Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site



ON the way to Independence Hall, you can hear snatches of history. "We were loyal children of the empire and we were being treated as bad children," says a tour guide in a blue dress and Colonial bonnet.But Bernard Goodman, acting superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, is giving a different tour. "See that?" he asks, pointing to the stump of a black wooden post."That's a light pole. We just don't have the resources to put them up." There's more: leaks in the Second Bank of the United States, broken air-conditioning systems, layoffs that for a time closed eight of the park's 50 buildings last winter, and a fountain not fixed for three years because of lack of funds. Two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers gathered here to approve the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and, in 1787, the US Constitution. What would they say today of Philadelphia? It is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy while its skyline sports a dozen new buildings. It struggles with all the modern urban problems, yet this November it will host local elections that are as old as the republic. The Monitor asked Philadelphians to talk about their city then and now. Here's what they said: Joel Naroff, senior economist at First Fidelity Bancorporation: "Two hundred years with the same system is impressive ... Why do we believe that collective knowledge is always going to make the right decision? [Because in a democracy] the collective knowledge gets to periodically evaluate its decisions and make new decisions. You elect someone new." Ted Hershberg, director of the Center for Greater Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania: "People used to be ashamed when they didn't vote. Today people wear it as a badge: 'Hey, I'm above that stuff.' When I do lectures I ask as a point of interest at the beginning: 'How many of you are involved in politics?' Never more than 5 percent of the hands go up. Then, much later I ask people in my speech if they care about the quality of justice that's meted out in their courts. Every hand goes up. I ask if they care about the quality of education. Every hand goes up. I ask them if they care about t heir environment.... Every hand goes up. [Then I say:] Don't you understand that politics is what determines all of these issues? Until Americans understand their civic responsibilities, until we learn how to reintroduce in the culture the responsibility every person has as a citizen, then it seems to me we will lose the very qualities that the Founding Fathers had when they created this nation." Roberto Santiago, program coordinator for a housing organization called Centro Pedro Claver, in a poor Puerto Rican neighborhood: "I think they [the Founding Fathers] would be very proud of traveling along Center City, especially Society Hill or the Art Museum, and seeing what a strong government with a good strong capitalist society has to offer to some people. But I think there would be a sense of awe, and a sense of sadness, and a sense of shame from their side to see that what they really built was a nation for the white men. When they were talking about 'We the people,' they were really talking about 'We the people' in that ro om two centuries ago in Philadelphia. They weren't talking about 'We the people' the women, 'We the people' the blacks, or the homosexuals, or 'We the people' with AIDS." Roger Zepernick, the center's executive director, driving his van around the neighborhood (where a good house costs about $15,000): "I want to take you by the girl's school over there. Contrast that school with the prostitution that's evident across the street, the trash, and if you look around, you'll see the crack vials and so on in this park. What you won't see today and what you would see maybe on a weekend is how many people are using this park. There's a community group that's been working together to clean it up and do programs in the park and bring resources into the park. That kind of leadership would be exciting for the Fou nding Fathers to talk to. What would be frustrating to them would be to see how little is available to those people who are trying to make those changes." Esther Glick, a suburbanite moving downtown to Center City (where a low-rise condo with two bedrooms costs from $130,000-$550,000): "I am so excited about it because Philadelphia has so many things to offer, particularly for people who are unattached. I can walk to all the things that I want to see." Hillard Pouncy, associate professor of American politics at Swarthmore College, in suburban Philadelphia: "You can look to Atlanta: again, the American story of people of enormous difference. Within a 100 years it goes from being a land of overt, horrendous racial oppression to power-sharing. But if you look at Philadelphia, the very city where this experiment is designed, you get a very different message. Here you have enormous economic inequality. You have this stab at political innovation: the city hosts a black mayor. But it's not working out. The fundamental problems of the city just aren't looking good at the moment. And you have to ask, what goes wrong here? And I guess the answer is: There aren't any promises here. All the instrumentality the Founding Fathers gave us is a framework for making a stab at it." Stephen Harmelin, a Philadelphia lawyer: "I think they would be dazzled by the diversity, certainly Franklin would. I am sure he would lecture our city leaders on spending more money than they have. But if we told him that we went into debt to help the poor, I think we would find a sympathetic audience." Mr. Goodman says "Benjamin Franklin ... would both be amazed and probably not surprised. Each American generation has molded the Constitution to suit the needs of the times. He would have been pleased with that. Franklin would never agree that things were not going to be better or improved. He always saw opportunities where everybody else saw problems." David Brenner, Philadelphia's director of finance: "He [Franklin] would have to believe that this city is so much cleaner. There are paved roads. There's no dust. We have AIDS - and that's awful - but they had yellow fever and some things that were really horrible ... Even with complaints about our education system, my suspicion is that we have a higher level of education and a greater amount of literacy." Rudy Tolbert, manager of weatherization programs at the Energy Coordinating Agency, which helps low-income Philadelphians: "It's hard to say that there has not been progress since the Founding Fathers were sitting around here in Philadelphia. There's been a great deal of progress. And I think some people would say there had been progress up until 20 years ago.... The condition of the schools is far worse than it was 20 years ago. The condition of single-women heads of households in Philadelphia is not good. They're the poorest of the poor. Their children then inherit that, so they become the poorest of the poorest of the poo r. I don't think anyone coming back today could be proud of that." Oleg Rumjancev, deputy to Boris Yeltsin and drafter of the Russian Republic's constitution, a visitor here: "The language of your Constitution is, how can I say it, mediocre. But the spirit!... The Founding Fathers faced a different problem than we do in the Soviet Union. They were trying to strengthen a weak central government. In the Soviet Union, our central government is too strong." Charles Hallenbach, a volunteer at Independence National Park, giving a talk about the Liberty Bell: "It is now our turn to see that this bell and the liberties it represents will be preserved for generations to follow. Thomas Jefferson once said: 'The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.' But Jefferson also said: 'The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.' I think that's the message that this old bell tells us."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.