At Philly archive’s new home, redlining mural charts dismal chapter of city history

The Philadelphia records archive has moved to a new building with a virtual reality redlining mural.

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The city of Philadelphia has one of the largest archives of historic documents going back more than 300 years. It all just moved across town, from its previous location in University City to Fifth and Spring Garden in Northern Liberties.

About two years ago, when the Department of Records took over a building that used to be the headquarters of a maternity retail company, it had to do some heavy renovations to turn it into it a state-of-the-art records storage facility. That triggered the city’s Percent for Art program, which mandates that any public construction project spend 1 percent of its costs on public art.

So, a call for submissions went out.

Artist Talia Greene wanted to put her hat in the ring for the gig, so she toured the archive in search of ideas. While perusing the original William Penn city charter from 1701 and carriage tax records for Alexander Hamilton, she happened to see an oversize atlas of the city from the 1930s, called the Philadelphia Racial Map.

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It was a redlining map, used by bankers and lenders to delineate areas of the city that were predominately African-American. The maps made it virtually impossible to get a mortgage loan in a black neighborhood.

“It tells such an important story,” said Greene. “There were a lot of lot of other things – like the William Penn Charter and things that are more well known, but I was more interested in telling stories that aren’t told as often.”

Philadelphia-based artist Talia Greene is celebrated at the new City Archives facility at 456 N. Fifth St., the home of Greene’s vast interactive mural, “Charting a Path to Resistance,” which chronicles the history of racism and discrimination in the city. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Greene married the redlining maps with documents tracing abolitionist and civil rights movements to make a rambling mural that stretches from the building’s lobby through reception and into the public research room.

Her street grid wallpaper is like a web; caught inside are images of documents and photographs that show how racism – and resistance to it – shaped the real estate of Philadelphia.

You can see the death certificate of Octavius Catto, killed in the street on Election Day, 1871, while trying to rally the black vote. You can see the real estate transaction written – in longhand – when Underground Railroad conductor William Still bought a house in Philadelphia.

Some of those documents are virtual reality hot spots; through a downloadable cell phone app, the images come alive with animation and links to more information.

“All the documents on the surface are pretty dry if you don’t know what they are about,” said Greene. “To be able to expand on what they are about, to tell the stories behind them and use the app to connect to documents in other city archives like Temple University and the Historical Society – that was incredible.”

At Philadelphia's new City Archives, 76 rows of high-density shelving contain hundreds of years of records.
At Philadelphia’s new City Archives, 76 rows of high-density shelving contain records spanning hundreds of years. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One of the documents is a page from the record of City Council, May 1838; normally a snoozer of the highest order. But, on that day, citizens described to members of Council an attack on Pennsylvania Hall on Sixth Street – newly built by abolitionists – where the Female Anti-Slavery Society was meeting. Outside, a crowd was “yelling, stamping, throwing brickbats and other missiles through the windows,” wrote the hall’s board to the mayor.

That night, the city could not provide the abolitionists adequate protection from the angry mob that burned the hall to the ground.

“What struck us about Talia’s project was that it really sought to draw out stories that are less told, but just as important,” said the city’s commissioner of records, James Leonard. “We thought it was a great way to illuminate the stories that are contained in the actual collection.”

As for the redlining map, it was not an official city document. While redlining tactics were used on the federal level and among bankers in the private sector as a way to avoid investment in black neighborhoods, it was not officially used at the municipal level.

“It’s relatively rare to find an original map. A lot of them were destroyed, perhaps for obvious reasons,” said Leonard. “They are not exactly things people are proud of, given what they were used for in terms of discrimination.”

The city archive contains millions of documents — most related to births, deaths, real estate, and public policy — going back to the late 1600s. They are all publicly available.

Leonard – who has been on the job just over two years – is not sure why the redlining map was added to the archive in the 1940s, but he’s happy to use it as a learning opportunity. “We’re lucky to have it,” he said.

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