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.
I was 13 years old in 1976—not exactly a budding patriot, but a good enough student of American history by that point to understand that the bicentennial of the country was a big deal. And so it was that on the bright and beautiful morning of July 4th, I bounded in from church (it was Sunday) and tore up the stairs to my bedroom in Northeast Philly, changing into my own version of the Stars and Stripes (red shirt, blue shorts, white sneakers) for not just any day, but the day: the nation’s 200th birthday.
I spent a portion of the early afternoon across the street at Jardel playground, where I had somehow been assigned the responsibility of ensuring the legitimacy of the water-balloon-tossing contest. When I got home, I flicked on the TV, then plopped into the rocking chair in our living room to see the July 4th hoopla breaking out all over town—this town, our town, the birthplace of liberty. My parents were suitably puzzled by my newfound civic pride.
“But it’s the Bicentennial!” I replied. “The eyes of the nation are upon us!”
“The eyes of the nation are upon us?” my father replied, incredulous.
I’d heard it somewhere. The point was that growing up in Philly in the ’70s was one big inferiority complex. All the national discourse was happening in D.C.; all the TV shows were made (and set) in L.A.; even broke-ass New York mattered enough to warrant President Ford paying attention, even if only to give it the finger. Philly? Philly was cheesesteaks, police brutality and the occasional Mob hit. Rocky wouldn’t debut in theaters for another five months. But the 200th anniversary of the founding of the nation—this was finally our moment. Our birthday. Our turn.
I don’t remember how long I sat there, my 16-ounce bottle of chilled Pepsi-Cola on the table next to me, both of us slowly losing our fizz. I scanned the television, got up to change the channel to CBS (remote? Who had a remote in Northeast Philly?), then sat back down again, rock rock rock in the chair, up again, change the channel to NBC, down, rock rock, ABC, rock rock, repeat. The only thing I really remember is that I sat there and watched … New York. D.C. The occasional glimpse of Boston. Tall ships. Random celebrities. Happy people in green foam Statue of Liberty hats. And as I took in the nation toasting its past, my confused adolescent brain could only muster one question, over and over and over:
Where the hell is Philadelphia?
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.
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.
In 1999, Dick Vermeil, the legendary former Eagles coach who had taken over the St. Louis Rams two years earlier, delivered three words of inspiration to his new team, which had finished the previous season 4-12—last in its division: “Why not us?”
Led by a former grocery clerk-turned-quarterback named Kurt Warner, the Rams won the Super Bowl that season.
In their own way, Sam Katz and Andrew Hohns and Meryl Levitz and the rest of the folks at USA250, in trying to get Philadelphia to do something very un-Philadelphia—i.e., to not blow it—are putting up their own sign to all of us, asking: Why not us?
“I’m not unmindful of the tendency of Philadelphia to think less of itself, to identify barriers and focus only on them,” Katz says. “But I am also not unmindful that there is a new generation, and new blood, that is doing things here that go largely unreported, all without the help of government. So yeah, I am optimistic.”
“Oh, the city is just so different,” Meryl Levitz says, mulling the changes since 1976. “I think in these last few years we have gone from zero to 90. Things have changed so much, physically, emotionally, virtually, for people. Center City has pushed out. There is this momentum and growth.”
She says this in the seductive cadence of a model on a TV commercial cooing about her hair coloring. I want to believe her. We all do. And yet there is a lot of my brand of cynicism in Philadelphia—some of it unjustified, but most of it, unfortunately, not. When you live in a town where the mayor can’t give a budget address to City Council because he’s shouted down from the gallery, where union thuggery is not only tolerated but actually encouraged, where large numbers of the people who come to the Convention Center say they won’t be back, it’s hard to imagine the bright shiny city on the hill, its soundtrack by John Philip Sousa. During our conversation in her office at the GPTMC, Levitz gushed to me about Katz’s documentaries on city history, telling me, “I can look at those and say, ‘So that’s why John Dougherty is John Dougherty.’ I can see him there.”
Unfortunately, I can see him right here. Along with Pat Gillespie. And the 17 members of City Council, all looking for their slice of the pie. And their counterparts in Harrisburg and Washington, and at Comcast and GlaxoSmithKline and Penn and the Parking Authority and the cheesesteak shops in South Philly, for that matter. I want to believe that everyone will come together, put the civic good first, put an oar in the water and start rowing toward a spectacular 2026 with no consideration for personal gain. But somewhere inside me sits that 13-year-old boy still looking forlornly at his TV set. He, shall we say, has his doubts.
Could we really pull this off? In my search for an answer, I call A.D. Frazier. Frazier was the chief operating officer for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, a $1.7 billion enterprise and one of the few Games to close its books in the black. I tell him what the Philly-ites are up to and ask him to tell me what he didn’t expect, the obstacles he didn’t see coming as the Games came together. His answer deflates me: “I never expected that there would be so many people I had to deal with who had their hand out,” he says. “Believe me, anything like this is going to bring them out of the woodwork.” He tells me how “the city of Atlanta was our most difficult adversary,” how the then-mayor (who was later sent to prison) made sweetheart deals that wreaked havoc with traffic and security. The Games were a success, he declares, investing $500 million in new infrastructure, including a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves. But the road wasn’t without its bumps.
That, of course, is to be expected in producing an event so massive. But an Olympics lasts for three weeks. Philadelphia is trying to do something that stretches for an entire year, possibly two. It seems unfathomable. And yet part of me admires the fact that Hohns et al. are trying, that they’re out there conjuring and dreaming. Why not us?
“If Philadelphia is going to prove to the world that it, not New York, was the cradle of democracy in the North American continent, that’s a more gossamer goal than putting on the Olympics for a few weeks,” Frazier tells me. “And I gotta tell you, there will be a lot of people who are going to say, ‘Why do we have to do this? We’re already Philadelphia. Everybody knows who we are.’ … But you’ve got plenty of good bones to work with there.
“Philadelphia,” he adds, “is an incredible city.”