‘Finding the Hidden City’ Illuminates Philadelphia History

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Wanamaker Organ | Photos by Joseph E. B. Elliott

A lot can change in 100 years.

And if you look at Philadelphia in 1917 and 2017, there are plenty of changes, many hidden in plain sight.

In 2011, Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall co-founded Hidden City Daily, which seeks to peel back those layers and expose the elements of the city to new eyes.

Now, the two have taken urban exploration a step further with the Nov. 3 release of their new book, Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple University Press). They will do readings and signings Nov. 29 at 4 p.m. at Paley Library and Dec. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Philadelphia City Institute Library.

The book process began in 2012 and is comprised of essay text and stunning photographs by Joseph E. B. Elliott.

The essay is divided into two parts: the City of Infinite Layers and the City of Living Ruins. It spans segments of Philadelphia’s past, accompanied by Elliott’s photos.

As you read about the history of the controversial Holmesburg Prison, flip to see images of its visiting area and a rusting guard tower.

Learn about the city’s failed plans to create a 12-line transit system in addition to the “El” as you see photographs of the abandoned Franklin Square Subway Station.

“The essay speaks for itself and the photographs speak for themselves,” Popkin said, “but they’re also deeply integrated into the book so that the essay runs all the way through front to back and the photographs do as well.”

The text looks at the changes that have occurred over time but are still visible.  

The authors looked at texts like Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, in which he posits that cities change due to catastrophic intervention like earthquakes, but Hidden City argues instead that Philadelphia is a place that changes slowly over time.

“We have a very stable place that changes not by massive interruptions usually, but by slow change,” he said, pointing to the population similarities between 1917 and 2017.

That helped inform the vision of the book.

Reading City Branch Railroad

“Once we kind of figured that out,” Popkin said, “it gave us a chance to look at the layers as they developed and find places that would signify them or reveal those layers, some of them hidden, and then also think about what it means to live in a city that’s old and that we’re constantly reinventing — we call that the city of living ruins — and so we were able look for those places that help us to understand that concept.”

They looked at such areas as the history of the signature rowhouse style in the city and even the nonresidential purposes of those row houses and storefronts — like synagogues.

In particular, while discussing religious groups and history, the book looks at historic synagogues such as B’nai Reuben, which was a Chasidic congregation in 1905 once housed in a row house storefront on Passyunk Avenue and was moved to a Baroque Revival synagogue. It was the first synagogue building in Philadelphia’s eastern European Jewish Quarter, the book notes. It closed in 1956 and was eventually sold to a real estate developer.

Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel

It discusses Kesher Israel, B’nai Abraham and one notable rowhouse synagogue: Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel, which moved into a row house storefront in 1909.

“Word is there were once 150 rowhouse synagogues in South Philly, which I imagine is somewhere near true,” said Popkin, who is Jewish, “and this is one of the last surviving examples of it and a shul that has continued on because of the commitment of certain members who really will it into the present.”

For Popkin, who wrote a forthcoming novel that takes place in South Philly’s Jewish Quarter in present-day and the late 19th-century, his own Jewish identity plays a part in his continual exploration.

“Each year that goes by, I begin to discover more Jewish points of Philadelphia that resonate for me,” he said.

Of the topics that may not have made it into the book, one area he wanted to do more with was thinking about the public commercial life in Philadelphia and perhaps refuting the claim that it is a “quiet city.”

In its heyday, in the 18th and 19th centuries and into the 20th century, Popkin said, the city was loud and boisterous, the antithesis of the reputation it has acquired.

“For some reason, that city in its neon and its bright lights and its robust nightlife has gotten lost in our concept of what Philadelphia was,” he said.  

But there is more than enough to satiate any reader seeking to peel back layers of the city’s history.

Popkin hopes the book will serve as a tool to help.

“I hope that [readers] come to see this city as a place of complexity and contradiction,” he said, “and I hope …  whether they’re in Philadelphia or somewhere else, they start to think about it and see it differently maybe than they have been. Maybe there’s a couple ideas in the book that will ignite some further thinking.”  

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