Fifty years ago, a group of Temple University historians watching current events fade into the haze of memory decided to take action — to preserve Philadelphia's history, even as it was being made.
"They wanted to think about doing history from the bottom up," archivist John Pettit said. "Rather than dictating the history of the community, they wanted to document how people think about themselves through these various collections."
So, they created the Urban Archives, which have today become the central repository for Philadelphia's collective memory. Housed in Temple's Special Collections Research Center, the archive collects photographs and documents from more than a hundred housing agencies, cultural institutions, neighborhood associations, as well as the salvaged archives of local news media that closed or moved offices over the last half-century — including four million images from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, plus hundreds of hours of newsreel footage from KYW and WPVI that have only recently been preserved and cataloged.
It reflects, said Margery Sly, who oversees the Special Collections Research Center, a movement "toward the study of social history rather than the 'great white men' approach to history."
The most frequently used collection? Footage and clips about the MOVE standoff. Among the newest additions is the archive of the Philadelphia Zoo. "They were one of the earliest zoos in the country to study animal nutrition around the turn of the century," Sly said. "So, if you're interested in monkey cakes, we're the place."
There's plenty in the archive on topics that are still hot-button issues today, such as the leadership of Mayor Frank Rizzo. There are iconic moments, such as footage of Martin Luther King Jr.'s visits here and scenes of the city in mourning after his assassination. There are some images of a starkly different past, and others that remind us how little has changed: clips from the 1950s when the city was campaigning to stop litter, and from the 1960s, when SEPTA switched to requiring exact fare, and passengers first took up a gripe that would last them half a century.
Here are eight of the most remarkable, telling, or just plain odd finds unearthed from the archive.
For more, check out the free events the center is holding to mark its 50th anniversary this week: a screening of archival footage at International House (3701 Chestnut St.) Oct. 19 at 7 p.m.; and a symposium with historians and archivists at Temple Performing Arts Center (1801 N. Broad St.), Oct. 20 at 11 a.m.
1958. A WPVI clip shows the opening of the Schuylkill Expressway, which required eminent domain of rowhouse neighborhoods and parkland to carve a path into the city. "There was traffic from day one," Pettit said.
1953. A group of Catholic school girls claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a bush in Fairmount Park at 51st and Parkside Avenues. KYW footage from that September shows the frenzy that followed: More than 50,000 faithful showed up to pay their respects over the next month, festooning the bush with rosaries and cash offerings, in hopes that she would make a repeat appearance. She never did, but the Vision Bush remains there, in the shadow of the Mann Music Center.
1965. Philadelphians are familiar with the Divine Lorraine, until recently an elegant ruin overlooking Broad Street. KYW footage that aired in 1965 following the death of Father Divine, founder of the International Peace Mission Movement, showed events at Woodmont, the Gladwyne estate that was the movement's headquarters. He's seen with Mother Divine, who took over leadership of the church after his death.
1969. Before Joe Frazier bested Muhammad Ali in the 1971 Fight of the Century in Madison Square Garden, they had a lesser-known faceoff: in a Police Athletic League rec center in North Philadelphia. Footage from KYW shows Frazier throwing shade in the locker room in advance of the bout. "There was some joke that the fight was going to break out right there."
1970. "For better or for worse, Philly is arguably the graffiti capital, and Cool Earl is one of the earliest and best-known writers," Pettit said. Here, a TV newsman interviews a teenage Cool Earl, protecting his identity.
1970. Not long after Johnny Cash performed live at San Quentin, Philadelphia county inmates were treated to their own concert, from the 1970s Native American rock band Redbone. The concert, a few nights before New Year's, was broadcast live on television.
1976. The Bicentennial was a landmark event for the city. Footage from WPVI shows neighborhoods preparing – and also protests, from African American folks who thought that they weren't included in the planning process.