An exhibition just opened at the Chemical Heritage Foundation called "Things Fall Apart." It features a fascinating but sobering set of exhibits, collectively reminding us of the universal law of deterioration. Over time, everything "falls apart."
Our most precious historical and cultural treasures are not exempt from this law. Unfortunately, this includes Independence Hall, Philadelphia's iconic UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and the national park it anchors.
Stunningly, since the last round of upgrades in preparation for the 1976 Bicentennial, Independence National Historical Park (INHP) has accumulated a $49 million backlog of deferred maintenance items spanning the park's 55 acres on some 20 city blocks. Independence Hall surely commands our most urgent attention, but other buildings cry out for help, too. For example, the historic but long closed First Bank of the United States needs $11 million in repairs.
Structure after structure is suffering. And it is affecting personnel, too. Recently, the park's law enforcement staff had to be relocated because the air conditioning has completely failed.
Across the country, America's national parks have an astounding $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog.
How could this be? Didn't INHP have millions of visitors last year? Hasn't Philadelphia just become a World Heritage City, based significantly on Independence Hall's UNESCO designation? Didn't the National Trust for Historic Preservation just name Philadelphia as a "National Treasure"? Don't Americans love their national park system?
Maybe, but America's national parks - including the one in our back yard - are in trouble.
The good news is that a rescue effort is stirring in Washington. Earlier this year, the National Park Service Legacy Act of 2017 was introduced in the House and Senate. These companion bills would create a dedicated fund that would direct needed resources toward the maintenance backlog at our national parks over the next 30 years, including INHP.
The bad news is that, so far, neither of Pennsylvania's senators, nor any of our 18 congressional representatives, have signed on as co-sponsors.
Clearly something must be done to preserve Philadelphia's iconic sites and maintain the economic impact they have on the city and region.
INHP is a linchpin of the local and regional economy. In 2015 the park attracted 4.3 million visits, accounting for $250 million in annual direct spending and 3,850 jobs. Across the state, Pennsylvania had more than 11 million visits to the national parks within its boundaries, translating into $516.4 million in total visitor spending and supporting more than 8,500 jobs.
Everyone who cares about INHP and recognizes its value to our national identity and our local economy should urge their senators and congressmen to become co-sponsors of these bills and to work for their passage. It is not only our city's status as a World Heritage City and a National Treasure that depends on it. It's also vital to our economy and to our city's very identity as the birthplace of American democracy.
No, Independence Hall is not falling down. Not yet. And the staff of INHP is doing an amazing job of keeping the park's assets together as best they can. But make no mistake. Like everything else they are slowly but surely falling apart. It's time for our society to come to their rescue.
Paul Steinke is executive director of the Preservation Alliance. firstname.lastname@example.org
John F. Smith III is board chair of the Global Philadelphia Association. email@example.com