Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Indignant News Flash to Newsweek: Philadelphia Is NOT in Decline

Philadelphia: New (Comcast Center) and Old (City Hall)
(Image ©James R. McGahey, 2012)

If you want to get a true Philadelphian's dander up, publish a (deliberately?) misleading article, chock full of time-worn stereotypes, trumpeting the city's "decline."  Thus one can only surmise how high my blood pressure rose this morning when I read native Californian (should I be surprised?) Daniel Stone's piece, "Is Philadelphia in Decline? New Report Shows a City with Marked Challenges," posted on 6 April in Newsweek's Daily Beast.  I immediately looked online for responses, and found two devastating rebuttals by Patrick Kerkstra in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Wes in his blog, Philly Bricks.  Even more surprising were the detailed, statistically-laced refutations in the Comments section following the article, including one by Larry Eichel of the Pew Charitable Trusts whose report was the supposed foundation for Stone's article.

To paraphrase Samuel Clemens, however, the rumors of Philadelphia's demise are greatly exaggerated.  The facts are these.  The Census Bureau, which had to eat crow in 2010 for precipitantly crowning Pheonix as America's 5th-largest city, has now estimated that the city has added another 10,000+ residents in the past two years.  Unemployment remains high, at 10.5%, but who ever suggests that Los Angeles, with a rate of 13.3%, is on its last legs?  Indeed, the Philadelphia metropolitan area of 6 million people (more than 6.5 million if, as commuter patterns suggest, Berks County is added) had, as of February, a rate of 8.8%, just a shade over the national average of 8.7%, and less than the metro areas of Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Jacksonville, San Jose, New York City, San Diego, Tampa, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas. Residential building permits were up more than 50% in 2011, as anyone who has been to G-Ho, Northern Liberties, or even long-moribund North Central Philly can attest.  Yes, the murder rate is high and has increased marginally over the last two years, but the 2011 numbers remain 20% lower than in 2006, and a staggering 35% lower than in the high water year of 1990.

But, as St. Paul would say, I am only speaking kat' anthrōpon, in terms characteristic of the larger culture in which we live, a culture for whom size, money, and the corresponding power mean more than anything.  Philadelphia, though in many respects a tottering old man among cities, is not in danger of dying any time in the near future.  Nevertheless—and this is the main point—Kerkstra is spot-on when he suggests that "the sum of the city's appeal can't be totaled up by subtracting the homicide rate from an index of property values."  Philadelphia's appeal, to me, lies, as it must, elsewhere.

Growing up in Philly I never realized it, but my almost two decades living in Dallas, extensive travel, and critical viewing of television have impressed upon me a simple observation: Philadelphia is the least "American" of all of America's great cities.  And that's a good thing.  But it's also the thing that lies at the heart of the misunderstanding and hostility directed against it by Americans who hail from elsewhere.  Simply put, if you cling to the dystopian, suburban vision of the American dream, you will not like the City of Brotherly Love.

Years ago my wife and I were invited to a dinner party along with several other "Presbyterian" couples.  In the course of the evening's conversation, I made the offhand comment that I preferred cities that had "gone to seed" a little bit.  The immediate response of the hostess, a genteel product of the Old South, was a priceless look of absolute horror at the thought.  But I am a Philadelphian with an ingrained distaste for the uniform, modernistic sterility of America's "sunbelt" cities.  Philadelphia's dirty?  Of course it is. Name me a great world city (London, Rome) that isn't.  Philadelphia has serious economic challenges?  Of course it does.  It is old, has an aging infrastructure, no cheap land on which to expand, and the heavy industry on which it forged its national prominence more than a century ago has all but vanished due to the dearth of cheap, immigrant labor and the depredations of globalism.  Yet Philadelphia's "robustness" in the face of its contemporary challenges continues to surprise and confound observers such as Razib Khan.

One more thing: the Philadelphia character.  Philadelphians are a notoriously curmudgeonly lot, whose crankiness famously borders on hostility when it comes to their four professional sports franchises.  This no doubt plays into outsiders' perceptions.  But there is another feature of the Philadelphia character that derives from the city's Quaker heritage, namely, a modesty that often manifests itself in self-effacement.  I never noticed this until I moved to Dallas back in 1979.  Growing up in Philly I never thought my hometown was anything special.  Indeed, places like Florida, Texas, and California all seemed so much more glamorous and new.  When, in the early '70s, the city mounted a campaign to boost tourism in the city, I thought to myself, "Why would anyone want to go on holiday to Philadelphia?"  And I dare say I was not alone in my thoughts.  Philadelphians, fed a nightly dose of murders and fires on Action News, were well aware of their city's shortcomings, and neither ignored nor repressed such problems by utilizing sophisticated defense mechanisms.

How different things are elsewhere!  New Yorkers and Angelenos are notorious for their civic egocentrism.  Floridians boast incessantly about their weather, somehow forgetting the well-nigh unlivable, oppressive heat and humidity of their summers.  And nothing compares to Texas, many of whose residents have a breathtaking superiority complex vis-a-vis every other American locale.  Not to take anything away from these places—all of them have many things in which to take pride—but, I dare say, all of them are rife with serious problems as well.  When I lived in Old East Dallas, my family and I had to get used to the sounds of gunfire and the nightly buzz of police helicopters hovering overhead.  Yet, when people think of Dallas, no one thinks of East, South, and West Dallas, preferring to fixate on the über wealth of the city's nouveau riche.  Why, then, I soon asked, do people immediately think of the blight and violence of North Philly and Kensington rather than the Main Line, Chestnut Hill, or Rittenhouse when they think of Philadelphia? 

The answer, I increasingly believe, is found in the power of the mythological American metanarrative—and specifically how the strengths of Philadelphia don't fit the "story" once its opening foundation has been laid.  For, you see, Philadelphia's strengths are no longer to be found in the area of commerce—the exigencies of its geographical and historical situations have seen to that, and is unlikely ever to be reversed—but in culture: specifically education (The University of Pennsylvania and countless others), the arts (The Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Museum of Art, University of Pennsylvania Museum), and a peerless architectural heritage.  It is old. Both it and its citizens don't do glitz well (thank heaven for that!).  When it tries to be "cutting edge" it simply plays against its strengths and manages to look like a cheap imitator of New York.  Indeed, revitalization is as necessary now as ever, but to do so by either ignoring or defacing what is already there would be a betrayal of that heritage.  For Philadelphia's strength can be summarized in a nutshell: you can't find what it has anywhere else.  And that is what, if anything, will ultimately stem any future fatal decline.


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