Can USA250 Make Philly the Star of America’s 250th Birthday?

A Super Bowl at the Linc! The Academy Awards at the Kimmel! Local group USA250 wants Philly to be the center of America's 250th birthday. It sounds great, except for one thing: how badly we bungled the Bicentennial in 1976.

History and hindsight walk arm-in-arm, so looking back, it’s easy to see why the Bicentennial was such a colossal bomb in Philadelphia. And make no mistake: It was a colossal bomb. One set off when the mayor, that infamous palooka Frank Rizzo, warned potential visitors that the Bicentennial could incite terrorism and violence. “The main thing I remember is the ‘Don’t come here,’ which I thought was peculiar,” says Meryl Levitz, who as head of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation has spent the past two decades convincing people to do just the opposite. “This was where America began, the Cradle of Liberty. Why wouldn’t you want people to come here?”

Subtle as an air-raid siren, Rizzo had asked both the White House and the state for 15,000 troops to quell any potential violence. He got none. A week before July 4th, here was the mayor’s money quote: “I hope and pray that nothing occurs, but I know this: A lot of people are coming to this town who are bent on violence. … We don’t need troops if there’s violence. We’ll put it down.”

Way to roll out the red carpet, Frank.

It only got worse, because this is Philadelphia so of course it got worse. Philadelphia ’76 Inc., the nonprofit agency created by the city to throw the Bicentennial, came under fire for mismanagement, including awarding no-bid contracts for hot dogs (I’m not making that up) to a corporation controlled by supporters of—you guessed it—Frank Rizzo. The city’s non-uniformed workers, in the midst of a nasty contract dispute, staged a work slowdown that forced the closing of the Art Museum on July 5th, a legal holiday, because the guards wouldn’t work overtime. An antiques show at the Civic Center folded the day before July 4th because of a lack of support staff.

Hotel rooms went empty. Street performers played to scant, if even extant, crowds. The musical 1776, staged under a tent on Independence Mall, attracted almost no one to see it. New York dazzled the nation with OpSail, its awe-inspiring parade of majestic ships cresting upon blue waters, while in Philly the big event was Queen Elizabeth popping by the Liberty Bell, which happened two days after the official date. Adding insult to injury, five of the majestic OpSail schooners scheduled to stop in Philly on the Big Day sailed right on by and docked in Baltimore instead, leaving flustered Penn’s Landing harbormaster Andre Armbruster to declare, “Whether there’s a good excuse or not for this, we don’t know.”

President Ford’s arrival at Valley Forge was delayed by fog. (Not the city’s fault, but certainly in keeping with its karma.) Ford delivered a dull speech at Valley Forge, then scampered back to the Capitol to watch fireworks.

And, oh yes, Valley Forge. Here was where we really shone. Two hundred “Bicentennial wagons,” authentic reproductions of covered Conestogas representing every state of the Union, converged on Valley Forge on July 3rd to kick off the region’s Independence Day blast. Alas, they arrived to a muddy campsite with no drinking water, price-gouging food and no toilets. Wagoneers were also forced to park their rigs two miles away from their campsites, leaving the wagons to be swarmed, unprotected, by souvenir-hunting tourists. “You know what my report of Valley Forge is going to say?” J.W. Jines of Texas, who had begun his trek in April, asked the Inquirer. “It’s going to say it stinks.” “There’s no organization here,” added Wendall Wheeless of Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. “If it was up to us, we’d burn the wagons right now in protest.” A coordinator of the wagon-train pilgrimage blamed bureaucratic tangles.

The city did get something out of the deal: money to erect the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the Independence Seaport Museum, and the old Visitors Center at 3rd and Chestnut—ugly monstrosities we’re now stuck with. “You had no real core [of buildings] there that people could take a positive mood from,” says Levitz, “and then you’re left with—I don’t know what architects I’m insulting. That was maybe just the style. But it was just terrible. And unworkable.”

To be fair, the country was still in a nasty hangover from Vietnam, Watergate, and the resignations of both its president and vice president. Inflation was rampant. It was a little whiplash-like to expect everyone to come out blazing with party hats and kazoos. But still. Bureaucratic tangles? Selfish city unions? No-bid contracts? A bumbling mayor? Does any of this sound familiar, people?

Because now, a group of very smart and very earnest folks are coming together to hit the ground running for the nation’s semiquincentennial, also known as the sestercentennial or the bicenquinquagenary, in 2026. (This group has done one thing right already, which was to come up with, and trademark, the far simpler phrase “USA250.”) With 13 years to plan, surely the city will be able to get its act together to make sure the celebration I and everyone else was so desperately looking for in 1976 actually happens this time.

But that’s the thing about history. It has a habit of repeating itself.