Editor’s note: Writer, historian, and Temple University professor Kenneth Finkel first honed his voice as a regular contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer’s op-ed page in the 1980s. He has penned the popular column, “Discoveries from the City Archives,” for PhillyHistory.org since 2011. Finkel is the author of nine books, including “Nineteenth-Century Photography in Philadelphia” (1980) and “The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizens’ Manual” (1993 and 1994). The writer’s newest collection, “Insight Philadelphia,” published this year by Rutgers University Press, is a compilation of almost 100 essays featuring many colorful characters who once called Philadelphia home.
Mickey Herr caught up with Kenneth Finkel to discuss time travel, the impact of social media on sharing history, and what it takes to call yourself a Philadelphian, especially when you were born someplace else.
Mickey Herr: The stories you tell, in this book and beyond, cover a wide swath of time throughout our city’s history. What initially drew you to these stories of Philadelphia? Where did this all begin for you?
Ken Finkel: I’m from a family of antiques dealers. I grew up with an understanding of material culture, getting to know objects. My dad would pick up a piece of furniture and the first thing was to get know the story behind it. Who made it and where? How many times has it been fixed or refinished? Who owned it and why? For me, the ultimate “object” is the city. Philadelphia constantly changes, further and faster than imaginable. This is what makes what I do so interesting. There’s a greater demand for information. A greater demand for these stories of what was. Most of the time I start with just a shard of information, perhaps I’ll just come across a photograph of some long-forgotten building. And I immediately want to know who built it? Why? Is it still standing? Why not? There’s a process, and suddenly I’ve uncovered a new story.
MH: You have included an evocative quote from writer Pete Dexter in the book: “I have seen a pope, I have seen Julius Erving at the top of his game. I have seen a city burn down a neighborhood…” Imagine you can time travel to any one event or day throughout Philadelphia history. Where are you going and why?
KF: My first thought is to clarify something we don’t have a handle on, like asking the Founding Fathers what they really intended. Or going with William Penn to meet with the Lenni Lenape at Shackamaxon. I think about Benjamin West’s iconic portrait painted decades later to commemorate the occasion, and I wonder if the painting holds any truth or if it was really just propaganda. I wonder about that Wampum belt. Is it really an iconic founding item? I question all the time, how wrong did we get it?
But really I do time travel. All the time. That’s what my research allows me to do. And that’s why I do this. I get a great deal of pleasure from “visiting” a place and time that helps advance any story I’m working on. For any given post it can vary dramatically. I just posted on Rizzo’s first command at 39th and Lancaster. It would have been interesting to be there in 1952. Earlier this month I was working on the Ashcan School artist John Sloan who lived in a row house on North Camac Street, what is now the heart of Temple’s campus. It’d be wonderful to walk those streets with Sloan and listen to him formulate his ideas about urban life. Still, it would be thrilling to be on the other end of the bar in 1981 when Dexter and [boxer] Tex Cobb got their clocks cleaned in a Devil’s Pocket bar.
MH: This book pulls together essays originally published on PhillyHistory.org. You are utilizing social media to share these stories. Do you think social media has helped change our understanding of history? And are digitized materials, especially photos, available to the masses a good thing? One thing I am thinking here is the sudden proliferation of “vintage” Facebook groups whose members share uncited photos and stories with great abandon.
KF: The thing to remember is that there is a social media spectrum and that it is just a small part of the larger internet. While once we would spend hours getting lost in the [physical] stacks [of a library], the web has changed the landscape and the process. Now we can find primary documents that have been digitized and available online with one click. It’s a great time to be working, to have access to so much material. To the point that I sometimes find it easier to use the internet to locate a “Google book” [aka digitized version] versus cull through my handwritten notes, locate the title, and then visit the archive or library where I originally accessed it. Social media can provide a moment of discovery along the way. I do find it fascinating that when I post a new blog article to Facebook I often get comments about the photo and the title of the piece, knowing that the person has not clicked on the link to actually read the piece I have shared. They want to tell me what they know or about their own experience. As the author, I need to think about how much I want to interact with these comments that may not pertain to the substance of the article. This goes to the point of how people digest books versus blog posts. In the 1990s I wrote 180-word encapsulations for the Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’ Manual with the intention of grabbing a reader’s attention. It was almost like a “tweet” pre-social media. It trained me to distill a story down to its essence. I am always weighing the journalist with the historian and the academic with the public. Still, there is no getting away from the fact that the internet has created waves of new information, some of it horrible and useless.
MH: I recently heard an expression describing writing as a combination of a bit of fairy dust on top of a well-farmed field. As a person who has spent more time than most in our city archives, how much of writing good history is hard work versus sheer luck?
