The Long View

March 21, 2012 |  by  |  History  |  ,

 

Siracusa 734 concert | Photo: Cristina Vezzaro

Last Friday night in Siracusa, on the eastern edge of Sicily, where I was on an Arcadia University “preview” trip, the local orchestra performed a concert on the origins of that city, which was founded by Phoenicians in 734 BC. The concert took place on the grounds of the Temple of Apollo, in the heart of the city.

The theme of the course that brought us to Siracusa is global migration. During our visit we spent a lot of time thinking about the imprints of various waves of people, especially Arabs, who over the centuries had colonized the city (streets in Siracusa follow the design of Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman origins). And yet, we were told, by reflex local tourism officials fall back on marketing the ancient history. Thus the grand concert in celebration of the year 734 BC.

Greek Theater, Siracusa | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Nevertheless, it was the Arabs who made first Siracusa and then Palermo major cosmopolitan cities. In 1130 AD, after a reconquest, the Arabs moved their capital to Palermo (still Sicily’s capital), and Siracusa has plodded along since, 882 years in the shadows.

Palermo rose up, challenging Cordoba and Cairo for dominance–until Christian reconquest. By 1330, Palermo, once the largest city in Europe, had shrunk some 75% to 50,000. Nowadays, after a surge of growth at the turn of the 20th century (Sicilians who didn’t migrate to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, or New Orleans apparently went to Palermo), the city has plateaued around 650,000.

All this is to say urban narratives of growth and decline carry across time and space. We therefore need a long view.

Well then, great cities shrink.

Immigrant fish vendor forced to sell his catch outside the main market, Siracusa | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Manhattan is some 700,000 people off its peak (over-crowded) population. Indeed, says the libertarian web-site Demographia, “city population losses are the rule.” Paris population is off 25 percent from its 1920s peak. Inner London is off almost 2 million from its turn of the century 4.5 million population.

Most cities grow, says Demographia, by enlarging their boundaries, as Philadelphia did in 1854, and by waves of immigration. Unless we are to annex the suburbs–!–this leaves us one choice. New York City (all five boroughs) has regained its peak population because of massive immigration. If Philadelphia is to continue to grow, even slowly, it will have to be welcoming to global migrants.

Siracusa is not. Most of the immigrants we spoke to were desperate to leave Sicily all together. They aren’t welcomed, integrated, or valued (or given much work). And so the once capital of this parched island clings to its ancient history–clings and yet still imagines future glory.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

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

Recent Posts
Protected Jewelers Row Building Cited

Protected Jewelers Row Building Cited “Unsafe” By L&I On The Eve Of Toll Brothers Demolition

September 19, 2019  |  Development, Preservation

Last week the owner of a legally protected historic property on Jewelers Row was unexpectedly served multiple violations by the Department of Licenses and Inspections as suburban real estate developer Toll Brothers prepares to demolish five buildings next door. Starr Herr-Cardillo reports > more

Still Chugging Along: Exploring Philadelphia's Other Broad Street Station

Still Chugging Along: Exploring Philadelphia’s Other Broad Street Station

September 18, 2019  |  History

Ed Duffy dives deep into the origins of a litttle-known Neoclassical train station in North Philly > more

Renovations At William Way Look To The Future While Preserving The Past

Renovations At William Way Look To The Future While Preserving The Past

September 16, 2019  |  Architecture, Preservation

Big changes are in the works for William Way Community Center thanks to a $1 million grant from the Commonwealth's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. Stacia Friedman has the details > more

Final Plans To Transfer Philadelphia History Museum Collection To Drexel University Unveiled

Final Plans To Transfer Philadelphia History Museum Collection To Drexel University Unveiled

September 12, 2019  |  City Life, History

The Philadelphia History Museum is officially dead. The large collection of beloved city artifacts will be transferred to Drexel University. Kimberly Haas has the news > more

Hidden City Daily Celebrates Eight Years Of Publishing

Hidden City Daily Celebrates Eight Years Of Publishing

September 11, 2019  |  City Life

September marks Hidden City Daily's 8th year of publishing. To toast the occasion we look back at the past 12 months with a curated list of our top 15 stories. > more

Settlement Houses: Doing Good In The Neighborhood

Settlement Houses: Doing Good In The Neighborhood

September 9, 2019  |  History

Stacia Friedman takes a look at Philadelphia's long tradition of providing social welfare and education through settlement houses, some of which still serve communities today > more