Getting Malled in Philadelphia: The Growth Coalition and the Historic City

Getting Malled in Philadelphia: The Growth Coalition and the Historic City

Gary Alan Fine (Northwestern University), Marcus Hunter (Yale University), and Kevin Loughran (Northwestern University)

As cities struggled in the last half of the twentieth century, urban leaders struggled to figure out how to provide amenities that would keep people from fleeing to the suburbs and to keep capital from following, or worse, flowing to places of cheap land and labor. The question was how could a city sell itself to residents, visitors and investors? Using the cityscape as a site for historical memory, creating a pleasing urban environment, was one such technique, constructing a “city of memory,” leveraging images of a golden past. City leaders, in the form of what sociologists refer to as a growth coalition, engage in a strategy of memory politics, regenerating the city based upon reviving its historic locations. Similar processes are evident in cities as diverse as Jerusalem, Kyoto, St. Petersburg, New Orleans, Paris, Berlin, Rio, and Shanghai.

A prime example of this process occurred in Philadelphia in which urban elites decided to rebuild, revive, and rebrand a central area of the downtown, using Independence Hall as its focus, creating a historic park incorporating some thirty buildings from the period of American independence.

To understand this process we need to recognize the power of elites in creating the city of memory. Proponents of a political-economic perspective to urban growth suggest that to counter decline and disinvestment a growth coalition emerges, based in alliances among stakeholders in corporate and political spheres. Core actors develop strategies to develop economic development, arguing to the public at large that expansion benefits the community as a whole.

The development of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia in the decade from 1948-1959 provides a dramatic example of how memorial sites can serve the interests of capital. That the development could be tied to the iconic events surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence, an image of American virtue that was particularly salient after fighting the Axis powers in WW2 and contesting with the Soviets, made the project more compelling for elites and their publics.

According to the 1950 Census, Philadelphia was the third largest American city, reaching its peak population of just over two million. Yet, it was a city facing large, and, for a time, seemingly insurmountable difficulties. At midcentury the wealthier population was fleeing to the suburbs. The industrial base of Philadelphia, dependent on the production of non-durable consumer goods, was challenged by industrial migration to the suburbs, to the non-union South, and, eventually, overseas.

The challenge for Philadelphia elites was how to save the city, a process that occurred from the top down. This is reflected in a meeting that clearly constitutes a gathering of the growth coalition. On May 21, 1942, fifty-one Philadelphians met in the library of the Architects Building to consider preserving Independence Hall; the “carefully chosen” meeting included politicians, architects, city leaders, businessmen, and representatives of cultural institutions. In 1948 members of this coalition established the Greater Philadelphia Movement, primarily composed of downtown business leaders, along with a few members of minority groups and a labor official, providing symbolic outreach. The elite nature of the group is evident in the fact that half of the members were in Philadelphia’s Social Register, two-thirds attended Ivy League schools, and most were in Who’s Who in America. The Philadelphia Bulletin described the organization as the “Cream of the Civic Group Giants.” When in 1949 the National Park Service established an eleven-person advisory committee, members included a leading banker, the executive director of Gimbel Brothers department store, and the leading real estate broker and developer. As civic leaders searched for high-impact projects to save downtown, restoring the area around Independence Hall and subsequently the residential “Society Hill” area near the Delaware River was a project that Philadelphia’s growth coalition could readily support.

Independence National Historical Park, initially developed between 1948 and 1959, centers on Independence Hall — site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Since the early nineteenth century, this building has been a preeminent site of national memory. Housing the Liberty Bell for much of its history – a material representation of American identity – the site has long been an international tourist attraction and has been renovated numerous times since 1787 as generations of preservationists and city boosters attempted to restore the structure according to contemporary aesthetic standards.

Located on the eastern edge of Center City Philadelphia near the heart of the city’s original colonial settlement, Independence Hall borders significant 18th Century housing stock and 30 other official historical sites that were incorporated within Independence National Historical Park – including the First and Second Banks of the United States, Carpenter’s Hall, the Merchants’ Exchange Building, and Independence Square. In time, this area was to become the symbolic heart of the redevelopment of Center City Philadelphia.


Photo courtesy Independence National Historical Park (‘Visit Philly’)


Yet, by mid-century the area was in decline. As urban planner Lewis Mumford pointed out at the time, the “ugly” area near Independence Hall was decayed, “alongside the big insurance offices many historic dwellings remain, sinking stage by stage from indigence to squalor, from squalor to grimy destitution, like old pensioners, too decrepit to perform any offices but the most menial ones, not even lucky enough to succumb to the commercial fever and be put out of their misery.”

