Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Marking the Past

For a project I've been working on, I've been reading and thinking about state historic markers around the city. You've no doubt seen these big blue signs, telling you why a particular spot is deemed noteworthy in the state's history.

But I'm equally interested in the story behind the markers. Who proposes them? Why do applicants want a particular site noticed? And how does the act of officially marking one history overshadow other histories for the same site?

Earlier this summer, the Inquirer explained the basics of how these state historic markers come about. The story mentions one marker in the Italian Market that was pulled down immediately after being erected in 2007, ostensibly because the marker used the historic name, "9th Street" market, instead of the more recent moniker, "Italian Market."

Ignoring the disagreement over the market's name for a moment, and the reasons why someone might be so offended by this historic accuracy that he or she would pull down the sign, I'm more curious about the less violent response that has emerged less than a block away.

Visitors to the 9th Street / Italian Market can now view two markers: one erected by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and one erected by private citizens.

The private marker appeared about one year after the state marker's unveiling, defacement and replacement, and was erected less than a block away at the corner of 9th and Montrose.

In the privately funded version of the past, the market's Italian heritage is emphasized, and "honored founding families" are celebrated by name. Frank Rizzo watches over the marker, from a market mural.

Do visitors notice the difference between the two signs? Or even notice that two signs describe the same history?

Alas, I'm betting the private marker gets more attention, since it is located almost a block into the market itself, whereas the state marker is located at the northern edge of the market, at 9th and Christian (photo at top).

The private marker also may seem more "legitimate," since it reinforces current business and tourist marketing. Visitors no doubt see the private marker and assume that it will tell them all they need to know about the history of the "Italian Market."

Too bad. In the process of celebrating one group's heritage, the private marker steamrolls over some of the richness and diversity of the actual market.

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