In 1683, the trip from Philadelphia to “The German Township” took two hours.
Today, Germantown is a part of Philadelphia, and on rare occasions the trip can still take two hours, but on the average day, it’s only a 20-minute drive along beautiful park thoroughfares. But do the gatekeepers at Philadelphia’s main welcome centers promote any of the many historic sites in the northwest part of the city?I wanted to find out, so I – a life-long Germantowner – went deep under cover and stopped by the Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Market, posing as a tourist. I asked the counter lady if she had any information on Germantown. She shook her head no and gestured apologetically toward a rack of pamphlets “Not really,”, adding quickly, “It’s not what you think it is.” I don’t know what she thought I thought it was, but I did my best to look disappointed. She said she’d see what she could find online, and came up with a page for “Historic Germantown,” which she printed out for me. When I asked for directions, she sent me up Broad Street and out Germantown Avenue with the caveat, “The ride’s not so great, but there are some lovely homes once you get there.” Not exactly a glowing recommendation.Next, I went to the Fairmount Park Welcome Center at Love Park. As I walked in, I saw a large picture of Rittenhousetown. “That looks cool,” I said, “Where’s that?” The concierge seemed not to know, even though it said “Rittenhousetown” right on the picture. After a lengthy internet search, she, too, came up with the web page for Historic Germantown. When I asked how to get there, she told me to take “East River Drive.” Outdated name, but at least it was the scenic route.For Philadelphians who want to learn more about their city, or tourists who want to get off the beaten path, northwest Philly is ideal. The combination of historic sites, tree-lined streets, stone Colonial and Victorian homes and vibrant communities make it a unique and interesting destination. And yet, a perusal of official Philadelphia-area tourism websites produces very few attractions in this part of the city.“We need to make folks aware that there’s history beyond the Bell,” says David Young, Executive Director of Cliveden, site of the 1777 Battle of Germantown. “We wanted to put up signs at Independence Mall advertising buses going to our annual reenactment of the Battle, but the Park Service wouldn’t let us do it.” According to Young, Philadelphia – the “City of Neighborhoods” – is parochial, and not used to working together. “We’ve even tried bringing staff from the Independence Visitors Center out here to familiarize them with our history,” he said, “but then the staff turns over and we’re back to square one.”Carolyn Faris is Program Coordinator for “Historic Germantown,” a consortium of 15 historic sites in northwest Philadelphia. “Each site has its own means of support through various non profit groups,” she says, “but the consortium allows us to share resources and coordinate our activities.”
Of the 15 sites, several are National Historic Landmarks, including the Johnson House, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Wyck, home to nine generations of one fascinating Quaker family. “We’re also using social media to get to places we can’t reach with pamphlets” says Faris. Historic Germantown’s is on Facebook as well as having a website.Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s lack of respect for Germantown is nothing new. As far back as the 1950s, supporters were proposing trolley tours of a “colonial corridor” along Germantown Avenue, but the city never got behind it. So why this longstanding reluctance to share the historical spotlight with Germantown? Is it parochialism? Cultural elitism? Fear of crime?Sure, visitors to any big city need to use common sense and exercise caution, but Germantown actually has a lower crime rate than Center City, and school groups regularly visit sites here without incident. In addition, Germantown has a unique history of racial and economic diversity, and many of Historic Germantown’s award-winning programs engage and bring together a wide range of people from the surrounding communities. “We’re not just about 1776” says Young, “We do 20th century history too.”Bringing more visitors to all of the historic sites in northwest Philly would be good for the sites, good for the neighborhoods, and good for Philadelphia in general. If the Center City visitor centers can recommend places as far-flung as Reading and Lancaster, why can’t they recommend places right in their own back yard?
Jim Harris is a columnist with the Chestnut Hill Local. His website is jimbobsjournal.com. firstname.lastname@example.org