Community projects selected for Philly’s celebration of America’s 250th birthday

Danielle Smith of Smith Memorial Playground, artist Michelle Angela Ortiz of Our Market, and Chase Trimmer and Nate Garland of Pennsylvania Special Olympics. (Peter Crimmins /WHYY)

Danielle Smith of Smith Memorial Playground, artist Michelle Angela Ortiz of Our Market, and Chase Trimmer and Nate Garland of Pennsylvania Special Olympics. (Peter Crimmins /WHYY)

Philadelphia is preparing to mark America’s 250th birthday with community projects that will outlive the semiquincentennial party in 2026.

Philadelphia250, an organization planning local events and programs around the milestone year, has selected three projects it will bolster with organizational and funding support:

  •  “Our Market,” an effort to train immigrant merchants in the Italian Market to tell their own stories, led by artist Michelle Angela Ortiz.
  •  “Revolutionary Action Figures,” teaching kids to make their own toy dolls based on neighborhood heroes, led by Smith Memorial Playground.
  • “Cities of Inclusion,” putting in place policies and support to better accommodate people with various disabilities.

Each project will be supported from a $250,000 fund, which Philadelphia250 is currently raising.

In addition, an organization called America250 is the official commission created by Congress to plan a national event to mark the semiquincentennial. Its board includes several figures local to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, but has not yet made concrete plans for 2026.

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In the past, Philadelphia has celebrated the nation’s landmark anniversary dates with major civic projects that have changed the landscape of the city. For the 1876 centennial, Philadelphia created an enormously successful world’s fair in Fairmount Park, for which Memorial Hall was built, now the home of the Please Touch Museum.

For the sesquicentennial in 1926, a less successful fair was staged on grounds in South Philadelphia, which suffered almost constant rain and was widely considered a flop, but out of which came FDR Park. The Ben Franklin Bridge was completed and opened to traffic on that birthday celebration.

The bicentennial in 1976 was fraught with problems, including Mayor Rizzo calling in 15,000 federal troops to face demonstrators and an outbreak of Legionnaires disease in a downtown hotel that killed more than two dozen people. But the event drove the construction of the African American Museum, the Mann Center, a waterfront civic center that would become the Independence Seaport Museum, and the installation of the iconic LOVE sculpture in JFK Plaza.

With four years to go, no major capital projects are underway for 2026. Philadelphia250 is in the early stages of planning a large-scale opening ceremony and a series of pop-up events throughout the city with neighborhood partners.

“We took this direction because of, basically, the zeitgeist of today, which is very much about making sure people have a voice in decision making,” said Danielle DiLeo Kim, executive director of Philadelphia250. “In a city like Philadelphia that is very diverse — we’re a Black majority city where not everyone has always had a moment to have a voice in a very important milestone moment such as this — we wanted to create that opportunity.”

The three selected projects came out of an open call for ideas that attracted about 80 responses. From those 11 were chosen to be developed for further consideration, each receiving an $11,000 stipend to continue working on the idea.

We wanted the projects to be responsive to four themes that we’re using in Philadelphia250 to inspire our work and that we think really fit in with the original founding values of this country,” said Kim.

“Those four themes are shared prosperity, people’s histories, revolutionary actions, and pursuit of happiness.”

Kim said the selection committee was also looking for projects that could be scalable and repeatable, potentially growing into city-wide programs.

The “Our Market” project is already underway. Artist Michelle Ortiz, who was born and raised in the Italian Market area, started interviewing market vendors about their immigrant background a few years ago, resulting in murals and small construction projects, such as rebuilt produce stands.

For the semiquincentennial phase of the project, Ortiz will collect stories from the market and train the vendors to be their own tour guides.

When we think about the 9th Street market, my perspective is we’re much more than just produce in our businesses and our labor. There is a plethora of stories of survival. There’s a plethora of stories of love and connection,” said Ortiz. “What really makes the market unique in this space that has these produce stands, is in itself a living, breathing history that is encompassing a 100-year old immigrant tradition within our city and within our nation.”

(from left) Joe Ankenbrand and Molly Russakoff of Molly’s Books, and artist Michelle Angela Ortiz who created the Our Market project. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Ortiz has already begun convening vendors, including Molly Russakoff of Molly’s Books, and longtime market vendor Patricia Ciliberti-Becker.

We know her as Cookie. Her name is Patricia,” Ortiz said. “I have been born and raised in the market and she actually made the crown when I was May Queen, way back when I went to St Paul’s school. Cookie is an amazing storyteller, and she’s also been a witness to all of the different changes that have happened in the market.”

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The Revolutionary Action Figures are small, wooden dolls with jointed limbs that children can paint into a prominent local person they feel is heroic to their neighborhood. The idea was developed by Danielle Smith, of Smith Memorial Playground, who created a plan to teach kids about people directly impacting their communities, and then turn them into a toy.

Smith created two prototypes: Christa Barfield, an urban farmer known as Farmer Jawn, and Terrill Haigler, aka Ya Fav Trashman, a former sanitation worker and litter activist who is now running for City Council.

“Children are community stakeholders. They have a voice and it matters,” Smith said. “What the Revolutionary Action Figures project does, it involves a series of educational workshops where the kids are going to learn about these local change makers. They’re going to commit those lessons to memory by customizing their own sustainable wooden action figure that’s based on the change makers.”

Revolutionary Action Figures, representing Christa Barfield, aka Farmer Jawn, and Terrill Haigler, aka Ya Fav Trashman. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

The Cities of Inclusion, developed by the Special Olympics Pennsylvania, will convene advocates and activists for people with disabilities to develop support structures to ensure neighborhoods and businesses are accommodating.

Philadelphia has the highest disability rate of any large U.S. city, according to Chase Trimmer, director of the fellowship program at Special Olympics Pennsylvania. “Sixteen percent of our population, roughly 246,000 people, had a physical, emotional, or cognitive disability,” Trimmer said.

“Oftentimes the supports working around that are siloed, working separately. We seek to bring people together — people from the government, from the private sector, from agencies, self advocates — to really create a more inclusive city of Philadelphia,” he said.

All the projects will be part of several pop-up events during the 2026 semiquincentennial celebrations, and are expected to continue well after the anniversary year.

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