Exploring Philly history…real fast

Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Jim Murphy understands that people want their facts quick.

So when the South Philly author sat down to write a history book, he figured he’d cut to the chase for the busy reader to enjoy.

It’s called “Real Philly History, Real Fast” and it’s just what it says.

“I didn’t start it as a book, I started it as articles for the Society Hill Reporter,” Murphy said. “I only had a small amount of space. My idea was to tell as much as I can in as short of a space that I can. It seemed to resonate with people so I kept doing it. It’s an easy way for people to understand Philadelphia.”

It came as a way for Murphy himself to familiarize himself with the city. Murphy lived in surrounding areas of the city for most of his life, but moved into the city near South Street a little over decade ago. He would see historic markers everywhere in the city and start researching the importance of each person or place.

“I felt like a detective looking at street signs,” Murphy said. “Then I see something I didn’t know a lot about and I would start to dig and dig and dig. In a way I felt kind of stupid because in the book, I write about a lot of people that I didn’t have any knowledge about, but they were real heroes. I was covering subjects that most places never covered and I was doing them in a different way.”

Real Philly History, Real Fast explores 51 people and historic places in Philadelphia. During several segments, it dives into South Philly. Magic Gardens, the Italian Market and Sparks Shot Tower are just some of the fascinating entries with South Philly Flavor. Immigration Station, Grand Battery and Gloria Dei Church are also among the must-reads. There is also a chapter on the Mason-Dixon Line and why the survey started on South Street.

“I think it gives people a greater appreciation of all the things we have here,” Murphy said. “I didn’t know half of it and I only touched on 51. There are more than 300 historical signs. There is so much in Philly. To me, this gives people a pretty good amount of information to say this city is pretty cool.”

Just because the entries are short doesn’t mean they take less time. Murphy estimates each entry took about 25-35 hours per story. It took Murphy more than 10 years to complete the book.

“Writing short is a lot harder than writing long,” Murphy said. “I’d end up with two to three times as much material than I would need and I would have to start killing my babies, cutting stuff out, by prioritizing stuff and it was hard to do sometimes. But it makes for an easier read.”

Each entry is about three or four pages and includes interesting oddities, fast facts and a photo.

The 237-page paperback book was published by Temple University Press and can be found on Amazon or on the shelves at local bookstores. Copies have been selling fast, keeping up with the book’s theme.

“The guy who went on before (Abraham) Lincoln at the Gettysburg Address spoke for two hours when Lincoln spoke for two minutes,” Murphy said. “And yet his two minutes were more powerful. It just took him a long time to hone his message down.”