When Susan Madrak was growing up in Southwest Philly in the ’60s, her mother would give her a quarter for the trolley, a dime for emergency phone calls, and a map of Philadelphia’s historic section.
“Here, go look at things,” she’d say. And Madrak would. Down to Independence Mall, the Hall, and the Liberty Bell. She didn’t quite get that the crowds around her were coming from out of town, just to see a monument to constitutional democracy that Philadelphians, in our way, tend to take for granted.
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But the meaning of the buildings — the ideals and values, imperfect and incomplete as they were — slowly sunk in as Madrak, now a left-leaning political blogger, grew up. She cherishes an afternoon of some 20 years ago when a kind tour guide at Independence Hall invited her to step onto the dais where the Declaration was signed.
“I always say that was the best day of my life,” she recalled, laughing, “even though I have two kids.”
So this summer, when a Philadelphia Magazine article by David Murrell on the physical decline of Independence National Historical Park came out, Madrak took it as a personal affront. Each detail a fresh indignity.
The chipped paint. The dusty carpets. The lack of foreign-language guides in Independence Hall. And don’t even start with the First Bank of the United States down the street — Alexander Hamilton’s pride and joy — which has been shuttered for 30 years and needs a complete overhaul, including a fire suppression system. You know, little things.
As Murrell pointed out in his story, the city owns Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, but the feds are on the hook for taking care of it — and over decades, they have deferred $51 million worth of repairs. On a given day, some 10 buildings out of the park’s 35 are closed to the public because there are not enough workers to staff them.
So Madrak took to the internet. On Monday, she launched a GoFundMe to raise money for our nation’s most historic landmark. “Greatness walked here," she wrote. "American ideals were formed here. Now the Hall needs our help. Even $1 will help.”
The Hall should function like a “polished diamond,” Madrak told me. And, to be fair, the park staff is working hard to keep it up — and to make the park an experience that transcends the modest trappings of the place. Madrak set a reasonable goal: $1 million —“a good beginning to fix the most urgent problems” — and set up the GoFundMe to donate directly to the Independence Historical Trust, which handles fund-raising for the park.
“Some guy raised $25 million to help Trump build a wall, so we can do this,” she said, in that can-do Philly way. Since Monday, she’s raised nearly $800. That’ll at least buy some paint.
Thomas Caramanico, the executive director of the trust, said he was thrilled by the crowdfunding effort. But he stressed that while the park needs help, it’s not as dreary a picture as you might think. Of course people care about the park, he said. The trust does get love from big donors — it has raised $12 million from private donors toward the $30 million effort to renovate the First Bank and recently got $300,000 from a private landscaping company to revamp the Mall’s great lawns.
“People aren’t walking from that park and saying, ‘I don’t care about it,’ ” he said.
But funds are still needed for a place that many Philadelphians take for granted, he acknowledged.
“We don’t celebrate it as much as we should — I think it’s because we have so many [historic buildings],” he said. He echoed Madrak’s mantra: If people can spend thousands on Eagles tickets, we can kick the park $10 every now and then. “Or maybe even $100,” he said, hopefully.
I plopped down $50 today, about the same amount I spend on a Mets T-shirt and hat as I watch them fail every summer. Penance for a New York transplant.
So buck up, Philly fans.
Madrak, for her part, is thinking even bigger. How about a plea from Nicolas Cage, who filmed National Treasure at Independence Hall, or Lin-Manuel Miranda, who still owes us an apology for writing Philly out of Hamilton?