Two small sites in Philadelphia

275 years ago, what is now the intersection of North 18th and Windrim Streets in northwest Philadelphia was an important destination in the transatlantic world.  The mansion called Stenton was the center of the 500 acre estate of the eminent statesman and scholar James Logan (1674-1751), who served during a long public career variously as President of Pennsylvania's Provincial Council, Mayor of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Chief Justice and Acting Governor.  Several miles outside the former city limits, colonial-era Stenton was a place where imperial Britain met backcountry Pennsylvania, where white settlers, Native Americans, Quaker dissidents, businessmen and financiers, scientists, philosophers and intellectuals, free and enslaved Africans all crossed paths.  The mansion housed one of the largest and most important libraries in North America, including copies of then-new works by progressive Enlightenment thinkers.  Legend has it that after the 1777 Battle of Germantown, two British soldiers arrived at Stenton with orders to burn the mansion.  As the soldiers went to gather straw from the barn, a British patrol approached looking for deserters.  The mansion's caretaker--a freed slave known as Dinah--swiftly and cleverly accused the would-be arsonists, who were arrested and carried away, thus sparing the mansion and its library.  Today the historic site includes the house (c. 1730) plus stone barn (shown in this photograph), and colonial revival garden, all situated behind a large fence in a public park, encircled by blight.   Directly across the street from Stenton are a large abandoned factory complex, and a wide rail right of way--depleted twentieth infrastructure from Germantown's once powerful industry.  The intersection that was a remarkable crossroads of the Atlantic world during the colonial era is now a powerfully obscure crossroads in time, where bygone power meets contemporary powerlessness, and the remnant splendors of a once-young nation dwell amid a spent rapacity.


Recently I found this picture in the online catalogue of the Library Company of Philadelphia, from a lantern slide by a photographer called John G. Bullock.  The picture shows a street scene made in downtown Philadelphia in May, 1898.  By my count, at least 14 American flags are visible in this picture, and just beneath the largest U.S. flag at the top of the picture, we see the flag of the independent Republic of Hawai`i, and below that, the flag of Cuba.  Why all the flags, and why these flags?  On February 15th, 1898, some three months before this picture was made, the USS Maine sank in Havana harbor as the result of an explosion (whose cause has never fully been determined), precipitating a U.S. declaration of war on Spain on April 25th.  The conflict lasted four months--Theodore Roosevelt famously called it "a splendid little war"--and ended with U.S. possession of the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, a military occupation of Cuba that would extend another four years (and whose "end" included perpetual U.S. possession of Guantanamo Bay), and final U.S. conquest of Hawai`i, which became a U.S. territory.  The picture's energy, it seems to me, is not just its claim on urban bustle and a sunny spring day, but the force of nationalist violence behind appearances, the U.S. empire in its birth pangs.  

Spring, 2011