Blueprint for the Future: Professor and City Planner Break the Boundaries of Time, Space and Place

By schwartzsa | February 28, 2012

Philadelphia Then & Now, an interdisciplinary University Seminar taught at Arcadia University, explores metropolitan Philadelphia’s past and present in order to examine how history shapes place. Students don’t just sit in the comfort of a climate controlled classroom. Dr. Peter Siskind explicitly designed the course to break the boundaries of place, space and time.

The course allows students to experience Philadelphia’s diverse neighborhoods through several trips, including historical and Philly Mural Arts tours of center city and a visit to the three watersheds of Philadelphia. Inspired and shaped by the experience, Jennifer Gray ’10, Steve Currall ’10 and Angela Taurino ’11, are finding that their active dialog with the city is helping them to achieve their professional pursuits.

Doubtless, a text for a course dedicated to experiential learning would be hard to come by—that is if it weren’t for Siskind’s friend and colleague Nathaniel Popkin, author of The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia. The city planner-turned-writer was first invited to speak to Siskind’s class about his book and intimate knowledge of Philadelphia. But when Siskind went on sabbatical during the Fall 2010 and 2011 semesters, Popkin agreed to teach the course himself. Now Siskind, Assistant Professor of History, is serving as Interim Dean of Undergraduate Studies.

In addition to his role as an adjunct professor at Arcadia, Popkin is the lead writer for Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a major multi-part film documentary on the history of Philadelphia in production, and is the guest architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, filling in for Ingra Saffron, who is on leave. He is also co-founder and co-editor of a new online magazine, Hidden City Daily, which encourages a deeper understanding of Philadelphia through exploration and history and articles on architecture, planning, design and development.

“Peter and I are close friends so it made sense for me to fill in for him,” says Popkin. “He essentially edited The Possible City, so I at least owed him one.”

But what began as a reciprocated favor turned into a serial affair. Popkin has taught the class twice now, carefully molding, adjusting and refocusing the course content to better serve the interdisciplinary design. Now, 80 percent of the class is taught by going somewhere in the city, hearing from experts, seeing the various themes and tensions in real time.

“It is absolutely essential that we see and come to understand the connections in our worlds and are able to interpret or frame questions about the differences,” says Popkin. “Arcadia is about three blocks from the city line, so it’s critical that students understand they are at the doorway of a fascinating and complicated world and that the world they live in is intricately connected to it, in a historical, political, economic and geological context. There are no suburbs without cities, after all. But at a purely experiential level, one of Arcadia’s great strengths is that it is so close to a very particular place that on the other hand also reveals so much about our society in general. There is endless learning available, and more questions than answers. The point of the class in essence is to bring the urban landscape alive, to make it in a sense legible to students. Philadelphia, perhaps more than some cities, lives at the intersection of past and future–that’s a tension we try to experience at every moment of this course.”

Alumni Unveil Talents at Hidden City

A Scope for Reconstructing the Past

Jennifer Gray ’10, a History major, took Philadelphia Then & Now during the fall of her senior year, under the instruction of Siskind. She enrolled because she wanted to know more about the city she loved and thought she already knew. Gray notes the nearly seamless link between the textbook to context.

“One whole lesson was on the murals of Philadelphia, so we ventured out from the confines of Arcadia’s campus and took a walking tour to see only a handful of the thousands of murals scattered around the city,” says Gray.

“Just seeing the photos of the murals in our books wouldn’t have conveyed the amazing influence that they have on the neighborhood. By going into the city and seeing them up close, it made us, both as suburbanites and non-locals, really appreciate what the murals do for the different areas of Philadelphia, and how they completely change the neighborhood atmosphere. Something derelict and depressing became a work of art that the neighborhood was proud to display. And as a student with an Interior Design minor, I definitely appreciated the murals for both their artistic and cultural influences alike.”

History comes alive if you know where to look. And Gray notes that this profound understanding wouldn’t have been possible without visiting the site. “Our eyes were widened to the realities of Philadelphia: the glaring differences in class, race, economic standing and architecture, just to name a few,” she says. “And our attitudes were illuminated just by being there, and by not just relying on the words on the page.”

As a student at Arcadia, Gray was incredibly involved on campus. She brings her knowledge and experience to her role as a tutor at Arcadia’s Learning Resource Network (LRN), a role she has continued since her sophomore year. The flexibility of the position allowed her to explore volunteering opportunities in areas connected to her History degree. Shortly after graduation, Gray split her free time between the Powell House, where she served as a tour guide, and Girard College, doing research for a film for Nathaniel Popkin’s company History Making Productions—a connection she made through Siskind.

