Holmesburg Prison

An old guard tower inside the long-shuttered and scandal-plagued Holmesburg Prison in Northeast Philadelphia. (Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott)

What is the difference between the Wanamaker organ and the Macy’s light show, between the Divine Lorraine and racial harmony, and between the Holmesburg Prison and Zoe Strauss?

For most Philadelphians, it would be hard to see.

Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall have set out in a new book to connect such seemingly remote pieces of the city’s past and present. While the city has worn many names over the years — the city of homes, the city of neighborhoods, the city that bombed itself — they propose a new one.

Philadelphia, they argue, is the hidden city.

Woodall and Popkin, co-founders of the website Hidden City Daily, became enthralled by the post-industrial grit that blanketed Philadelphia when they arrived here in the 1980s, and have since made careers exploring the unsung mini-histories of its rise and decline.

The book project grew naturally out their daily collaborations at Hidden City, which chronicled many of these forgotten landmarks through blog posts and photo essays. And while inspirations ranged from Luc Sante’s essays on New York to Rebecca Solnit’s mixed-media atlas of San Francisco, “Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City” sits in a modest category of its own.

Unlike other contemporary books about Philadelphia, this two-part essay unfolds alongside 110 photos by architectural photographer Joseph Elliot, together detailing how the city’s best (and least) known spaces interact in the past and present.

Wanamaker Organ

The often overlooked organ inside of Macy’s downtown traces back to the once-vibrant Wanamaker Building. (Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott)

The story opens in 1916, a year when the city’s population was roughly the same size as it would be a century later. As we know now, the rapid industrialization and population growth that propelled Philadelphia into the 20th century would leave as quickly as it came. But remnants of that former glory — from the anachronistic pipe organ inside of Macy’s downtown, conceived by merchant John Wanamaker a century ago, to the ruined turbine halls of the Richmond Generating Station  — live on in various states of decay and preservation. And it is for these remnants that the authors wish to share their sense of wonder.

As they observe early on: "In an era when it appears that the entire world has already been explored by humans, it is remarkable to discover the worlds concealed in Philadelphia's many layers."

Readers of Hidden City Daily will find familiar obsessions on display in these pages, like how to identify old storefront movie theaters by their faded art deco murals. (Full disclosure: I have done freelance reporting for the outlet over the years.)

In similar spirit, the photo-rich essay jumps from church belfries into underground culverts. Readers are introduced to some of the city’s 19th century provincial families as well as Civil Rights-era leaders, telling their stories through the lens of the physical spaces they occupied.  

The investigation reads both journalistic and literary, and moves deftly between archival research and references to Philadelphia in contemporary films like “The Fifth Element.”  Throughout, the authors also maintain an emphasis on the present, and how everyday Philadelphians interact with “the hidden city” through these spaces everyday.

“The tension between past and present is rich,” Popkin says over coffee one morning. “This is a living thing we are a part of.”

Popkin added he was hoping to bring readers into “inaccessible soul” of the city. Whether successful or not, local and national readers will nonetheless find an alternative theory of American urbanism and Philadelphia’s unique place in it.

Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City. $36.95. Temple University Press. 200 pages.


Mill Creek sewer

The giant brick culverts of Mill Creek sewer that live beneath the streets of West Philadelphia. (Photo: Joseph E.B. Elliott)



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