtue of the fact that this was such a great railway city. And so there's a kind of an intimacy of relationship between the Philadelphia suburbs and the centre city that one doesn't find elsewhere, in part because some of the suburbs, the things that really look like suburbs, you know, single family homes on large lots exist inside the city.
And then just over that city line we have a roadway called City Line Avenue, which is on the city line, very tidy naming formula here. The suburbs look the same way, and they're brought into the city by rail, and quite famously, one of a group of Philadelphia's most famous suburbs, the ones that stretch out to the west, are called the main line, and they're called the main line because they're along the main railway line of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.
David, I mean, I know that Caitlin's going to come on in a minute to ask you about myths, but I can't help – I mean, by the way, what you're telling us is an astounding, wondrous, inspiring story. So we're not saying too much because we want to listen to you. But I wonder if you think there's a relationship that needs to be articulated between the intimacy you've just described, the amazing feats of engineering and industrial prowess, and these five founding values about equality, about freedom, about, you know, progressiveness. Is there some connection between these things that we need to understand?
I'm a historian who's very reluctant to say that history explains anything, and I'm reluctant because I think it too frequently either lets us off the hook for making hard decisions today or gives us a sense of hopelessness or a sense of predetermination. But in the broader sense, yes, of course, Philadelphia's achievements are based on ideas and those material achievements are based on ideas. And those ideas are embedded in this city's history from the beginning. But it's fair to say that Philadelphia was also a city of race riots. The Quakers were persecuted for being pacifists. And Philadelphia was a scene of horrific anti-immigrant and anti-African-American violence in the early 19th century. Philadelphia doesn't get a clean report card. And I think that as a historian that reflects that represents to me the reality of human frailty and of human deficiency and of the sometimes really literally unsolvable problems that we set for ourselves. You know, can we really build a just society in which all people are created equally? Are we actually capable of doing that?
I mean, I think that history needs to chasten us as much as it inspires us. And I think we also need to liberate ourselves from historical models too and to recognise, and perhaps that's the greatest lesson at all of the Enlightenment generally and Philadelphia in particular, is that we are not condemned to follow the path that our forefathers have, that we can overthrow tyrants. We can understand and overcome the natural difficulties, the challenges that nature throws down to us, we can achieve those things. And that might be the greatest thing. But again, I won't claim that it's uniquely Philadelphia. You know, as proud of the city and as adoring of it as I am, I don't want to claim that this is anything more than a place where human beings, fortunately, had a good break, you know, had good fortune on a number of occasions.
And I'm going to come back to ask you a little bit about that in a minute but I would like to stay with what you were just talking about for one more question, because obviously, if we think about Philadelphia today and we look at the multiple challenges many cities are facing around the world, and anyone you talk to about Philadelphia will raise the issue of income inequality, racial inequality, many other aspects of society which seem to be stubbornly difficult to tackle. Is there anything about Philadelphia that means that its approach on these issues is distinctive or remarkable or different in particular ways? Or is Philadelphia facing the same problems in the same way as every other city?
While I do think that Philadelphia is facing the same problems, and I do think that very largely we have the same resources, the same limitations and the same opportunities, I do think that at the moment we have some good fortune in a number of areas and that, again, to some extent it comes down to geography. We're centrally located in a part of the country that is thriving, is intellectually vibrant. There are certainly historical determinants that help us. in this case, it is not our history of railroad manufacturing that is helping us, but our history as a centre of medicine is extremely important in today's world. And I do think that the physical nature of the city, a city of houses, of rowhouses, is, well, what can one say, an attractive thing in a post pandemic world when people might want to have their own houses. So I do think that, you know, we've been dealt a pretty good hand by history as it comes to face this. And perhaps most significantly, we do have that spirit that does surface repeatedly, that we tell ourselves that this is Philadelphia, that this is you know, the people do say this to each other. And, you know, at this very moment, I think it's been pretty grim here in America with the pandemic. As far as I know, it's been in the U.K., but we do seem to have, how can I put it that way, to say politely, we do seem to have incredibly inept science denying leadership, except that in Philadelphia we have a mayor and a commissioner of health who day after day came on television every afternoon to give a news conference which was full of facts and sensible advice and, you know, and basically represented, how can I say it? An enlightenment view of how human beings ought to deal with difficult problems, get the science right and treat people as though equitably. Admittedly doing this in a climate in which in America cities are not allowed to run deficits, only the federal government can do that. And so they are forced to slash funding for basically everything else in order to, you know, to pay for the things that are desperately, materially needed at the moment.
And so I do think it is the case that Philadelphia can hold up to itself this record of past achievement as both a goad and as an inspiration. But I think the fundamental thing is that Philadelphia, we are fortunate, we are simply fortunate and that we have a mayor who is a child of, you know, as a child of immigrants raised in a row house in South Philadelphia, went through the local Catholic schools and grew up, you know, thinking of himself as a Philadelphian, and a health commissioner who is affiliated with the great medical establishments of Philadelphia, who are good and sensible people who, you know, work well together. And I do think we are fortunate in that respect. But I'm going to continue to backpedal against saying, well, it's just Philadelphia solving this. No. Individuals are solving this.
And now, David, I have a question about whether there are myths or misconceptions that you feel people believe about the city and what the implications for those might be for the city.
