An Urban Palimpsest: Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City by Thomas Devaney

Making urban history visible. 


(Temple University Press, 2017)

Philadelphia is the kind of place where you need a guide. Philadelphians are proud of their city, but we do not seek outside approval. Some people say we have a chip on our shoulder, and some people would be right. At the same time, Philadelphia is a dramatically divided city, especially along the lines of race and class. Poverty is one of its most enduring problems. Philadelphia remains the poorest large city in the United States. It’s a city with many visible and invisible tripwires and boundaries, mostly known only to its locals. 

Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City combines text by Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall with Joseph E. B. Elliott’s photographs to reflect recent evolutions in thinking and ways of experiencing the city. At the heart of their pleasurably unsystematic book are the remnants of “the long nineteenth century.” It describes a city of stone, steel, steam, and Gilded Age glory surviving beyond its tenure as “the workshop of the world.” The authors quote Poor Richard’s Dictionary of Philadelphia (1916):

Every second, 15 cigars.
Every second, 10 loaves of bread.
Every second, 10 pairs of stockings.
Every second, 15 bushels of wheat loaded.
Every second, a new saw.
Every second, 50 daily papers printed.
Every two seconds, a new hat.
Every three seconds, a pair of lace curtains.
Every twenty minutes, a new house erected.
Every hour, a new trolley car built.
Every two-and-a-half hours, a new locomotive constructed.

Wanamaker Organ, console from a distance, 2016. Photograph by Joseph E. B. Elliott.

Among the book’s investigations, I found two especially compelling. One charts the Wanamaker Grand Court Organ currently ensconced in Macy’s Philadelphia flagship store. The other introduces Father Divine, the charismatic African American figure behind a network of missions, schools, and hotels stretched across the city.

Wanamaker’s was one of the greatest emporiums in the golden age of retail. Today, Popkin and Woodall write, “On the second floor, in Women’s Apparel” the great organ “console sits on a platform overlooking the store’s central courtyard. Few shoppers seem to notice the ten-foot tall mahogany structure and railing, hidden in plain sight.”

The sheer number of the organ’s 28,628 pipes is a staggering fact:

After going through a labyrinth of catwalks, ladders, and planks, the visitor reaches dozens of Escheresque cities of organ pipes, some wooden, others made of galvanized metal, a spotted alloy of tin and lead that resembles the skin of a giraffe. Everywhere are clocks, gadgets and more planks that lead deeper into this cosmic machine.

To consider the organ is to behold worlds within worlds.


Metropolitan Opera House, North Broad Street, 2009 (HCF). Photograph by Joseph E. B. Elliott.

The other compelling discussion involves Father Divine, a charismatic African American spiritual figure behind a network of missions, schools, and hotels stretched across the city. Some of Father Divine’s buildings are visible, but the backstory around him is not. Popkin and Woodall make a connection between the sound of the Wanamaker Organ in the busy department store and the “enduring presence” of Father Divine in the city, whom they say is “no less vital or sublime.”

Meet Father Divine: head of the Peace Mission Movement whose followers did not believe in heaven, but “sought paradise on earth.”

Divine was a capitalist and built a network of hotels and cleaning businesses run on a cash-only basis. He was also a deliberately provocative civil rights leader who fought for integration. By purchasing and preserving some of Philadelphia’s most elaborate Gilded Age mansions, estates, and hotels, he could house large groups of followers relatively cheaply while reifying the material paradise they would conserve forever.

The building he is most associated with is the Divine Lorraine Hotel on North Broad Street. The monumental structure was the headquarters for his Peace Mission Movement. The neon marquee on top of the building is visible from afar. Two grand arches unite the north and south wings. The building cuts a distinct figure and does not need any sign to tell you what it is, but the combination of sign and structure is marvelous.

The majority of Elliott’s photographs, including those of the Divine Lorraine, are interiors. The editors made a decision to include interior vantages at the expense of facades (after all, it is the hidden city). But as a result, readers will miss a sense of the outside and the inside together, or a relationship between the buildings and the city felt on the street level.


Holmesburg Prison, gate locks, Torresdale Avenue, 2015. Photograph by Joseph E. B. Elliott.

Nevertheless, there are moments when looking at the achingly beautiful Richmond Power Station, or the Girard College archives in the upper rotunda of its great hall, that the city runs right through your bones. Part history, part tour guide, part civic manifesto, Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City traverses and decodes the city as it goes. Along with Elliott’s one hundred-plus striking photographs, this alluring book not only shows where to look, but provides an adept context on how to see and read the city’s countless layers.

Thomas Devaney is a poet based in Philadelphia. He is the author of Runaway Goat Cart (Hanging Loose Press 2015) and The Picture that Remains with photographer Will Brown (The Print Center, 2014).

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