Philly’s new parks superintendent talks Fourth of July celebrations and the importance of public spaces

For Steve Sims, the holiday offers an opportunity for residents to consider how they can engage in the “unfinished work of creating a more perfect union.”

Steve Sims, head of Independence National Historic Park, at Washington Square Park in Philadelphia.

Steve Sims, head of Independence National Historic Park, at Washington Square Park in Philadelphia. (Jennifer Lynn/WHYY)

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Philadelphia’s Fourth of July celebration is filled with events, some solemn, some jubilant and all honoring the aim of the country’s founders.

This week, WHYY’s “Morning Edition” host Jennifer Lynn met with the steward of many of the city’s most treasured historic places and artifacts. Steve Sims is superintendent of Philly’s four national parks: Independence National Historical Park, Gloria Dei Old Swedes, Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Sites and Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.

They met outdoors at the Magnolia Garden at 5th and Locust streets. Sims became superintendent in October 2023 after running other important parks in Gettysburg and Valley Forge.

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He shared a few things about himself and his first Fourth of July in his new role.

Steve Sims: Fun fact, when I became superintendent of Valley Forge, I didn’t know I had an ancestor that served in the Revolutionary War. Having that connection, that personal connection, really made history sticky for me and gave me an ownership, if you will, of my responsibilities. It wasn’t just working for the National Park Service as a steward of public space spaces, I also had that personal connection and I want everyone to find their personal connection.

Jennifer Lynn: Well, what does ownership mean to you? That’s an interesting word that you used just now.

SS: Ownership of my responsibilities, ownership of stewarding these places of meaning. It’s so enjoyable, so fulfilling and fun to do, and engaging the public to be part of that as well.

JL: So this is your first Fourth of July as superintendent. Where will you be to celebrate?

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SS: I’ll be in the park, of course. There’s no better place to be on the Fourth of July than at Independence National Historical Park. We’ve got the descendants of the signing of the Declaration of Independence event starting over at the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier in Washington Square Park.

SS: We’ve got the freedom celebration over there in Independence Square, Mayor Parker will be there as well. I believe that’ll be her first Fourth of July as the mayor. Then we have a bell-tapping event with the descendants.

SS: It’s going to be a great day. I would say celebrating, commemorating and contemplating the meaning of independence because not everybody may feel the same way, but I think it’s an opportunity for everybody to think about what it might mean to them and how they can be part of this continued unfinished work of creating a more perfect union.

JL: And what a shot in the arm for Philadelphia if and when we are able to host the congressional convening of our representatives here, possibly, in two years. This is to mark the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a commemorative joint session of Congress could be here.

SS: Well, again, these spaces belong to the public. I think it’s a great opportunity to come to the place where it started. You know, my hope is that it’ll be a reminder of our responsibility as citizens to be engaged in our democracy, to be engaged in our political system, that we have a responsibility to our communities to do our part. This system didn’t come to an existence out of just chance.

It’s very purposeful, very deliberate and we need to understand what those reasons were and are they still relevant today or do we still have more work to do? Are there new issues today? The foundation of it is solid and continues the excellent work that we started nearly 250 years ago.

JL: So how do things stem with preparations ahead of 2026?

SS: I think things are going wonderfully. We’ve got about $80 million worth of investments going on right now within the facilities here at Independence. So we’re going to have the facilities looking great. We’ve got a little bit of surge funding to staff up for 2026. So we’ll ensure that we have buildings open. We will make sure that the grounds and buildings look great, that we have park ranger programming and also have the ability to work with the public on programming within the park as well.

JL: There are some really fun things going on in the park. I saw there was like a yappy hour, yoga … So many wonderful, little moments to just be a normal human in this beautiful big space.

SS: There’s so many different ways and you know, whether it’s through your pet or through yoga and you know, we saw earlier somebody sunbathing in the park. There’s so many different ways whether it’s passive or active to connect with these spaces.

JL: Do you ever get out of the park? Do you ever actually go home, disconnect and do something completely different?

SS: Absolutely. Yeah, you have to have balance. I think there is too much of a good thing.

JL: So, what is your disconnection? What do you do?

SS: I do yoga. I also beekeep. So I keep bees and I’m dabbling in growing the legal kind of mushrooms. I love mushrooms, whether it’s lion’s mane or oyster mushrooms, just doing things like that or just going out and exercising or running a half marathon. It’s a great time to be in Philadelphia, to live in Philadelphia, I couldn’t ask for anything better.

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