City agencies, acting in concert with developers and the state and federal governments, spent $55 million to reshape the area over the course of a decade. Supporters expected banks, insurance companies, and other corporations to build on the edges of the site, so much so that critics worried about control of the plan by the real estate interests.

By the late 1950s, plans were in place to construct new office and residential towers near Independence Hall, counteracting a half-century of disinvestment and migration to the suburbs. Government and business elites were persuaded that the mall would boost the city’s tax revenues and would encourage large business to remain in the city. Indeed, the plan was successful. Rohm & Haas Company, a chemical and materials company, decided not to move, building a modernist office building adjacent to the mall.

Historical structures were demolished, refurbished, or recreated according to the judgments of a set of influential actors: academics, universities, historical societies, city planners, developers, and politicians. Redevelopment was especially rapid and eminent domain was applied to the area in 1957 so that every building could become public property with the price to be set later.

Raising more than $400,000 from Philadelphia firms and corporations, the Citizen’s Council on City Planning and the City Planning Commission presented the “Better Philadelphia Exhibition,” a widely-viewed diorama hosted by the Gimbels Department Store in 1947, designed to persuade middle-class Philadelphians of the virtues of a redeveloped city. Just a few feet away from makeup and fragrance counters, city planners unveiled an intricately redesigned Philadelphia. Included were a new riverside promenade and a version of Independence Mall.

Leaders of Philadelphia’s Young Turks, the emerging elite of the city, mobilized their contacts at the federal, state, and local government levels to gain national support. They established the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission, a seven-member committee established by act of Congress in 1946 and partially funded by the Insurance Company of North America, which drafted a preservation bill, eventually passed in June 1948 and signed by President Harry Truman, classifying the area around Independence Hall as a site for historical preservation. The commission included a well-connected judge, a prominent realtor, two members of Congress, a widely known preservationist, and scholar Carl van Doren.

Development groups like the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission and the members of the Greater Philadelphia Movement, along with newspaper editors, urban planners, and other city boosters, continually emphasized the centrality of Independence Hall and other historic buildings to collective memories about the founding events and values of the United States. The project’s advocates also drew connections between the site’s symbolic value and America’s role as a moral beacon.

To achieve their goals the growth coalition used elite perceptions of the surrounding neighborhood’s “decay” – especially the deterioration of historical buildings, and the unattractiveness of the light industrial district – to justify demotion and to attract private capital. Aesthetic considerations – the Philadelphia boosters’ fetishizing the old city’s colonial architecture – aided the planning, embalming an imagined vision of an eighteenth-century urban landscape. This set of strategies successfully leveraged the needed federal intervention: $55 million in funds to purchase and demolish building and build the green and attractive mall.

At the metropolitan level, local boosters used the image of Philadelphia as the “birthplace” of the United States to link the redevelopment project to the city’s identity. On the level of the nation state, Philadelphia’s boosters used the symbolism of Independence Mall and the surrounding area to acquire federal funds and the support of Congress and the National Park Service, thereby solidifying the city as a central node in postwar American memory. On the level of the broader economy, Philadelphia used the development to typify the new city and its possibilities for national investment.

By analyzing the creation of Independence National Historical Park as the outcome of a memory machine, we argue that historic preservation connects with growth politics. While Philadelphia is our case, similar strategies are evident elsewhere in nations as well as cities. For instance, promoters of Croatian tourism and nationhood marketed features of their (European) heritage, history, and architecture for national benefits (“the Mediterranean as it once was”). Studies of civic development demonstrate the cultural, social, and economic impact of the reconstruction of historic districts in other cities in decline or under threat. Granted this process does not happen in all places, but civic actors build on cultural imaginaries, often linked to the built environment and public identity.

The growth of cities results from how politically engaged elites and activists conceptualize the history of their community and employ memory politics as a justification for redevelopment. As we emphasize, cities differ from each other in their memory capital and in the implications of the city as distinctive. Not every city relies on history as strategy. Further, even in the most historic cities the resurrection of memory will not always triumph. However, just as manufacturing, ethnicity, environment, and transportation may affect urban self-images, so may shared history.

For Philadelphia its colonial history and its linkage to the Revolutionary period creates a compelling vision. The creation of Independence National Historical Park was not simply the creation of a park. Rather, the park was the product of a growth strategy that “looked back” in order to move the city “forward.”

Some cities define themselves in light of a heroic past, shining but sometimes shadowed. For “cities of memory,” memory politics helps explain and uncover the matrix of choices that urban elites and residents make as they link past, present, and future.


Gary Alan Fine is John Evans professor of Sociology at Northwestern University; Marcus Hunter is assistant professor of sociology at Yale University; Kevin Loughran is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University.