Steven Conn’s roots in Philadelphia run deep. The son of Peter Conn, the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English, and Terry Conn, associate vice provost for University life, he grew up living in Hill House on Penn’s campus and then in nearby Narberth, Pennsylvania. But Conn Gr’94 says it wasn’t until after his undergraduate years at Yale University, when he returned to Philadelphia to earn his doctorate in history at Penn, that his relationship with the city truly developed on his own terms. “I studied it, walked around it, used it in my teaching, led tours of it, and participated in the community life of the West Philadelphia neighborhood I lived in,” he recalls. “I think it was during grad school that I started thinking about some of the things that wound up in this book.”

This book is Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past, published in June by the University of Pennsylvania Press in its Metropolitan Portraits series. In an intimate, conversational style, Conn traces the city’s unique qualities, mixing personal anecdotes, arts and culture criticism, and consideration of broad economic forces to wrestle with the question of what it means to say, “I’m from Philadelphia.”

Conn’s other books include an anthology he coedited, Building the Nation: Americans Write About Their Architecture, Their Cities, and Their Landscape, also available from the Press, as well as Museums and American Intellectual Life, 1876-1926 and History’s Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century. In addition to his scholarly output, he also writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and other newspapers.

Conn is associate professor of history and director of the public history program at Ohio State University, but he still maintains a home in West Philadelphia, where he planned to spend the summer. In between finishing up his spring semester work and getting ready to move, he answered a few questions about the book by e-mail.—J.P.


Why is the subtitle—“Living with the Presence of the Past”—especially true of Philadelphia?

I’m not sure I can answer “why,” but I do think Philadelphians live with their own ghosts more so than residents of any other metropolitan region. Certainly Henry James thought as much one hundred years ago when he toured the city. What I tried to explore in the book is the texture of the unique relationship between past and present that exists here.

We all grew up hearing about Ben Franklin and various Philadelphia “firsts.” Is that a mixed blessing?

I think to some extent it is. It reinforces the sense that Philadelphia’s best days are behind it, that it was all down hill after Ben died. I think that completely misunderstands the extraordinary history of this place in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it completely short-changes the region’s future.


There are also some firsts that are little known that you include—like a pre-Stonewall gay rights march at Independence Hall in 1965. Were there certain things like that you wanted to highlight?

I’m not sure I deliberately set out to highlight these lesser-known firsts but I was pleased as they began to accumulate in the book. I think what they underscore is that this town has a remarkable history of innovation—of all kinds—across its entire history. It doesn’t suffice to dismiss the region, as many residents and outsiders have, as conservative, stodgy, stagnant. It simply isn’t true and hasn’t really even been true, whether we’re talking about the birth of gay liberation here in the region in the 1950s, or the development of the first MRI machine at HUP.


Philadelphia seems to be in the midst of a renaissance. There are renovations and new condos and other new construction in and around Center City, lots of new restaurants and cultural centers. How do the city’s prospects look to you and what are some of the factors that will determine its future?

Historians have enough trouble dealing with the past—looking at the future is more than most of us can handle! But here goes: I think the region is positioned remarkably well to confront the 21st century, especially when we look at a knowledge economy, a bio-med economy, and an infrastructure which doesn’t have to be so dependent on oil. That’s the good news. Putting all the pieces together, however, will require a level of vision and leadership—political, civic, economic—which has not been in great supply around these parts over the years.

In fact, there are all kinds of innovators—and here we’re back to that topic—in the region: from people involved in wind-power generation, to pharmaceuticals, to small-scale urban agriculture. All kinds of exciting things going on.

But it is also the case that as the City goes, so goes the region. Plain and simple. And it is true that the City is really looking up in any number of ways right now. What this city needs to do—and all big cities are faced with this challenge—is attract and retain that broad middle class which has disappeared to the suburbs. This means fixing schools and neighborhoods and utilitarian services. Nothing as sexy as a new condo tower, but just as important for the future health of the city. Cities cannot survive as real and vital places if they are only home to the affluent and the poor. A Starbucks on every corner does not a healthy city make.

return to excerpt ("Heaven is a Mixed Neighborhood", By Steven Conn)

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

return to excerpt ("Heaven is a Mixed Neighborhood", By Steven Conn)