By sorting through Stephen Girard’s sent correspondence at Girard College, Gray found interesting quotes or passages that would be able to be used in the film—from specific milestones in Girard’s life to amusing statements that demonstrated his personality.

“My work with Nathaniel Popkin and his company was one of those things that just came along at the right time,” says Gray. “Peter knew that I was looking for work in my field, and he also knew that Nathaniel could use some help with researching the Girard film. So, he just connected the dots. In doing research for the film, I became part of the History Making Productions team, and contributed in the discussions concerning the film’s direction and development. Seeing my research pay off through an amazing film was incredible – as was attending an event in Philadelphia with Sam Katz (founder of History Making Productions), David Cohen, and Mayor Nutter, to name a few.” The film was completed in fall 2011 and a film screening was held at the Independent Seaport Museum on Penn’s Landing at the beginning of December.

Finding a Future in Philadelphia’s Framework

Angela Taurino ’11, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, took the course in fall 2009. “I thought I could learn a lot from a class with this type of structure, like making coursework tangible and meaningful to students,” she says. Remembering “Historic London,” an experiential learning course she had taken during her First Year Study Abroad Experience (FYSAE), she was hungry for more experiential learning, this time within the more familiar territory of her hometown. However, Taurino notes that she didn’t always feel at home. The course often required students to explore outside of their comfort zones.

“I remember feeling a little lost during our class trips—you’re in the midst of people’s everyday lives and constantly aware of your place in it,” she says. “For example, I would need to look at a mural while also listening to the professor’s lecture, tune out the city noise (but also consider it as part of the lecture’s context), as well as take in the mural itself. Making those connections between course content and real-life examples took a lot of energy during these class trips.”

Taurino also notes that Siskind always made sure to follow-up with discussion, feedback and research. “Once I read the articles, took the walk, and wrote my weekly reaction on these experiences, I was able to pull it all together in a way that stuck with me.”

She didn’t begin writing for HCD until October 2011 when Siskind connected her with Popkin, suggesting that she volunteer her knowledge and passion for the city of Philadelphia to the project. She currently writes about events or meetings and local development projects for HCD. She also helps coordinate the project’s social media in her free time.

“I enjoy writing for Hidden City Daily because it helps me stay disciplined with my writing as well as stay informed about current events in the city,” she says.

Taurino is particularly well suited to write for the publication, as she is already plugged into the framework of the city. She currently serves as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service To America (VISTA) doing a year of service for New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC). She applied to the position following a recommendation from Jodi Bornstein, Assistant Professor of Education. Taurino is one of two Sustainable 19125 Project Coordinators endeavoring to make 19125 the greenest zip code in the city of Philadelphia. In her role she creates, promotes and hosts sustainable events; distributes recycling bins, tree and Philadelphia Recycling Rewards applications; and oversees the Compost Coop program, which is working toward community ownership. She also coordinates the Green Blocks program, which employs volunteers from the neighborhood to educate neighbors about sustainability.

“I enjoy the partnerships I’m forming through my work. I coordinate with all sorts of organizations and partners, including PHS, ECA, eForce, PEC, and local civics.” As for the future, Taurino is looking to get involved with more local projects that are environmentally-centered.

Personal Potential and the Power of Place

Steve Currall ’11 took Philadelphia Then & Now in the fall of 2010 under the instruction of Popkin. Though it was a last minute decision to enroll in the seminar, it turned out to be one of Currall’s favorite Arcadia courses.

“Nathaniel encouraged us to delve into Philadelphia’s history and deal with it personally,” he says. “I appreciated the lack of pressure from not being overly concerned about a paper’s structure, for instance. I found just how far history could go, that research and argument, while the bulk of it, needed something more.”

After realizing that he wasn’t quite ready to start the long road toward a doctorate in history, Currall contacted the obvious authority on all things Philadelphian, Popkin, asking for suggestions of where to apply for an internship. However, instead of providing a list of suggestions, Popkin offered Currall a position as an editorial intern for Hidden City Daily as well as a research role for Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.

At Hidden City, it is Currall’s responsibility to prepare and write the site’s “Morning Blend” feature, which requires him to scour news articles and choose a set of development, history and art stories that allude to Hidden City’s theme of the “power of place” in Philadelphia.

In addition to his daily editorial duties, he has also written two short news pieces on development projects in West Philadelphia and two history articles based on his own research.

“Working on the HCD is a great opportunity to hit the ground running, so to speak, by showing me what does and what doesn’t personally work for me as an historian,” says Currall. “It also provides the chance to expand on my writing by delving into journalism.”