Monday, April 27, 2015

Don't blame Stephen Girard

Wikipedia claims one of Philadelphia's founding fathers wanted the city to be America's suburb. Where's the evidence?

Don't blame Stephen Girard

Last week I visited a couple of millionaire real estate managers who run property portfolios for publicly-traded companies. 

Both groups - the Shah brothers at Hersha Hospitality Trust, and Ed Cohen's Resource Real Estate - are happy to call Philadelphia home and use it as the base for their expansive national business activities. But neither of them invest here much.

They told me they're not suprised that Center City's office space and office rents have been flat for 20 years. And they don't see that as a problem: It keeps costs down, so they get more for their Philly home and home-office dollars.

Civic boosters, like hardworking Paul Levy at the Center City District, get mad at me when I point out this kind of thing. So I felt vindicated, a little, when I read what looked like a classic early-Philly precedent for the Way We Are:

Stephen Girard, the richest man in early 1800s America, "was a key factor in moving the financial center of the United States from Philadelphia to New York, and in moving the number of early government agencies from Philadelphia to Washington DC... He saw these undertakings as 'of a lower nature'... He sought to keep Philadelphia as 'the village in between'" the nasty politicians in the capital and the grubby traders in New York.

It's not our fault! Philadelphia was born to be the nation's suburb! A place to enjoy life, while you make your money somewhere else! From post-Revolutionary times, to our smartphone and cloud-server days, when you really can work from anywhere! We're not inferior, we're fulfilling the destiny that our leading citizen (since Franklin) wisely decreed!

Or did he? The quote is from Wikipedia, the Online Encyclopedia. And it's unsourced. You can also read versions at Webster's Dictionary Online, Answers.com, and Philebrity, to name three  other Web oracles that post versions of the Girard-banishment claim.

But I didn't want mere Web scrawl. I wanted Authority. I called the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at Penn: "Never heard that." I visited the keepers of the copious Stephen Girard letterbook index at the American Philosophical Society, next to Girard's old bank: "Can't find that." Then I called a couple of Girard scholars:

"When I began my work on Girard and Girard College, this story was not there," but "I now see it is prominent" on the Internet - even though it has "no substance in fact," says retired Harvard librarian Ken Carpenter, a Girard College graduate and scholar. Girard owned Philadelphia banks and traded on the Philadelphia exchange, Carpenter pointed out.

"I don't recall running across anything like the quotation," says Prof. Robert E. Wright, who wrote a chapter on Girard, with coauthor David Cowen, for the book Financial Founding Fathers, and chronicled and dissected Philadelphia's financial history for his own book America's First Wall Street (which was Chestnut Street.) "Girard was certainly critical of Philadelphia. But he would have been critical of any place he lived," Wright added. "That is how he rolled."

Girard left vast papers, and no living scholar seems to have read them all, or written a comprehensive modern biography. But "even if he did say something to that effect, he had no power to make it true," Wright told me. "He was not a major political figure," or a party to the North-South political compromise that settled Washington as the nation's capital.

And "even if he had been politically important, how does that justify Philly's recent stagnation?" Wright asked.

"How about this: Horrible schools, a demented political system, outrageous taxes, dangerous levels of crime, and huge areas of urban blight that the city only shifts around, rather than reduces? Not to mention a 'septic' public transportation system, (and) several colleges and universities with reputations based on the success of their basketball teams."

Wright recently relocated to an endowed professorial chair at Augustana College out West, but he's still trying to sell his home in Abington, "if you know anyone interested in a real steal."

About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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