Yeah, the truth is myths don't much interest me. I think there's so much that is true that's interesting that I was puzzling over this question. And I suppose a couple of the myths that are, you know, a harmless myth and one that we have that it appears that we invented at about the time of the centennial of the of the Declaration of Independence is that Betsy Ross sewed the first flag, and for many years, this was held up as one of the few things that you could say that a woman did at the beginning of the American Revolution. Well, it seems quite clear now – there's absolutely no historical evidence that she did. There's great evidence that her descendants, 100 years, after her death created this myth. The house that we celebrate as the Betsy Ross house is not where she lived. I mean, you know, there's all these things that are utterly – but, you know, it's a useful, you know, entering wedge for the discussion of what is the role of women in American society, what is the leadership, what is the creative capacity of women. And so, I mean, it's a useful myth. It's a little galling, particularly if you're involved in trying to operate historic sites where things really happened and tourists keep going to the Betsy Ross house rather than to the house owned by the mayor of Philadelphia during the revolution where George Washington actually came and danced. That's one of the myths that I find so perplexing.
There's a great deal of scrambling – America began to scramble to find and assemble its own history in the 1870s as the centennial of the revolution was coming up. And before that time, there was really very little American interest in American history. I mean, it was assumed to be just a continuation of British history, only it was the uninteresting bit, the provincial and the later bit. And this notion of the American identity being somehow wedded to our history was something that we began to invent in the 1870s. And so the Betsy Ross story is one of them. One of my favourites and sort of local ones is that my university, the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin as a college, and which he wrote a pamphlet proposing that it should be founded in 1749, and they finally got some students in 1752. And it moved from being a school to a college in 1755. But my university in 1880, the trustees voted to declare that we had been founded in 1740. Why? What made us older than Princeton? And this was based on an entirely fictitious narrative that the building that we occupied when the college was founded had been built for an itinerant Methodist preacher who had an intention of founding a school but never did. And that derelict building, which became our home, became the sort of foundation for something.
There's one probably really important myth that is worth noting. And that is that when Penn landed in Philadelphia, he made peace with the Indians. And he did. Exactly what he did is mythologised. Where he met, the tree under which the treaty was signed. But it did occur. And mind you, it was a treaty that was very much in the advantage of the Europeans, but it was a treaty. And Philadelphia, unlike Boston and unlike New York, New York was never a walled city. It was always a city at peace with the with the native peoples who, alas, I mean, part of the peace was that they'd already been decimated by smallpox that they probably got from the earlier Swedish settlers of the Delaware Valley. But the reality of that of this city created in peace is shrouded in the mythologising of the meeting of Penn beneath a great elm tree at a place that is now a little riverside park called Penn Treaty Park, not clear that anything happened there. There is a prehistoric Indian settlement on the site. But that story is, I think, terribly important. And the statue on top of City Hall of William Penn, the huge bronze statue, that since Philadelphia was designed like a Roman castral city with a cardo and a Decumanus, and City Hall is right at the cross point between the between Broad Street and Market Street, you would think that William Penn would look north or south or east or west on one of these. No, he looks north east towards the park, towards the place where the treaty was signed.
The treaty that he made with Chief Tamanend meant that the city of Philadelphia, unlike Boston, unlike New York, never had fortifications, that it was a city built by people who lived with peace with their neighbours. Now, mind you that this was a peace that was achieved at very good terms by the Europeans, but it was a peace that was worked out and which was never challenged. It was never challenged by war, was never undermined by war. This was a peace that was real. But the events of its construction are fictional. We don't believe that Tamanend actually met underneath a particular elm tree in the place that's now called Penn Treaty Park. Tamanend and Penn did meet, and a wampum belt was exchanged in the process of this that represented the meeting, the peaceful meeting of North Americans and Europeans. But that fiction is useful because there's a great truth that lies behind it.
The Tower of City Hall has a statue of William Penn on top of it. And you might imagine that that great bronze statue faced one of the cardinal points that will correspond to the great street grid of Philadelphia. But it does not, it faces northeast towards the fictional location in Penn Treaty Park of the treaty with the Indians.
David, thank you very much.
So, David, if we'd have asked you the right question, would there have been anything else that you would have wanted to say about Philadelphia and its DNA?
Well, I guess the one thing that I think is true of all great things is true of Philadelphia as well, and that it is a place where contradictions are brought together and something stronger is made out of that meeting of opposite things. You know, it is the place where the great rational grid plan of enlightenment Europeans meets the great shaggy wilderness of North America. And those two things do live side by side. It is a place, of course, where diverse peoples from all over the world, I guess one has to say the known world at the time that we're speaking, come together and create something that is built out of their contradictions and the need to build a system that reconciles those contradictions. I mean, I do think that that is the great genius of the American constitution, that it assumes that there will be differences. It assumes that there will be disputes and it designs a system for reconciling them at a granular level.
I think Philadelphia is enormously enlivened by the fact that the great rational grid plan that William Penn and Thomas Holme laid out with huge city blocks that he imagined would be occupied, in fact, not by rowhouses, but by freestanding houses in their own gardens, was transformed by the settlers he recruited into something that looked to them more like a city. And they drove through those great blocks, little alleyways that they lined with tiny houses at the scale of European cities that they knew and said that Philadelphia has, if you will, that great sort of plaid of big streets and small streets, of grand buildings and small buildings all woven together. That contradiction reconciled physically, just as the contradictions and differences among people are reconciled philosophically. And this great matrix of contradictions, that is that one of the world's great cities.