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America's 250th is Philadelphia's to lose

It isn't too soon to plan the nation's next big birthday.

By Andrew Dalzell

Like most lifelong Philadelphians, I feel a deep loyalty to the city. With this comes not only unwavering support for any Philadelphia-based sports team, but also an innate sense of self-deprecation and self-pity.

I instinctively bristle at any slight - perceived or real, large or small - against my city. When Phoenix overtook Philly to become the fifth-largest city in the country, I bristled. When Scott Rolen ditched the Phils for more cash in St. Louis, I bristled. When any study, graph, table, or chart surveys some trend among "major" American cities and leaves Philly off the list, I bristle.

Sometimes I get furious when maps of the United States note only New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, and Boston. But sometimes I'm relieved to see Philadelphia in a slightly smaller font than New York and L.A. because, frankly, who wants to be as big or self-absorbed as New York and L.A.?

In 2026, though, Philadelphia will have an immense opportunity to be a "big font" city. 2026 is the 250th birthday of the United States, or bicenquinquagenary, for you linguists out there. This celebration is uniquely Philadelphia's. While most cities must wait for the biennial or quadrennial carousel of Olympics and World Cups, this one is ours to keep.

Or lose. Let's face it: Our track record on big anniversaries is checkered at best. Yes, the 1876 Centennial was a huge success. We still talk about it today and walk among its relics (such as Memorial Hall, the Fairmount Park building that houses the Please Touch Museum). Kings and queens were among the 10 million who descended on the city over the celebration's six months.

But with the Sesquicentennial, in 1926, we suffered a sophomore slump. Planning was delayed by a debate over the venue. Rather than Fairmount Park, where the Centennial was held, it took place in South Philadelphia. It rained on 107 of the 184 days of the celebration, attendance was three million lower than the Centennial's, and the city ended up with $5 million in unpaid bills by the end. (There were bright spots, including the creation of FDR Park, the Sports Complex, and neighborhoods now home to thousands of Philadelphians.)

The Bicentennial was a letdown, too. In 1959, Ed Bacon wrote of the coming Bicentennial World's Fair as an opportunity to implement his comprehensive citywide plan. But over the next 17 years, the planning devolved into squabbling over the venue.

Ideas for the Bicentennial ranged from a so-called megastructure over the rail yards near 30th Street Station to a decentralized fair spread throughout the city's neighborhoods. In the end, no large-scale World's Fair took place, and Philadelphia's Bicentennial was no more special than those in other cities nationwide. Residents were left crestfallen at their inability to meet their goals, dreams, and expectations for the event.

With 2026, Philadelphia has an opportunity to put aside that disappointment and design the fair of the future. The risks are many (see 1976), but the potential rewards are immeasurable (see 1876). The question is: Should we go for it?

We're about 15 years away, so it's time to start the conversation that will answer that question. At tonight's awards ceremony for the fifth annual Ed Bacon Student Design Competition at the Center for Architecture, two teams of students will be honored for their designs for USA 250. Entrants from around the world were challenged to design a master plan using South Philadelphia (below the Schuylkill Expressway) as the fairgrounds. (The area was specified to head off squabbling over the issue.) They were challenged to consider not just how to celebrate Philadelphia and America, but also how to use billions in infrastructure dollars to transform the city for decades to come.

Where the conversation goes from there depends on Philadelphians and our leaders. By 2027, we could be a big-font city.