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Connecting to Philadelphia’s past

The message rang loud and clear in East Falls Tuesday night: the city of Philadelphia lacks a distinct direction or vision for the future.  That’s according to Mount Airy resident and former mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who is producing a seven-episode film series called “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.”

“It isn’t clear what it is we’re trying to be,” said Katz. “And I would argue that one of the reasons that’s the case is we have no idea what we’ve been.”

Katz is aiming to better connect Philadelphians – including himself – to the city’s past. 

On Tuesday night, about 50 residents from the city’s Northwest section gathered at William Penn Charter School in East Falls for a free screening of the series’ 30-minute pilot episode, which Katz has been showing since early October.

“The Floodgates Open: 1865 – 1876” begins as the American Civil War is wrapping up with Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession through Philadelphia, one of several stops made before the body was taken to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. It ends with the first World’s Fair, which coincided with the country’s centennial celebration.

Between those two bookends, the film’s narrative focuses on a number of influential, but perhaps lesser known characters from an 11-year period that, Katz said, in many ways marked the start of Philadelphia’s transformation into a modern city.

Characters like George Widener who helped develop the city’s first streetcar system. And Octavius Catto, an African American who fought for that system to be desegregated.

Katz said the decision to start the series at this juncture was deliberate. “The Philadelphia story goes well beyond July 1776,” Katz told the audience seated inside the David L. Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts.

Germantown resident Arn Specter commended Katz for the approach and his willingness to discuss the darker side of Philadelphia’s history. In particular, the racial tensions between the city’s Irish immigrants and the newly freed African Americans looking for a fresh start.

“I’m glad he showed it in the film,” said Specter during a question and answer session. “Often times historical films overlook the racism and prejudice in America.”

Margaret Sadler, from East Falls, was also impressed by the initial installment. A long-time Philadelphia resident, Sadler said she agrees with Katz’s notion that the city lacks a collective spirit.

“You know Chicago. And you know Boston,” said Sadler. “You don’t know Philadelphia,”

Through the seven, one-hour chapters – and a number of webisodes, podcasts and other educational materials – Katz hopes he can continue working to change that sentiment.

It’s not clear, however, when or if Katz will be able to find the funds to finish everything. Each episode and its extras cost around $750,000 to produce. Multiply that figure by seven and you’re looking at a project with a $5 million-plus price tag.

While Katz acknowledged the tough road ahead, he’s confident the project can succeed and hopes showing this pilot will generate “a buzz” that will translate to donation dollars.

“We’re already getting good reactions,” said Katz.

For more information on the pilot, visit Philadelphia: The Great Experiment

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