Even Accidental Geography May Be “Destiny”

 

Pennsylvania | Image: Pennsbury Manor

The writer Adam Gopnik has a great deal of fun in the most recent issue of the New Yorker with the surge in geographic-determinist interpretations of history, which he calls “space history.”

Recently, scholars have been using space history “to explain everything,” notes Gopnik, “like the ‘naked ape’ anthropology of the nineteen-seventies, sure in its belief that the missionary position in sex explains all of human bonding, the new space history has imperial ambitions. Russians will always want a warm-weather port and will always have a huddled, suspicious culture, whether Tsarist, Soviet, or Putinish. Ideology is mere summer clouds above an unchanging terrain.”

Gopnik is rightly skeptical of singular explanations for anything, especially deterministic ones like geography. Human history doesn’t reduce very well to the scholar’s theory or the book-marketer’s strategy, thank God, and yet it seems one aspect of our human complexity is to put faith in these simplified narratives.

I suppose that’s why they’re so enticing and why we buy books explaining that salt is the mineral that changed the world (it might be!) or why the free market is always right (not buying that one!).

Gopnik finds space history just another way to come up with a story that fits one’s ideological bent or argument. “Geostrategic thinking,” he writes, “seems not just resolutely unfalsifiable but cozily improvised at a moment’s need.”

Image: Googlemaps

I suspect it also may be fun, and just a little bit revealing, so I’m going to improvise–right now in this fraught moment post-Sandy–and roll out a slightly geostrategic epiphany of my own: THANK YOU WILLIAM PENN for siting this city so far inland from the ocean. It’s not clear he intended to place Philadelphia at such a great distance from the great ocean, but his first choice was Upland (now Chester), certainly very far upriver and his people scoured the tidal Delaware up to Trenton for a suitable site large enough to build a “large Towne or Citty” with a great protected port.

They couldn’t readily find one, so they grabbed what dry, unmarshy land they could and started laying out Philadelphia on the Svenson property just north of Wicaco. When the boss arrived, he couldn’t have been too pleased. His great port was a long, unchartered distance from the Atlantic, and there was no room to grow the street grid. Immediately south and north was wetland–there was nowhere to go (and hence Penn himself sought out the Schuylkill and decided to give his city dual waterfronts). Did Penn think, “what a bunch of amateurs!” and demand to see land closer to the mouth of the Delaware Bay? Or, having traveled all over Europe analyzing the best cities and having lived through the Great Fire of London, did he say, “genius!”

Philadelphia, 1796 | Image: Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

His city would be protected from high winds, surging sea, and certainly, marauders.

Perhaps then we have him to thank–as with so many things (Penn, the man who made the modern world!)–for our subways running today, lights on, schools in session, ships landing at port.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



2 Comments


  1. Yes, Philly is always a big “<"
    where storms either go to washington DC or NY
    But with Sandy, we were lucky, Billy, you did good!

  2. Talk about burying the lede?
    Philadelphia and its geography doesn’t even get mentioned until the sixth paragraph.
    If I was a writing professor, I’d slap your fingers with a ruler.
    All that Andrew Gopnik stuff could have been explained below.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

 

Recent Posts
Blumenfeld To Add To Abbotts Square

Blumenfeld To Add To Abbotts Square

May 27, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Society Hill mixed-use set for expansion, Mt Sinai as demolition and construction site, Hershey’s signs on for Pennovation Center, and mapping Philly regional commuter patterns > more

In Kingsessing, A Colonial Cottage Keeps History In Place

In Kingsessing, A Colonial Cottage Keeps History In Place

May 27, 2016  |  Vantage

Just off of Woodlands Avenue among a block of crumbling rows stands a small, stone farmhouse that has miraculously withstood time and tide for over 250 years. Contributor Ann de Forest has the story behind the tiny colonial cottage on Vogdes Street > more

Planning Commission Signs Off On New Penn Medical Facility

Planning Commission Signs Off On New Penn Medical Facility

May 26, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Penn Tower replacement approved by planning commission, two West Philly community gardens safe from sheriff’s sale for now, South Philly school to get $100K for playground improvements, anti-gentrification graffiti in West Philly, and Habitat for Humanity begins work on 21 homes near Temple > more

Bicycles + Exploration = Bikesploration! (Round 2)

May 25, 2016  |  Uncategorized

  Hidden City and Spoke Magazine have teamed up again to present a four tour series of bicycle explorations. Three of the tours are brand new > more

With World Heritage City Liftoff Tomorrow, What Can We Expect?

With World Heritage City Liftoff Tomorrow, What Can We Expect?

May 25, 2016  |  News

World Heritage and City officials will unveil the project's ambitious goals, but what do they have in mind, and can they deliver? Hilary Jay reports > more

PhillyU Students Rethink East Falls Station

PhillyU Students Rethink East Falls Station

May 25, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Imagining a rebuilt SEPTA station, recalling the fire of 1897, Pennsport residents want dog parks, five more homes for South Kensington, and operator selected for Parks on Tap summer series > more