Can USA250 Make Philly the Star of America’s 250th Birthday?
Morning rain has given way to a beautiful, sunny, humidity-free day in Fairmount Park as Andrew Hohns and I sit in a white gazebo near the Horticulture Center. It’s an oddly romantic setting, but then, Hohns is in something of a romantic mood these days. Dressed in slate pants, a blue canvas jacket and Wellies, he has the laid-back manner, easy charm and good hair of someone brought up with affluence.
We’ve just come from the Please Touch Museum, which in its lower level houses a scale model of the city’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, a mammoth, jaw-dropping display of civic pride that brought 9.9 million people—almost a quarter of the U.S. population—to Philadelphia to celebrate. The Museum of Art was established for the Centennial. An entire city-within-the-city rose inside Fairmount Park—“Like building Disney World in eight months,” Hohns says—in a stunning rollout of American ingenuity and progress.
Hohns, whose father worked in the first Bush administration, is a banker married to Leah Popowich, a sinewy star on the city’s charity-board circuit who works in the Office of the President at Penn, the university from which both she and her husband boast degrees. In 2000, Hohns and another similarly privileged do-gooder type, Troy Madres, founded Young Involved Philadelphia, a sort of Junior League for smart 20-somethings looking to civically engage in the city. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Hohns and some of his former YIPers have now founded USA250, a nonprofit that aims to do nothing less than make sure that Philadelphia is the national and international epicenter for the nation’s 250th birthday celebration in 2026. Or, in plainer terms, to make sure that history does not, in fact, get repeated.
He and his merry band have been doing all of this, it should be noted, with hardly any input from government, be it federal, state or, God forbid, local. Instead, they’re basically using a crowdsourcing model to create a sense of inevitability that the party starts and ends here. By staking a claim early, they’re hoping to catch the city’s likely competitors for 250th bragging rights—New York, Boston, D.C.—sleeping. “When I throw a party, I don’t ask my neighbors if they’re also throwing a party that night,” Hohns tells me. “I’m not worried about that. If Boston wants to celebrate, they can have their little satellite celebrations. But this is the metropolis. If there’s anything close to a birthright, this is it. It’s ours for the taking.”
“Our competitive standing for 2026 is unequaled,” says Sam Katz, the businessman-turned-perennial-mayoral-candidate-turned-city-historian. Katz, who in the past few years has produced a series of impressive documentaries on Philadelphia history, was tapped by Hohns & Co. in 2011 to serve as the CEO of their fledgling USA250. “In terms of history, there wasn’t even a Washington, D.C., in 1776,” Katz says. “It would be unseemly for the nation’s capital to anoint itself as the center of the celebration. I would take Boston seriously if there was a formal competition; it has a lot to say about the founding of the country. New York is also always in the conversation. We need to not think of this as ‘Winner takes all.’ But there will be an air of inevitability to what Philadelphia can do. If you want to come to the place where the country started, there’s only one place to come. I don’t know why you would have a birthday party for a place other than in the place it started.”
I do. It’s called money. When people in the Capitol and various statehouses begin to realize what Philly is up to—and, more important, how much money a grand-scale operation like the one being proposed is going to mean for the city’s thirsty coffers—lots of them are going to have something to say about how the nation blows out its candles. In December 2009, Philadelphia congressman Bob Brady introduced House Resolution 986, outlining in glorious historical detail all the reasons the Philly region should be the host for the 250th, and “supporting a national and international celebration … to be held throughout the year 2026, focused on the Greater Philadelphia Region.” It was referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where it has been gathering dust ever since.
The strategy for the 250ers is simple: Keep taking steps, one at a time, in the right direction, and eventually we’ll get there. Avoid the big pronouncements and grand-plan unveilings. Lay the groundwork. Quietly.
In other words: Keep the greedy bastards who are most likely to ruin this out of the equation for as long as possible.
To that end, Katz, Hohns & Co. have been surreptitiously recruiting new, seasoned board members from around the city, a cast of characters that reads like the guest list at your standard Chamber of Commerce luncheon. (USA250 plans to announce this new board this fall.) The hope is to have these folks use their various levers of local power to start pouring metaphorical cement into the 250th operation, before eventually stepping back for a (possibly) showier national advisory board—think Bono, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton—who can bring in the big corporate dollars and star power that will be needed to make the ambitious agenda of USA250 materialize.
Because what’s being discussed here isn’t just floats on the Parkway and a few speeches at Valley Forge. Katz envisions an entire year—possibly two, from July 4, 2025, to July 4, 2027—that’s more like a TED conference on steroids than 76 trombones in the big parade. USA250 has laid out six themes—Democracy and Citizenship; Sportsmanship, Competition and Teamwork; Sustaining the Metropolis; Celebrating the Human Creative Spirit; Investing in Human Capital; and Innovation and Entrepreneurship—around which talks, demonstrations, events, parties, concerts and various other folderol would occur, from the big (the Super Bowl here in 2026!) to the small (the Historical Society of Frankford hosts a walking tour). Maybe a company like Intel comes in and rewires City Hall into the municipal building of the future. Bolstering all of this are what might be called tent-pole events, all of which would be held in the Greater Philadelphia area: the aforementioned Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, the American Medical Association’s annual meeting, the Academy Awards (yes, Hohns is serious about that), golf’s U.S. Open and the MLB’s 2026 All-Star game. “If we engage widely and expansively enough,” Katz says, “it becomes a citizenship movement that politicians will not have any choice but to get out in front of and lead.”
I think about that for a second. The Oscars … here! I have to admit, it’s heady. How awesome would all of that be? And then I pass by City Hall and am reminded that it takes four years (I’m being optimistic) just to put an ice rink on Dilworth Plaza. I hate being such a cynic. But there you have it.
“I think the patriotism that exists in the city is as vivid as anywhere in America,” Hohns counters. “I think there is a local identity that is genuinely unique. There are only a few other places in the United States that have the culture, cuisine, heritage, neighborhoods. This is a very special place. The cynicism, in my experience, is most often directed at slickness, and most easily counteracted with genuineness.”
I’d modify that slightly. The cynicism, I would argue, is directed at incompetence. And it will be counteracted, not by “genuineness,” but by organizers crafty enough to work around the powermongers and general louts in this city who routinely ruin everything.