KF: Checking the facts sometimes makes all the difference. I found that those who annotated Sloan’s diary didn’t understand where his home actually stood. Once I figured that out, new doors were open for me to go through. Being open to all kinds of clues is key. Then there’s the work of following up on them. And not being disappointed if they lead nowhere. Letting my instincts take over has often been rewarded. It’s important to allow stories to shape themselves by sniffing out and relying on powerful vignettes. I recently posted about a gas explosion near 10th and Locust in 1901 and found myself reading an interview with one victim, Lizzie Watkins, in her bed at Pennsylvania Hospital. Then I followed another lead and found that two weeks later she was able to join a charity train to Cape May. These details put a face on the past. I cannot be more grateful for the work of journalists, but also those who wrote reports and long forgotten histories are often too dense to read cover to cover. And as we mentioned previously, we no longer need to track down hard copies. We can word search and phrase search. Often with happy results.
MH: One of the ways you talk about the sense of “place” in our city is asking a Philadelphian to pin down the borders between one neighborhood and another, especially if it means something to them. When I read that I laughed because I recently had this exact argument. What neighborhood are you going to the mat for?
KF: In truth this idea of pinning down the boarders of our neighborhoods is completely silly. These borders are fluid. A city that’s alive is not going to hold. My question is why is Johnson Street always the dividing line between Mt. Airy and Germantown? And not long ago folks argued as to whether the Divine Lorraine, now that it’s renovated, should be considered part of the Eraserhood. It’s all silly. History doesn’t fit into these boundaries. It doesn’t matter where we draw the line. Authenticity matters.
MH: My neighborhood is Bella Vista. I thought I understood the history of my streets, then I read the story of the Zanghi-Cocozza Memorial Day murders in your new book and I think “Yikes!” Everyday I am treading on the ghosts of a lot of men who met quite violent ends. As locals we understand our city as a place of neighborhoods, but, as you say, they are really more fluid then we think. Is “forgetting” a key component that allows this to happen? Are we ultimately a place of continual redevelopment and reinvention?
KF: We live in these neighborhoods and when you walk down the street you can’t help but see the layers. Yet, as we’ve said the boundaries are shifting. But no, I don’t think “forgetting” is part of the process of reinvention or moving forward. I go back to my notion of the city as the ultimate material culture object. From a city like Rome to a place like Jim Thorpe, the “material” is the streets and buildings. When I hear someone say a hollowed-out section of the city holds no value, when the words “abandoned” and “blight” are used, I think it’s quite presumptuous to say there is nothing there. My goal is not to make the city more appealing for people who are looking to spend a million dollars on a house.
MH: If we were building a time capsule today can you give me one taste, one smell, one color, and one sound that would best represent Philadelphia?
KF: I can’t begin to do any justice to this great question. You have to remember that I rely on the works of others to tell stories. My leaps of imagination are probably more modest than you think. I’d have to turn to the places and characters I’ve read about to respond. Like the sounds and smells that accompanied a picture of Market Street in 1910.
Or the smell of “The Last Piggeries of Maiden Lane.” Or the sound of breaking glass in Horticultural Hall the day Hurricane Hazel hit. I feel as if there’s more to point out. Something about the lifelong impact of carrying around the sheer mass and weight of all these stories, all these facts. It adds up to something far more than the sum of its parts. A laureate without the laurels. And I’m hardly the only one. There are a bunch of us out there, for sure. And, I suspect, more who aspire to similar levels of intimacy with place and past.
MH: The story of our city is immense. In my own writing and developing narratives for tours I sometimes get overwhelmed with figuring out where to start, what to include, and what to ignore. I can tell an hour-long story and I am only on the first stop. And I get lost in all the stories yet untold. What’s your advice?
KF: Philadelphia has a lot more stories to reveal, that is true. It really is a bottomless pit. But in a good way! My advice is to keep exploring, keep adding to what you know. What’s most important is the ongoing habit of collecting, considering, and adding/acquiring. The big fat narrative doesn’t matter, because there are scads of meta-narratives. That is really Philadelphia. The intimate story in a particular place that you can point to and say, “That happened there.” That’s a moment. We should all have that experience with someone who can help us see our city in a new way. It could be a scholar, an influential architect, or the lady down the street. When we share these moments, we learn. Keep searching and sharing. That is what it is to be a Philadelphian.
This is a great interview with a delightful journalist. Thank you.
What a great interview! Ken Finkel is definitely a Philadelphia treasure and now I am pleased to also know more about Mickey Herr. Can’t wait for more stories. Thank you.
Thanks for a great interview with Ken Finkle. Impressed by the great questions too.