Celebrating hidden history of Philadelphia can lead to revitalization of festival sites

The Hidden City Festival, celebrating Philadelphia’s overlooked historical sites, begins today. It has opened nine sites to the public with installation and conceptual art projects.


Some are truly hidden, including the overgrown remains of a cannon battery built in 1870, literally underground at Fort Mifflin. Some not so much — a historic archive and library in Washington Square (the Athenaeum) meticulously maintained to its original 1845 condition is still actively used as it was intended.

When Hidden City first launched in 2010, it featured music, dance, and theatrical performances inside places few people ever went, or were even allowed to go. Some places, such as the Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad, had to be propped up with scaffolding to keep the ceiling from falling down on audience members.

As a side effect, those spaces became re-energized.

“Disston Saw Works was a saw manufacturing space, they were considering selling off the business and demolishing the building,” said festival organizer Lee Tusman. “But through meeting all the visitors during the festival, they realized that there were people interested in their history, and they were able to figure out long-term leasing to other small-scale manufacturing on site.

“That allowed them to keep an original and very, very old manufacturing process going in Philadelphia,” he said.

For the second iteration of Hidden City, people once again can go into places where they would not have been permitted before, such as secret rooms inside the dilapidated Hawthorne Hall in Powelton Village or a century-old industrial woodworking shop in a boarded-up Old City building.

But this time, audience members are invited to become involved in the preservation of the spaces through online crowdsourcing campaigns.

“People that are interested sign up as volunteers or are interested in supporting the site, we can turn that over to the site afterwards and they can stay on as continued supporters,” said Tusman.

This is already happening. One of the festival sites is a storefront synagogue in South Philadelphia whose congregation has been steadily declining for decades. Tusman said that in the runup to the festival opening, former congregants and children of congregants have gotten back in touch with the synagogue.

The festival continues thorugh June 30.

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