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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 9, 2002
Byline: Blair C. Saxman Bristol

Don't let historical tourism destroy our past

Clearly, exposing as many people as possible to the rich heritage of this country is a desirable, even necessary thing. Few would argue that the average American's knowledge about their nation is woefully inadequate at present. America's historical importance in relation to other nations, the sacrifices made by our ancestors (black and white, free and slave), even our bedrock founding principles, seemingly never escape the danger of being lost to the expediencies of what appears "necessary" in the present.

Yet, The Inquirer's recent front page article ("Bus depot plan will pave over history, critics say," Sept. 29) relates another troubling instance where short-sighted "tourism-first" mentalities are driving the development of the National Constitution Center and the new home for the Liberty Bell by the very people we might reasonably expect to be the most sensitive to these issues.

The United States is not the only nation, and Philadelphia is not the only city, that has a past to celebrate as well as preserve. In Rome, one finds a modern national capital that caters to tourists, but does so with a minimum of destruction to the ancient buildings and artifacts that still exist. That same attitude is found throughout Europe, and in many Asian countries as well.

However, here in America (where our history is much more recent and hence should be more easily recoverable and accessible) we have this "pave first, lament the loss later" mentality that predominates. This attitude is a proven loser both in terms of the obvious cultural destruction but also in dollars and cents.

As Williamsburg, Va., shows, history sells itself if given the chance, especially when coupled with a dose of patriotism. The town of Gettysburg is starting to understand what the curators of the battlefield have known for quite some time; that the rampant commercialism that's taken over what Lincoln called "hallowed ground" has been more curse than blessing, more costly than cost-effective.

In an ideal world, whether it took an act of City Hall or Congress itself, the whole area of Old City up to Race Street and from Penn's Landing to Seventh Street would be declared Philadelphia's hallowed ground and treated accordingly - restored as nearly as possible into a living, breathing monument. But at the very least, in this case, we need to stop mindlessly building just to meet a deadline and research what we know to be an historically significant area. No questions asked.

Philadelphia is called the birthplace of freedom for a reason. Everything that we as a nation have a right to be proud of either began, or found a home, here. Large modern buildings and parking lots for tour buses are the worst possible way to commemorate that fact. We need to excavate and preserve what we have, rebuild what we can, and keep our worst impulses toward "development" - even in the name of historical tourism - in check. To do any less will gain us nothing economically in the long run, while demonstrating to the future a significant level of disrespect for our ancestors, our ideals, and even ourselves.

 

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