PhilaPlace is an interactive Web site, created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, that connects stories to places across time in Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. PhilaPlace weaves stories shared by ordinary people of all backgrounds with historical records to present an interpretive picture of the rich history, culture, and architecture of our neighborhoods, past and present. The PhilaPlace Web site uses a multimedia format – including text, pictures, audio and video clips, and podcasts – and allows visitors to map their own stories in place and time. More than a Web site, PhilaPlace includes ongoing community programs and publications, from workshops for teachers, to trolley tours, and exhibits. PhilaPlace is an engaging, meaningful way to understand more about where we live, and will serve as an enduring record of our heritage.
The Web site will focus first on two areas Old Southwark and the Greater Northern Liberties that were always home to immigrants and working class. We have chosen these neighborhoods because both are essential to understanding Philadelphia’s history and its industrial legacy as the “workshop of the world.” Situated north and south of the Center City historic district and home to successive immigrant communities almost three centuries, these areas continue as vibrant multiethnic neighborhoods featuring many sites of interest—historic houses of worship, community art and culture centers, gardens and murals, marketplaces, and ethnic businesses. Characterized by block upon block of low-rise row homes where common laborers, artisans, and skilled industrial workers, usually immigrants or migrants, settled, the boundaries of these neighborhoods were defined by work, home, religion, and ethnicity. What constitutes “the neighborhood” – that basic unit of the Philadelphia experience – is subjective, fluid and dynamic, defined as much by contested turf as by common ground.
Landscape and places in a landscape are both real and imagined, literal and symbolic. By using the landscape as a lens, PhilaPlace reveals how each population that arrives in a neighborhood creates new histories, traditions, and memories tied to place. Cultural traditions are always changing. They are combined, adapted, invented in response to interaction with others and the uniqueness of situation, place, and time. Historically these neighborhoods have been home to new immigrant and working-class residents, but as economic growth results in rapidly rising real estate values, newer immigrants and some long-term residents are threatened with displacement. By documenting these neighborhoods and their change over time, PhilaPlace promotes and protects unique neighborhood spaces and the sites within them that hold meaning for today’s inhabitants. PhilaPlace aims to capture and represent these traces and layers by focusing on multiple experiences of place and adaptive re-use—sites reused by newer ethnic groups that arrive and replace earlier groups or former industrial sites recently converted into living spaces—as a way to address and interpret issues of neighborhood change, gentrification, and interethnic relations now and historically.
Throughout each phase of the project, we remain committed to the dialogic and collaborative process we have begun with community partners. One way we are doing this through allowing visitors to share their own stories. We especially invite stories about people, events, and places that add to the historical and cultural picture of who Philadelphia was and is. Currently visitors can share their stories about any place in the city, although this content may not be posted until we have developed sufficient content for a particular neighborhood. We hope to build on these contributions and eventually expand the scope of PhilaPlace to encompass the entire city.
Another aspect of our mission at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is to play a key role in the historical interpretation of the region. This includes discussing the growth of the commonwealth and the city as well as the concerns and experiences of the diverse ethnic groups who have settled here. PhilaPlace works in collaboration with institutional and community partners and invites public participation to achieve these goals.
In Philadelphia, neighborhood boundaries are ever-changing, frequently disputed, and always defined by personal experience as much as by “official” geography. The neighborhoods listed on this page are approximations, created solely to help you navigate the map and filter stories. Contribute to the discussion about neighborhood boundaries or tell us about your neighborhood by adding a story or submitting comments to our blog.
History of PhilaPlace
The origins of PhilaPlace began when the Historical Society of Pennsylvania received funds in 2005 from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, through the Heritage Philadelphia Program, to develop two neighborhood history tours, one in Old Southwark and one in Northern Liberties and Kensington. Under the direction of Joan Saverino, the project worked closely with neighborhood residents and historic sites to craft tours that joined historical scholarship with local knowledge to produce history from a community perspective.
The project assessments were very positive but pointed to an age division: younger audiences wanted to experience the neighborhoods on their own while older audiences wanted to continue to have a guided experience. Given these results, we sought funding for the second phase of the project, one developed around an interactive Web site that would serve as the PhilaPlace lynchpin. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Department of Records, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and other non-profit institutions and community organizations (see credits for a full listing) received several large grants (see funders list) that have supported the production of PhilaPlace.
We hope you enjoy the PhilaPlace experience!
Joan Saverino Ph.D., Creator and Founding Director
Melissa Mandell, Coordinator
Dwight Swanson, Digital Media Coordinator