Philadelphia holds a special appeal for Roger Simon, professor of history at Lehigh, who grew up during the economic heyday of the City of Brotherly Love.
“I remember going downtown as a youngster, when Center City was bustling and the streets were always crowded,” he recalls. “I remember the Philadelphia of 50 years ago, when the five department stores were overflowing with people.”
Simon has memories of other special moments growing up in the city he would later study, including stuffing nickels in the little slots at the Horn & Hardardt restaurants or sipping hot chocolate from a Thermos bottle while he and his father watched the Mummers parade up Broad Street.
Concise, yet comprehensive
From his Philadelphia childhood, Simon went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers, and his M.A. and Ph.D., from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His academic career has focused on the history of cities, urban development, ethnicity, and social class.
All of those areas of scholarly interest converge in his latest book, Philadelphia: A Brief History
, which is part of a series of books published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association.
Completing Philadelphia: A Brief History
, was no easy task, says Simon, who was charged with telling the story of a city whose history stretches back three centuries, which played an integral role in the birth of the nation, and which mirrored the socio-economic changes that shaped America over the last century.
“I’ve read most of the secondary literature on Philadelphia, which is quite vast,” he says. “Then I concentrated on primary research. The real challenge became boiling it down. I could have written a book twice as long.”
As it is, Simon’s book is a concise, yet comprehensive, history of the colorful city, and includes 53 detailed maps and illustrations. At 144 pages, it is the longest book in the Pennsylvania Historical Association series.
“I must have gone through 600 illustrations at four different libraries,” says Simon. “I consulted old maps and atlases of the city at Temple University’s Urban Archives, and spent quite a bit of time going through clippings of the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin
to gain a sense of how developments in the city were reported.”
Struggling to find footing
Simon’s grandfather and father shared a small metal shop in the heart of the city when he was growing up. Later, the creation of Independence Mall forced a move to the Kensington area, where Simon’s fascination with city neighborhoods was nurtured.
“After the business moved there in the late ‘50s, I saw different parts of the city,” he says. “It was during a time when Philadelphia was at its peak in terms of size and manufacturing strength. After that, for the remaining half of the century, I saw the city struggle to find a new footing, to navigate the conflicts of race and to reconcile contentious views. It was, and remains, to a degree, a trying time.”
Although the city was the nation’s birthplace, its image over the past century has been mixed.
“There have been events and developments that have tarnished its reputation, such as the terrible MOVE episode,” he says, referring to the 1985 racial confrontation that erupted between the radical MOVE group and city police and left 11 citizens dead and an entire city block completely leveled. “But Philadelphia has always been an incredibly complex city. It’s a source of ongoing fascination for me.”
Still, Simon remains optimistic about Philadelphia’s future.
“The city does have a lot going for it,” he says. “It is still the cultural focus of the region. There are two new sports stadiums, both inside the city, plus the new Constitution Center and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. Gentrification of neighborhoods has taken hold around the edges of Center City, there is a strong office building complex, and viable neighborhoods throughout the city. There’s much to look forward to in the city’s future, and much to learn from in its past.”
Photo caption: Roger Simon (second row from bottom, left) and his class on a walking tour of Philadelphia.