New idea: Making sure the nation’s 250th birthday party actually benefits Philadelphia

There’s a revamped name and vision for the semiquincentennial celebration.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

When the United States turns 250 years old, all eyes will be on Philadelphia. That’s what a group of Philly leaders and officials have been working toward for the past decade, anyway, under the banner USA250.

As of today, the organization is presenting a new vision for the semiquincentennial — say it five times fast — with a new name to match.

The nonprofit will henceforth be known as Philadelphia250, and in addition to big, flashy happenings like the MLB All-Star Game and FIFA World Cup, it’ll work to infuse the entire city with events that highlight the uniqueness and resilience of our neighborhoods.

“We wanted to be clear that our geographic focus and our mission is Philadelphia,” new executive director Danielle DiLeo Kim told Billy Penn. “The name needed to reflect that.”

The first endeavor, DiLeo Kim said, is robust community engagement.

Efforts to organize communities around the city will start in 2021, giving people, businesses and neighborhood associations five years to launch cool projects that get people to care about the United States turning a quarter-millennium years old.

Avoiding the debacle of 1976

One of the major goals for the 2026 bash is to make it totally different than the Philadelphia Bicentennial celebration, largely considered a flop by those who lived through it.

Quick recap: First, the city failed to get its desired federal funding for the party. Then, a month before America’s 200th birthday in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo told everyone to watch out for “radicals” and “leftists” who were going to protest the event. He requested 15,000 federal troops to protect the city, which the feds politely declined to provide.

So the expected crowd of 70,000 people got spooked — and roughly half stayed home. Even the marching bands hired to play the event just didn’t come.

There were complaints that the slate of ’76 events weren’t inclusive of Philly’s large African American population. Also, several of the projects built for the bicentennial ended up being boondoggles instead of cultural institutions that added to the city’s landscape, and were shut down or replaced within a few years of the event.

DiLeo Kim wants Philadelphia250 to go in the opposite direction.

‘Revolutionary spirit’ to inspire art and social change

The theme for 2026 is to channel the Declaration of Independence to infuse a “revolutionary spirit” into things around town. Organizers said they’ll start by canvassing businesses, organizations and residents to partners for setting up “activation hubs.”

There will be three kinds:

  • Activations: places where people can discuss the themes of the document
  • Creative expressions: places to create and practice art around the themes
  • Impact projects: social initiatives for change related to the theme

No sites have been officially chosen yet, but DiLeo Kim is hoping to find museums, rec centers and libraries that would be willing. She’s specifically interested in neighborhoods like Germantown, East Parkside and the Delaware River waterfront.

“We’re working on a model right now that looks at the entire city and region as having programming,” DiLeo Kim said. “We’ll spend the next year helping to clarify these activation hubs with key stakeholders.”

There’s more: With a background in architecture, DiLeo Kim also wants to partner with under-construction sites that are set to be complete in the next six years — turning them into activation hubs so Philly can showcase its new stuff.

She’s thinking, for example, FDR Park, which is now undergoing major renovations.

“We’re approaching this with a much more bottom-up approach,” DiLeo Kim said. “A collective sourcing of ideas to create a community supported vision.”

Stay tuned for more as Philadelphia250 ramps up.

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