The story of a neighborhood

David J. Kennedy watercolor

This water color by David J. Kennedy is currently on display at the Arthur Ross Gallery as part of the show, "West Philadelphia: Building a Community."

For years, Penn history professor Walter Licht taught courses requiring students to leave the classroom and get involved in West Philadelphia neighborhoods.

But before he could send them out into the community, he had to spend valuable class time orientating students to their surroundings.

“I’d have to spend a month of the semester getting them to understand the history and demographics of West Philadelphia,” he says. “The same thing came true when I spoke to incoming freshmen. There was no resource where I could send them for information.”

Licht’s idea to finally create such a resource took off around the time he acquired a collection of papers, leaflets and other neighborhood ephemera from his late neighbor, Ruth Branning Malloy, an amateur historian.

Licht then teamed up with Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center, who has also taught numerous West Philly-related courses to students, to create a place for a comprehensive neighborhood history and personal stories like Malloy’s.

The result is the West Philadelphia Community History Center (www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/wphila), an online-only source which includes that long-needed formal history of the neighborhood; scanned copies of old maps from the University Archives, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and West Philly residents; personal stories; and guides written by and for local public school teachers.

The site was inaugurated in the spring of 2008, when Lloyd and Licht, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History, taught an Academically Based Community Service Course about West Philadelphia. Mary D. McConaghy, the University Archives webmaster, designed and built the site.

Licht says the students involved in the class and the web project gained a deep appreciation of the diverse, historic community surrounding Penn. “I have a series of emails expressing this utter surprise of what an extraordinary neighborhood our University shares—its rich history, as well as the beauty of its architecture and landscaping.”

The web has been ideal for this project, the founders say, because it allows for constant revision and expansion.

“No one has to visit campus to see this,” says Lloyd. “People can see this from anywhere in the world and comment on it.”

The site is also part of an exhibit at the Arthur Ross Gallery, “West Philadelphia: Building a Community,” which runs through Oct. 11. While the show centers on watercolors of West Philadelphia from 1836-1898 by self-taught artist David J. Kennedy, a computer in the gallery also directs patrons to the Community History Center.

“[The show is] West Philadelphia past, present and future,” says Dejáy Duckett, associate director of the Gallery.

To mount the show, ARG Director Lynn Marsden-Atlass worked with The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and connected with the University Archives for objects to augment Kennedy’s paintings. The Gallery is also hosting a series of free public events through early October, including Family Day on Sept. 26 (click here for a complete schedule).

“It’s been an eye-opening experience. The depth of this community is really amazing,” says Duckett.

The online Community History Project has even revealed new information to longtime historians Licht and Lloyd. Some students who pored over maps revealed that the neighborhood was not developed in a sequential manner, from the Schuylkill River westward, but in pockets that were filled in gradually. “I think this is going to be an eye-opener to scholars,” says Licht.

For Lloyd, it was the revelation that West Philadelphia was a destination for people from all over the region. “One of the more interesting discoveries is the effect of the automobile on West Philadelphia, and how churches and schools are no longer neighborhood institutions, but commuter institutions,” he says.

Licht hopes to teach another class on West Philadelphia in the fall of 2010. Until then, he and his colleagues are focusing on finishing the formal history. “Part of this is about my love of this neighborhood,” he says. “It’s my gift to the neighborhood.”

For more information, visit the Community History Project online at www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/features/wphila.

Originally published on September 3, 2009