Mixing a trove of archival footage and photographs with talking-head interviews, "Promise for a Better City" begins with the thrum of machinery and men and women busy making the stuff of war.
The city was transformed into "America's arsenal" during World War II, producing ships and tanks, chemicals and weaponry - a host of factories were repurposed for the war effort, staffed by Philadelphians who got to their jobs via an elaborate grid of trolleys run by the Philadelphia Transportation Co.
When white PTC employees balked at working with African American trolley operators - a push organized by civil rights leader Carolyn Davenport Moore - the Roosevelt administration sent in troops to run the system. Eight black men were finally installed as trolley drivers. It was a major victory for the modern-era civil rights movement, but also a sober reminder that the battles fought for freedom and equality overseas had to be fought at home, as well.
"Promise of a Better City" describes, too, how race figured in popular culture in Phladelphia. Dick Clark's indigenous TV show Bandstand spurred the commodification of R&B from its African American roots to a brand of rock-and-roll dominated by young white performers. Frankie Avalaon, the homegrown teen idol, remembers the South Philly street-corner scene and his sudden rush to celebrity. At the same time, jazz and R&B were thriving in the clubs and bars along North Broad.
Tumultuous change struck at the heart of the city, too: right at Broad and Market Streets, where seven decades of Republican control of City Hall - steeped in patronage and corruption - came to an end with the ascension of Democratic reformers Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth. "Promise of a Better City" is especially good at chronicling the new vision of urban planning laid out by Ed Bacon (check out the model city on display at Gimbels!) and the rehabilitation of whole neighborhoods.
Yes, the massive makeover of Society Hill was a good thing, but at the same time it displaced poorer white and black residents, painting a bitter coat over the newly pointed bricks of the Federal houses along Spruce and Pine Streets.
"Promise for a Better City" manages to get the Phillies' historic 1964 "Phold" - the jaw-dropping 10-game losing streak that took the team out of World Series contention - in there. And that same year's devastating Columbia Avenue riots are examined, with blacks taking to the streets, confronting a mostly white and mostly hostile police force. Frank Rizzo, the cop-turned-pol, figures prominently.
For Philadelphians, "Promise for a Better City" is must viewing. But this isn't a provincial endeavor: For anyone interested in how the postwar years reshaped American cities, for anyone interested in the rise of the civil rights movement, in the women's movement, in the movement away from the urban core to the suburbs - in so many ways that affect not just this city but cities across the country - Katz's documentary proves essential.
Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.