Sam Katz's latest Phila. history, from 1978 to 1994

Members of the Anti-Graffiti Network (later the Mural Arts Program), an innovative Goode administration program that turned graffiti vandals into city employees.
Members of the Anti-Graffiti Network (later the Mural Arts Program), an innovative Goode administration program that turned graffiti vandals into city employees. (Inquirer File Photo)
Posted: January 17, 2014

History felt palpable when I first arrived in Philadelphia in 1995.

The past welcomed me warmly as I visited the Liberty Bell. Ushered me through Elfreth's Alley. And hung reverently as I made my pilgrimage to Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, holy ground for this lifelong A.M.E. worshipper and Richard Allen disciple.

But let's face it: The history of early Philadelphia, while full and fascinating, still dominates the cityscape. "We're a very 1776 place," sighs filmmaker Sam Katz.

Certainly Katz, whose surprisingly creative foray into filmmaking is making folks almost forget his political aspirations, adds to these dusty accounts of history in his riveting documentary, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment.

What makes Katz's offering so much more viable is that it doesn't stop at powdered wigs and yellow fever. "The Breakthrough," the doc's fifth installment, airing on 6ABC Thursday at 7:30 p.m., examines history from 1978 to 1994.

It's a tricky thing to put the recent past in historical context, especially if you were a player, as Katz was. But Katz, who served as executive producer and director, succeeds by stepping aside and presenting Philadelphia as a center for self-initiative and self-expression over an important 16-year period.

Philadelphia stumbled out of the 1970s punch drunk from an embarrassing Bicentennial celebration and the heavy hand of Mayor Frank Rizzo. As police commissioner, Rizzo oversaw a long history of brutality against African Americans. In 1980, Mayor Rizzo came to the end of his second term governing a city, that, for the most part, was still segregated and ripe for change.

As Philadelphia suffered a record deficit and industrial jobs dissolved, protest took the form of taglines. Graffiti could be seen everywhere, creating a kind of raw and destructive energy scribbled to a hip-hop beat. Even the city's developers revolted by planning a Center City skyscraper that would break a gentleman's agreement banning any building from standing higher than Billy Penn's hat atop City Hall. It would be called Liberty Place.

Slowly but steadily, a new crop of black leaders, born out of the Black Political Forum of the 1960s, emerged. Among them: Charles Bowser, John White Jr., John F. Street, and Dwight Evans.

While deftly portraying this period as one of bottom-up influence, "The Breakthrough" goes on too long about graffiti and murals and falls short of conveying the impact the Black Political Forum had on African American empowerment among politicians and clergy alike. The forum developed a long line of qualified mayoral hopefuls, including cofounder Wilson Goode, who was elected Philadelphia's first African American mayor in 1983.

Goode's election represented a diversification of political power and a voice for those who traditionally had none. Instead of banishing graffiti artists, Goode embraced them, creating the Anti-Graffiti Network (later the Mural Arts Program), an innovative program that turned vandals into city employees.

Yet, as history would show, it would be only a matter of time before Philadelphia blew up in Goode's face.

"The Breakthrough" devotes a large chunk of its 25 minutes to the MOVE tragedy, as well it should. Through hard-to-watch news footage, expert talking heads, and witnesses to the carnage - including Ramona Africa, one of two survivors of the fire - Katz tells the story of a slow-simmering disaster brewing in West Philadelphia involving MOVE, the Police Department, battle-fatigued neighbors, and a mayor who initially dismissed the situation as a neighborhood squabble.

Clearly, it was more than that. And when the mayor finally realized it, he did the unthinkable: In an effort to dislodge the bunker MOVE members had built on top of their Osage Avenue residence, Goode allowed police to drop a bomb on the house from a helicopter. Though graphic footage of the fireball bursting on the roof on a home in a residential neighborhood has been shown many times, it's still a stomach-churning image. Said one reporter on the scene: "It was the most horrifying thing I ever saw in my life."

The seemingly endless inferno, which killed 11 people, including five children, and destroyed 61 homes, will rightly or wrongly forever mark Goode's mayoral tenure. "A festering sore forever," is how Linn Washington, Temple professor and journalist, describes the incident's effect on the city.

After some quiet, contrite reflection from Goode, now an ordained minister, "The Breakthrough" pivots to Philadelphia in 1991, depicted as a weary, bankrupt city facing a $260 million deficit, "on the verge of becoming Detroit without the cars."

Philadelphia desperately needed another breakthrough. Enter Ed Rendell, the brash and personable district attorney, who was poised to become the city's 96th mayor.

"The Breakthrough" does an admirable job of illustrating the conflicted character of Philadelphia, as a city of firsts, good and bad. And it all raises the question: Will Philadelphia, as William Penn prayed in 1684, be preserved from abuse? Will its children be blessed and its people saved?

History will record the answer. Let's hope Katz is still around to chronicle it.


TV REVIEW

Philadelphia: The Great Experiment

7:30 p.m. Thursday, 6ABC


Annette John-Hall is a former Inquirer columnist.

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