The late architect Cedric Price boiled down urban history to the progressive egg theory: cities, depending on the era of their formation, are either boiled (ancient, walled), fried (a center surrounded by successive rings), or scrambled (contemporary). Price’s theory doesn’t hold for Philadelphia. Says landscape architect Dilip da Cunha, “Philadelphia never grew from the center out, in successive rings.”
William Penn, of course, had a deliberate plan to create a decentralized, non-walled city (perhaps a carefully prepared mushroom omelet), but that plan was essentially thrown out upon landing in the New World. When Penn arrived, he found irate settlers living in caves along the Delaware, and no clear sense of where (or how large) his city could be. Penn established a new grid plan to fit the smaller space he was able to acquire. He assumed people would purchase lots along both rivers and the city would grow in toward the center. But most Philadelphians settled along the Delaware and from there the city grew very slowly, like a punctured yoke spreading across the pan.
And simultaneously (more or less), pioneer Philadelphians settled in the Northern Liberties, Germantown, Southwark, and Spring Garden (and in prototype urban enclaves like Burlington, in West Jersey), making the early city really quite a scramble.
All this is to say the egg metaphor doesn’t quite hold up as designed. But what might replace it?
We at Hidden City are in search of a better way to understand Philadelphia’s urban form. And so we turn to you. If the egg theory doesn’t hold, what’s yours? Please mail ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. The best, according to our editorial staff, will reward its owner with a Hidden City souvenir hardhat and a Hidden City membership.
And also: keep your eyes out for Stephen Currall’s upcoming historical deconstruction of Philadelphia’s actual shape, a story about the negotiation of religion, commerce, and ethnicity.