Philadelphia, as it’s known today, is beloved for both its 18th-century rowhomes and steampunk power stations and abandoned industrial buildings.
“Our understanding of Philadelphia was that it was quiet and not very commercial, charming and quaint, or completely run down. But that sort of belies the reality of what Philadelphia was: It was very boisterous and an endlessly exhausting place,” says Nathaniel Popkin, a co-founder of Hidden City Daily.
Popkin, a Philly resident for some 30 years, has made a career out of telling the city’s hidden stories. Now, his and fellow writer Peter Woodall’s work has culminated into their new book, Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City.
For the past three years, Popkin, Woodall, and photographer Joseph E.B. Elliott have been peeling back the layers of Philly’s history through its buildings and places. The book’s main argument is that while New York has its reputation as a financial capital, Los Angeles has its star-studded power, and Detroit has its ruins, Philly is the hidden city.
“I think many of us [...] know the ways in which Philadelphia has been hidden,” says Popkin. “It’s not central to the American national narrative. [...] At least from 1850 to 1960, outsiders would say, ‘Well, what is this place?’ They could not understand it.”
But this isn’t the typical ruin porn type of book one might expect from the founders of Hidden City Daily.
Instead, the 110 photos in Philadelphia: A Hidden City juxtapose Philly landmarks’ long histories with how people use—or don’t use—them today.
“I’m very partial to the interaction of the living—that is us—right now in our city with these elements of the past,” says Popkin. “I like to see the violation of the space by us.”
To showcase this, Elliott photographed 33 places, buildings, and landmarks throughout Philly, from still-functioning industrial factories to a synagogue stuck between two South Philly rowhomes. Here, Popkin shares some of his favorite places and the stories they tell about Philly.
Before: The Wanamaker Building
“Until we were working on the book, I didn’t know where to look for the console where someone plays the organ,” says Popkin. “I didn’t walk through the women’s department and see that it was there, built into the columns of the neoclassical building, nor did I know that if I walked down the hall there was a classical portico to another world, that there is the crazy labyrinth of insides of that organ, with its thousands and thousands of pieces.”
“There’s all kinds of strangeness about such a thing: Why it’s there, who built it, why it has endured. I think that’s the magic of it.”
Before: Church of the Advocate of North Philadelphia
“The original building was built in 1897 as a church that was practically a Gilded Age church, since it was around the cusp of North Philly industrial wealth. [...] Later on, as the neighborhood begins to change, African Americans move in and they begin to attend church here. There’s a period in which the people going are very integrated and they hire an African-American pastor, Father Paul Washington.
“Father Paul Washington turns that building, which had completely different meaning to the people who built it, into a center for civil rights in an extraordinary way.
“Then, in 1974 the church commissioned two artists to interpret the biblical cycle. The murals they created are incredibly evocative. The colors they chose resonate with colors in original stained glass, and they just dazzle the mind.”
Before: Wayne Mills
“In Wayne Junction, there is one of the last surviving active Philadelphia textile mills. What they do there is make the twill that binds together garments that are used by infrastructure workers or medical workers. [...] I love the idea of the new or the current in the space in the space.”
Before: A rowhouse storefront
After: Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel
“There are other things that flip our understanding of time and place, like the upstairs of a rowhouse synagogue in South Philly, where traveling rabbis used to sleep. The photograph feels so old-world, and then you can see the view out the window to the South Philadelphia streetscape. It’s so distorting of time that it’s just very evocative and suggestive—that’s what I really love about photography, in that it’s the chance to travel back in time in a way.”
Before: Mill Creek Sewer
“This shows the Philadelphia Water Department Workers ghosted as they’re walking through the Mill Creek Sewer in West Philadelphia. It’s an enormous sewer cauldron built out of brick.
“For me, that image shows what we’re doing here with the book. We’re thinking about our city then and today. This is not a book of nostalgia, or yesteryear, or wishing for the past. It’s a book of how we live in the city today.”