A collection of Benjamin Franklin tidbits that relate Philadelphia's revolutionary prelate to his moving around the city, the colonies, and the world.
Decline and Fall of Philadelphia
In 1900, Philadelphia was described as the largest commercial (ie non-capital) city in the world. By 1929 it was flat on its back, and never recovered its former position. Why did this happen?
Right Angle Club: 2015
The tenth year of this annal, the ninety-third for the club. Because its author spent much of the past year on health economics, a summary of this topic takes up a third of this volume. The 1980 book now sells on Amazon for three times its original price, so be warned.
|Benjamin Franklin 309th Birthday|
They changed the calendar in the Eighteenth Century, so it's always confusing to talk about the birthdays of the Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin for example was born on January 6, 1705, but by the time he got around to being famous, he was born on January 17, 1706. Scholars handle this awkwardness by saying he was born on January 17, 1706 [OS, January 6, 1705]. That's not all the problem, however. This year on January 17 he had his 309th birthday, unless you wish to say he had his 310th birthday on January 6. The novelty has long since worn off, and nowadays most birthday celebrants prefer just not to mention the matter. You might think Don Smith would think this is of vital importance, but he cheerfully brushes it off with a chuckle.
Don Smith is the current leader of the Ben Franklin Birthday Celebration, which is held at 9 AM every year, on January 17th [NS], starting at the American Philosophical Society's Franklin Hall on Chestnut Street, once a very substantially-built bank building. The constituent members are affiliated with one of the thirty-odd organizations which Franklin founded, although anyone interested is welcomed. On what usually turns out to be the coldest day of the year, the birthday celebrants gather for hot drinks and cookies, followed by one or two really outstanding lectures about Franklin. Sometimes the lecture's connection to Franklin is a little stretched, but all of them are excellent. At 11 AM, the group marches together to Ben's grave at 5th and Arch for a short ceremony, led by Franklin re-enactors and honest-to-goodness members in the uniform of the National Guard, which Franklin founded. He did so when the Spanish and French ships were bombarding the coast, and as the editor of the town's newspaper, Franklin called for troops to defend us. The Quaker government declined to be violent, so Franklin published an invitation for volunteers to bring their guns and join him. Ten thousand showed up, and Franklin's career in public life was established. He was a hero to everyone -- except Thomas Penn, who saw him as a threat. Much subsequent Colonial history revolves around this episode and its consequences.
After the march, the group settles down for a good lunch, and hears yet another outstanding lecture. This year it was given by Paul R. Levy, the President of a planning organization called the Center City District. Steve's message this year was about how the streets of Center City Philadelphia were constructed for walking, or at most riding horseback. That is, they were narrow. They widened somewhat as they went West and had to accommodate a city of carriages. That was quite good enough through the Gilded Age, when Philadelphia could credibly claim to be the richest city in the world.
But then what happened was not the two World Wars, the stock market crash of 1929, or anything resembling that. What happened in Paul Levy's view, was the automobile. Hundreds, then thousands of autos filled the streets, scattering chickens and children, and eventually making the city impassible. Nothing would do but to move to the suburbs, which among other things provided the thrill of driving too fast and too carelessly, and reducing the pedestrians while increasing the business of accident rooms. There was certainly no room for bicycles, which were driven away without a tear being shed, and defying the efforts of city planners to find a safe place for them. Europe, good old Europe where we came from, was more successful in hounding the imposter autos off the bike paths of Amsterdam and Copenhaven. And preserving intercity high speed train service, at great taxpayer expense. Those Europeans really know how to live, in sidewalk cafes, unaffected by bicycles, preserving a much older collection of narrow city streets leading to empty cathedrals, in Germany, France, and Central Europe. That wasn't the American way, at all. We just pulled up sticks and moved to the suburbs, abandoning the dirty old defeated cities to their ethnic neighborhoods.
It's a novel theory, and maybe even a correct one. It could explain a lot, if Philadelphia is seen as a victim of Detroit, strangling on their mutual industrial excesses.
Originally published: Thursday, January 22, 2015; most-recently modified: Friday, September 20, 2019