Ronnie Polaneczky | Trying to get it right, the 'Philly' way

Dig deep: This 4th, with spirits sagging, look down to be uplifted

Posted: July 03, 2007

HERE WE ARE, on the eve of the country's 231st birthday, and being American sure doesn't feel very comfortable.

Our leaders have marched us into a war that's killed over 3,500 U.S. soldiers and earned us the world's contempt.

Our fear of immigrants - the kind of people from whom so many of us are descended - is making a mockery of Lady Liberty's declaration, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . ".

And Paris Hilton still lives here.

Last week, it all had me threatening to pack up and leave America's borders - and the talk of how to secure them - far behind.

Thankfully, it took less than an hour in Philly's historic district yesterday to make me feel hopeful all over again about the U.S.

But I didn't find my inspiration in the usual places in the nation's most historic square mile.

Not that there's anything tired about Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Pavilion or the National Constitution Center. They tell their stories of our country's founding as well as they ever have.

But I've been around those sites so often, their stories no longer get me misty about what it means to be American.

A visit to the site of the first President's House, though, put an unexpected lump in my throat this past weekend.

Not just because of the story the house itself tells, which is contradictory and profound.

But because of how hard Philadelphia, already the caretaker of our nation's most important stories, is working to tell it, in all its messy, important truth.

The President's House, for those unfamiliar with the saga, was the mansion, located on the corner of 6th and Market streets, where George Washington and John Adams lived and worked during the earliest days of the country's democracy.

It was demolished in 1951, and for years a historic marker on the site was the only indication that two founding fathers had spent so much time there.

In 2002, though, a local historian revealed that the site had also been home to nine slaves owned by Washington - and to whom he refused to grant freedom.

It was a shattering blow to the noble image of our first president, and it ignited a controversy. Advocacy groups wanted the National Park Service to commemorate the site and use the stories of the men and women who'd been enslaved there to tell the larger story of the contributions and sacrifices of slaves to the country's origins.

But construction of the new Liberty Bell Pavilion, which overlapped part of the home's original footprint, was already under way. The poignant irony: Its entrance sat atop what had been the home's slaves' quarters.

An emotional debate ensued. What was more important: building a new pavilion to tell the story of American liberty, or letting the site itself tell a more painful but true tale of our current freedom - that it didn't begin as an inalienable right for all?

In the end, many good things resulted from the willingness of good people, on both sides of the debate, to ask hard questions and look deep within for the right answers.

The Liberty Bell Pavilion got built, but its exhibits were reworked to more accurately portray the fact that this country was slow to embrace the concept the bell symbolized.

The city and feds found money to excavate the site of the President's House, a project that has yielded unimaginable artifacts - including parts of the home's foundation - that wouldn't have been discovered if not for the controversy itself.

And a permanent commemoration of the site will be erected when excavation is finished.

Standing on the public viewing platform overlooking the dig is a sobering, unsettling experience. The park service has installed panels telling the history of the house and its occupants, inclduing Washington's slave/cook Hercules and Oney Judge, the first lady's slave, both of whom eventually escaped to freedom.

To see their portraits, to follow with your eyes the route from the basement kitchen to the passageway that they and others no doubt trod between their quarters and work spaces - is visceral because it's real.

There is no background music, no bells, whistles or touch-screens. It's just the facts as we now know them:

Here is the house where our first president lived, hammered out the most precious principles of our democracy - and held hostage nine human beings.

What makes the site an ultimately hopeful place is that we also know what came afterward, albeit shamefully late: the abolition of slavery and the recognition of civil rights for all.

America is not perfect. But we keep trying to get it right, and sometimes we succeed.

What makes me feel hopeful this July Fourth is that, as evidenced by the work-in-progress that is the President's House Project, we're trying to get the stories right, too.

And we're doing it in a quintessentially Philly way: from the ground up, through gritty argument and unflinching debate.

It's messy, it takes time. And I think it's making our forefathers proud.

E-mail or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

comments powered by Disqus