Drexel professor imagines enhancing Philadelphia with cell phone tour of history, culture

Drexel University digital media professor Glen Muschio and his students want to create a virtual tour of Philadelphia that would allow anyone walking through a Philadelphia neighborhood with a smart phone to view 3D images of artifacts dug up there, historic maps and documents, or videos of residents telling related stories.

Muschio, an anthropologist who recently stepped down as director of Drexel’s digital media program so he could return to project work, wants to start building the tour at the Central Delaware Waterfront. Thursday night, he asked the Central Delaware Advocacy Group – the committee of waterfront neighborhood and organization representatives who advocate for the waterfront’s future – for their help. The response was enthusiastic.

Muschio said he has already enlisted the help of other partners: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum. He told CDAG he has made it past the first hurdle in obtaining a one-year planning grant from the Pew Foundation – they liked the concept. His detailed grant submission is due in February.

Muschio wants to first focus on the Central Delaware, between Allegheny and Oregon Avenues, from I-95 to the river for a couple of reasons.

First, there is currently much focus on this area, thanks to the city’s effort to redevelop the waterfront. A new Master Plan for the Central Delaware is nearing completion. “Redevelopment is envisioned as mixed land use organized by a network of open public spaces, parks and a river nature walk,” Muschio said in a document accompanying the first phase of his grant application. “The area will be ‘pedestrian-friendly’ and is well suited for this innovative and experimental program that links the geography of a virgin land and its ancient people with Philadelphia history, culture, contemporary peoples, and future possibilities.”

Secondly, the archaeological explorations connected to the on-going reconstruction of I-95 have produced a huge number of historic artifacts, including tools used by Native Americans thousands of years ago, pottery and glass from Colonial Philadelphia, and manufactured goods and even a canal from the industrial age. It was at a presentation of these artifacts organized by CDAG that Muschio first met CDAG members.  “The archaeological artifacts are very beautiful in and of themselves, but how do you tell those stories?” Muschio said. He suggested one way is to let people standing near the present-day area where they were found to look at them through virtual images.

CDAG would help link those working on the Philadelphia Heritage tour with community residents, some of whom may have waterfront stories to tell on video. The residents have first-hand knowledge of a lot of important locations, but just as important, Muschio said, is their questions – the tour could answer some of them.

CDAG member Laura Lanza had an example. “My area, everyone calls Flat Iron,” she said. “Why?”

Muschio also wants to collect video of archaeologists and historians, cultural interpreters, artists, dancers and performance.

The tour would work via the GPS embedded in cell phones.

Once a tour was underway, those interested could view the virtually available materials on the spot, or download them to their home computer for later, he said.

And while those with a smart phone would have the most access to the virtual tour, some elements could be open to everyone, Muschio said. Some locations could include public viewing screens.

Some day, Philadelphia’s screens could even be tied in with screens in other cities, allowing “collaborative artist programs and people twittering in real time,” according to his program description.

“It sounds like a terrific initiative,” said member Matt Ruben. But the coordination involved in putting this together sounded like it would be very difficult for part-time volunteers, he said. Muschio told him that Drexel had agreed to release him from some of his teaching duties so he could coordinate the effort.

Member Rene Goodwin suggested that Muschio get in touch with the American Historical Theater group. These history interpreters are in period dress, she told him, but “they are more like scholars” who have thoroughly researched the people they portray. It could make for some great videos, she said. This  type of knowledge is a prime example of why he needs CDAGs help, Muschio said.

Chairman Steve Weixler said that while at first blush a virtual tour project might not seem to fit with CDAG’s mission, it is actually a terrific fit. A key part of the mission is to reconnect people to the river, and this would certainly help do that, he said.

CDAG members voted in unanimous support of the project, but asked the executive committee to meet with Muschio and further define CDAG’s role.

In other action, CDAG began work on a review of the Central Delaware Master Plan, based on the details that have been presented to the public so far.

The goal, said Weixler, is to next month present the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-city agency overseeing the master plan, with a document that lists the elements of the plan CDAG fully supports, questions about elements they remain unclear on, and criticisms about any things which CDAG cannot support, and which CDAG wants DRWC to consider changing before the plan is finalized.

The discussion began with praise, questions and criticisms compiled by community group Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront, commonly called NABR (pronounced “neighbor”), which has representatives on CDAG. NABR gathered feedback from its membership and CDAG members and from waterfront community residents to create the document.  The discussion was led by Mary Stumpf, a member of both CDAG and NABR.

There was a lot that people liked, including the parks interspersed every half-mile along the waterfront, the mixed use development and reuse of existing buildings, piers and industrial remnants, the extension of the street grid and the restoration of wetland habitat.

CDAG members want to know more about many zoning issues, including what “light industrial” means. Tom Potts said the term concerns him, because there are so many types of businesses that it could contain. He worried about medical waste, for example.  The board plans to review what the current zoning code allows in light industrial areas, and determine which of those uses it would like to be excluded on the waterfront. CDAG also has questions about building massing – some areas of the preliminary plans seem to show a lot of massing close to the waters’ edge, as opposed to at the street.

They want more information about the greenway, and how large the setback will be in specific areas.

CDAG did not finish their discussion. A special meeting will be held at 5:30, Jan. 27, in the community room at Society Hill Towers to continue the discussion, and the document that will be given to DRWC will be finalized at the next regular meeting, at 8 am Feb. 10.

While in the past, CDAG has not taken a position on the casinos, Weixler said the topic will come up on Jan. 27, and current circumstances might mean CDAG should make its opinion known. Foxwoods Casino, slated for the southern end of the Central Delaware, has lost its license. It is trying to convince the gaming board to reconsider. If the board doesn’t give it back, the investors will appeal to the courts. If the license is re-awarded within the city, other locations would likely be part of the mix. Meanwhile, some members of the legislature are hoping to change the parameters of that license, so that competition for it is state wide, or so that it is outright set for some place other than Philadelphia.

CDAG also elected officers Thursday. Weixler remains chairman. The vice chairs are Laura Lanza and Matt Ruben. Joe Schiavo remains secretary and Dave Hammond is treasurer.

VIDEO TO COME

Contact the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com.

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