When I first opened PhilaPlace’s homepage I could immediately see both how amazing the site was and a potential problem. It was colorful and engaging with a large beautiful picture of an old map and an excited “welcome to PhilaPlace” message towards the bottom. At the same time, a pop-up from Google said “google maps could not load properly,” I was concerned that a fundamental part of the site (mapping) might have been inaccessible, luckily as I explored the website my initial worries were put to rest.
PhilaPlace is an interactive mapping and multimedia site created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, that focus on two neighborhoods within Philadelphia, Old Southwark and the Greater Northern Liberties. These neighborhoods are some of the oldest within the city outside of the original city limits drawn up by William Pen. Throughout their history, these neighborhoods have been populated by a diverse community of working-class migrants and immigrants from around the world. This community created a vibrant and diverse culture that the creators of the website celebrate throughout the site. The site doesn’t just focus on history but also highlights the changing landscape of the city and emphasizes the problems that arise because of gentrification. In an ever-changing city this site is meant to celebrate, document, and preserve this local history with the help of the community itself who are often encouraged to upload their own stories about the neighborhoods.
Exploring the site
After looking at the mission and background for the site I began my exploration by going to the neighborhood page. This gave me a brief background about the neighborhoods themselves and the people who lived there. There I discovered an interesting photo within the collections and selected it opening the collections page where I found a treasure trove of information about the picture including an article about it and the people it represents, the Lenni Lenape. The collection is filled with a variety of interesting pictures like this one that represents people from throughout the history of the city, telling their stories through historical sites, pictures, video, and audio. Probably the most fun way to see this history is to go onto the interactive map page. On this page, you have several options for viewing the map. You can look at a contemporary map, a 19th-century map, or a 20th-century map. The pins on the map stay the same no matter what you change it to but it is a fun background. You can look at various historical sites by just clicking the dropped pins or you can explore specific sites by going on a virtual tour. The website is relatively easy to use and there’s a variety of different ways to access and narrow your exploration.
The history highlighted accomplishes many of the creators’ goals of illuminating the diverse history of these neighborhoods, and it illustrates how influential place is for a community. Not only do you learn about these sites but you can also learn about other cultural and historical institutions that you can visit. I discovered this by looking through the collections and seeing that on occasion there are websites of various institutions that provided some of the objects within the collection. This is a great way to explore institutions within the city and encourage visitors to the website to learn more about the community.
There are many great things about this site but there are a few problems. When it comes to video, and audio content you need to ensure that the internet browser you are using is Microsoft Edge, if you use Firefox or Google Chrome the site won’t bring them up, which is a significant issue since many people who visit the website won’t know that. After getting past this barrier, however, you are introduced to the most community-centered aspect of the site, with about 50 oral interviews where you can learn about the community and the sites from the people themselves. Though I am sure the community was involved in other aspects of the site the oral interviews really gave me a connection to the people within the community more so than the articles. Though the articles are quite informative they were often quite long, and not very engaging. The language was very scholarly and for people who love history (like us!) this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for those who are more casually exploring the site, this might be a turn-off. This becomes a slightly bigger problem when going through the virtual tour. Clicking through the tour you would expect more of a brief overview of the places shown and some of their history. However, when you initially click through the first information that is previewed it the beginning of larger articles that talk in detail about the population represented and the site. This is good for if you want more information about the broader community, however, it causes the visitor to literally hunt for the information about the place shown in the pictures.
Besides a few problems, the PhilPlace is a fun and engaging way to explore the history of a community and shows a different version of Philadelphia not often seen. This website is good for not only visitors to the “city of brotherly love” but also residents who want to learn more about their city. With the collaboration between the community and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, this site is an excellent example of Public History, and sharing authority!