This dissertation examines how public history and historic preservation have changed during the twentieth century by examining the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1683, Germantown is one of America's most historic neighborhoods, with resonant landmarks related to the nation's political, military, industrial, and cultural history. Efforts to preserve the historic sites of the neighborhood have resulted in the presence of fourteen historic sites and house museums, including sites owned by the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the City of Philadelphia.
Germantown is also a neighborhood where many of the ills that came to beset many American cities in the twentieth century are easy to spot. The 2000 census showed that one quarter of its citizens live at or below the poverty line. Germantown High School recently made national headlines when students there attacked a popular teacher, causing severe injuries. Many businesses and landmark buildings now stand shuttered in community that no longer can draw on the manufacturing or retail economy it once did.
Germantown's twentieth century has seen remarkably creative approaches to contemporary problems using historic preservation at their core. What was tried, together with what succeeded and failed, help to explain how urban planning, heritage tourism, architectural preservation and museum studies have evolved in the country overall. Each decade offered examples of attempted solutions and success stories, frequently setting standards for historic preservation nationally. In Germantown's case, history was identified early and throughout the century as a useful tool to build into an economic engine for the neighborhood. And yet, history has not proved to be as beneficial to the neighborhood as had been hoped. Why did history not provide the development spark that people thought it would?
The answer to this question is beset with many ironies to be explored in this study. Germantown's greatest feature, its history, often got in the way. More specifically, the practice of history, locally and more generally, did not always help Germantown's expressed goal to make its history more effective in the economic development of the neighborhood. Beset with many competing groups and unable to overcome entrenched traditions, Germantown's primary selling point, its historic assets, often paradoxically served as a barrier to achieving those goals. Institutional, systemic, and cultural factors have all played in to how Germantown has not been able to take full advantage of its history for the benefit of the entire community.
Germantown offers a way to study life in a twentieth century city through the ways that people think about history. Germantown history shows how thinking about preservation went from a notion of attempting to seal off the past in reverent isolation to one of the responsible management of change. The former required authority, the latter requires respect for multiple narratives. The process required the evolution, over many years and many contested issues, of the historical profession as whole.