Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City by Joseph E. B. Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Finding the Hidden City
by Joseph E. B. Elliott, Nathaniel Popkin and Peter Woodall
Temple University Press, 192 pp., cloth $40

For me, Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is a whatever-happened-to sequel to the Philadelphia I first discovered in the 1980s. Recently deindustrialized and far from redeveloped, Philly in that decade was indeed a 12 Monkeys city, referencing the 1995 dystopian science fiction movie (filmed in Philadelphia) that is used as a touchstone throughout the book. The authors write about what I saw back then 30 years later, exposing the fate of those abandoned mill buildings without workers, weather-worn churches without parishioners, moldering theaters without audiences, weedy railyards without tracks, and grand civic structures suffering the decay of curtailed budgets. The brilliance of the book, however, is that the authors, rather than presenting a voyeuristic photoplay of postindustrial ruination devoid of context, have peeled away the layers of historic accumulation to reveal the stories of what these souvenirs of the past were, still are, or have become in their current state of redevelopment.

Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City is an outgrowth of the website Hidden City Daily (, a series of photo-laden essays about the city’s common landscapes, forgotten places, and lost built environments. The book is subdivided into three parts: an introduction, “City of Infinite Layers,” and “City of Living Ruins.” The bulk of the book highlights specific Philadelphia structures to reveal a facet of the layer to which each was once a part. This includes the world’s largest organ in the old Wanamaker’s department store, the Divine Lorraine Hotel, West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek Sewer, Holmesburg Prison, Globe Dye Works, Philadelphia Electric’s closed waterfront power plants, Germantown Town Hall, several churches, and many other forgotten landscapes. Some of these places are idle and abandoned; others are still alive with a hidden social network.

Luxuriously illustrated with color plates (the photographs are almost too beautiful, visually treating the mundane as monument), the book takes urban exploring to a higher level of understanding and meaning, not only showing the hidden-in-plain-sight layers of Philadelphia but revealing the life those layers still contain.

Kevin Patrick
Indiana University of Pennsylvania