What inspired you to want to create a film (Philadelphia: The Great Experiment) about Philadelphia?
It was a convergence of forces. I have a great passion for the city. I grew up in Wynnefield, rooting for the St. Joe's Hawks. I’ve lived here most of my life, went to public schools in the city and love all aspects of city life.
Politically, I was inspired by Richardson Dilworth (Philadelphia’s Mayor from 1955 through 1962) and John Kennedy who I heard speak when he ran for President. My own political losses were a wake-up call to try to learn more about the city.
My life strategy was to work in business for 20 years, public service for 10 and then teach or do something after public life. The business phase lasted for 30-35 years. After my political defeats I started to think about the academic phase.
I happened to watch the film, Gangs of New York, by Martin Scorcese. There was a scene in the film that fascinated me. A house was on fire. A volunteer company led by Boss Tweed (William Magear Tweed) arrived. A second volunteer company also arrived. Instead of combining forces to put the fire out quicker the rival companies fought each other over who would have the right to put out the fire. Meanwhile the house burned. There were other issues in the film, such as New York’s draft riots during the Civil War, that made me want to investigate the real history behind the stories that were presented.
I began by reading Gotham, a history about New York by Mike Wallace (a professor at New York’s John Jay University). Wallace was the advisor to the Ric Burns film series on New York. I watched all seven episodes of Burns’ New York series and an eighth on the World Trade Center.
In 2005, I then began to look at documentaries (most less sweeping than New York) on other cities. I found documentaries on Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Milwaukee and Miami. What I was surprised to find was that there wasn’t a documentary on Philadelphia. I also spoke with Donald L. Miller (Lafayette College) who wrote about Chicago. Miller’s City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America was made into a three-hour documentary film series for PBS’s The American Experience.
Unlike Mike Wallace’s New York and Donald L. Miller’s Chicago, Philadelphia didn’t really have a single historian who knew all the ins and outs of Philadelphia. The book Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, edited by Russell F. Weigley, contained contributions from a variety of specialists who each cover their period of expertise. It lacked a single consistent voice.
With these forces and ideas I decided that instead of teaching or going back to school myself that creating a history documentary would be my PhD. When I mentioned to my wife the worry that people might say that I’m not a historian and I don’t know what I’m doing – she replied “How is that different than politics?”
David McCollough, Author and Historian: “No city in America has preserved its history like Philadelphia.
No city has more to tell America about history than Philadelphia.”