Where History Goes High Tech

The Historical Society's new web portal brings to life Philly neighborhoods during the Industrial Revolution

Since she was a young woman studying at Rutgers University, 67-year-old Donna Meidt has traced her family ancestry by collecting stories from relatives, studying history books, and visiting the small mountain village of Gasperina in Italy, where her great-grandparents began raising their family more than a century ago.

The focus of her life’s work has been on her grandfather, Antonio Nicola Pisano, who lived in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century. Meidt remembers vividly the stories that Pisano shared with her about the life and family he left behind. “They were artists and they were poets,” he often said.

Pisano immigrated to America in 1911 at the age of 16, moving into a boarding house at Fifth and Catherine streets. The young man studied as a shoemaker’s apprentice at a factory in Center City. But his passion, too, was the arts. [SIGNUP]

He formed the Filodramatic Circle Gasperinese, a theatre troupe that performed original religious plays — presumably written by Pisano — on the front steps of churches in South Philadelphia. Pisano, who lived in the region for most of his life and passed way in 1979, also penned dozens of poems. He composed traditional sonnets about the Italian peasant experience, mused about political issues and wrote often about the ambivalence of being torn between America and Europe.

When her grandmother died in 2002, Meidt was the heir to boxes of Pisano’s plays and poetry. Seeking answers to some of the clues left behind, Meidt turned to the Web.

She stumbled upon the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s new interactive Web portal PhilaPlace, a digital collection of stories about the working-class neighborhoods of South Philadelphia and Northern Liberties during the Industrial Revolution.

PhilaPlace — a three-year, $500,000 grant-funded project — launched in December with 150 stories from the Historical Society’s archives accompanied by video, audio and scans of documents. The site allows users to zoom and pan across yellowed maps from the 19th and 20th centuries using a familiar Google Maps interface. The heart of the project is in encouraging folks, like Meidt, to submit their own histories.

The site has been a success for the Historical Society. In three months, it experienced 17,000 visits, far surpassing internal goals. The average user spends as long as four minutes on the site, beating the standard Web average of less than two minutes.

The organization is seeking additional grants to fund new projects, like its recently announced “Streets” initiative, which visually tracks the ethnic, occupational and land-use evolutions of several well-known city blocks.

The project is a unique intersection of history and technological innovation, but it is perhaps most inspiring for its ability to connect folks around the stories it serves. After sharing her Grandfather’s story on PhilaPlace, Meidt has been contacted by several parties interested in her grandfather’s life.

She’s preparing Philadelphia’s Italian Consulate for a reading of Pisano’s work later this year. The International Opera Theater has connected Meidt with a conductor who is composing scores to accompany Pisano’s poetry. A long-lost cousin, whose family moved from Gasperina to Argentina around the time Pisano immigrated to America, has been in touch with Meidt, having seen her post on the Web site.

“At my age, many wonderful things have happened to me, but I think this is the top of my list. My cousin said to me, ‘Donna, this has been your life’s work.’ And it’s true.”

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