DN Editorial: REEL OF FORTUNE: What's up, doc? Exploring yellow fever, looking for greenbacks

Posted: April 03, 2012

IN A CITY that has made history a backbone of a multibillion-dollar tourist trade, it might surprise the average citizen how little he or she knows about Philadelphia's history outside the narrow window of 1776. That's one reason why we were quite taken with a new multipart documentary series on the city's history being produced by former mayoral candidate and Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority board chief Sam Katz. Katz has produced two out of potentially 12 segments of "Philadelphia, the Great Experiment," a lively documentary on the city. The first-produced episode traces the battles for power after the Civil War. The second episode, telling the story of the city's yellow-fever epidemic, in 1793, is airing Wednesday on 6 ABC, at 7:30. p.m. (replacing "Wheel of Fortune.")

Katz is hoping to spin the actual wheel of fortune for his efforts. He's looking for funding to allow him to create the remaining 10 episodes. His project takes a page from the similar multipart history of New York directed by Ric Burns, which first aired on PBS starting in 1999.

Katz's perspective is that the city ended up being a social laboratory for many innovations that made their way across the country's historical and physical landscape. For example, the yellow-fever epidemic, which at one point killed hundreds of Philadelphians a day, led to the creation of a public-health system and a more sophisticated water-distribution system. The next episode will cover 1944-1964.

Judging by the production values of the episodes we've seen, Katz is going to need some big bucks to carry on with this project. (Individual donors can help; see instructions at www.historyofphilly.com) The most recent episode drove home to us just how little we know of the city's story beyond the "approved" version, and how few players we know beyond Franklin, Penn and the other usual suspects. Maybe our renowned parochialism is due to the fact that we rarely go beyond 1776 in our vision of what this city has become - and what it has overcome. And Katz's grass-roots fundraising means citizens can help tell that story.

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