Tourist season is upon us in Philadelphia. You can barely get a seat in my favorite place to write: the cafeteria tables at the back of the Independence Hall Visitor Center. (I find the terrifying rictus of the fiberglass Rocky statue inspiring.) But it struck me as I elbowed my way through the crowds of tourists the other day, children snoozing on the storytellers’ bench, parents eagerly waiting for the next tour guide to arrive: What’s it like for those guides to tell the story of the birthplace of America when it feels like we’re living in the final throes of this grand experiment?
I kid. Mostly. But we have been talking for a year now — amid the immigration debate and the Mueller investigation and the Parkland shooting — about what our founding fathers would have wanted for us. About the state of the democratic institutions founded right here in our little neighborhood. I wondered how that translates to the world of tour guides — and to the out-of-towners who spend the summer sweatily plodding around our great city. (We love you guys. Stay. Try a hoagie and see how many vowels you can fit into the word.)
So, as I do every time I think about Philadelphia’s past, I called my buddy Bob Skiba, who trained me to be a tour guide and is a mentor and sage to hundreds like me.
Skiba, the curator at the William Way LGBT Community Center, has been charged over the last few years with whipping our tour guides into a nationally respected squad of crack historians. To him, troubled times offer an opportunity to foster dialogue. While the tours are nonpartisan, his narratives have changed — and so has his whole interpretation of Independence National Park. This year he’s even adding a new section to the tour guide handbook: how to speak to people in such a fractured world.
“For me, it’s about encouraging groups to see the connection with what they see in the park and what they see in the current situations,” he said.
It’s a tightrope, he conceded, but outside the Liberty Bell, he tells his tours about the importance of compromise. At the President’s House, he talks of how George Washington worried that two political parties would spell the demise of the country, even though we all want the same thing at heart: a home, a meal, an unbothered life. Even if we have such different ideas about how to get there.
And though other tour guides say they notice eye rolls among liberal groups and chest puffing among the MAGA types when they bring up our current president, it’s something else that strikes Skiba. After the Parkland shootings and the debate that has followed, he sees anxiety in the eyes of children on Independence Mall. They pass through the security gates and worry they haven’t been checked enough.
While Skiba has tried to take a measured tack, Ed Mauger, who serves as president of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, is taking a slightly more … apocalyptic approach to today’s political climate. In keeping with Philly’s tendency to take to the streets at the drop of a tricorn hat, he recently published a piece in the National Standard, the place to go for guiding news, called “Can Tour Guides Save the World?”
Philly’s got some dogs in this fight. Consider the neighborhood, Mauger tells his groups. Philly guides lead people around an eight-block radius where Benjamin Franklin laid the foundations for an informed citizenry, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed its ideals, and Washington and John Adams proved it could actually work.
These are weird times for tour guides.
“It’s an extraordinarily rich and disturbing irony that the person doing the most damage to our democracy is the president,” Mauger said. In an effort to inform the citizenry like Franklin before him, he’s working to save the world one pointed historical tidbit at a time. He notes that Philadelphia pioneered affordable health care at Pennsylvania Hospital on Eighth Street. That the city accepted boatloads of French Catholic immigrants at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was high and no other colony would take them. (First, we made them wait on a boat, then an island for a few months. “We didn’t do it with all that grace, but we did it, reluctantly,” Mauger said. That should be the city motto.) And listen to him talk about Ben Franklin founding the city’s first library.
“Leather apron workers, shopkeepers, are now walking around talking about important issues which would lead to them demanding freedom for themselves,” he said. “What does Trump say? ‘I’ll be your voice.’ That is how he sees populism. Franklin was saying, ‘I’ll empower you so you have your own voice.’ That’s real populism.”
Tour guides can’t save the world, Mauger concedes. But they do their part. Here, especially, in a time when dialogue is so broken, they can try to get people talking again.