I love Philadelphia. "Of course," someone might interject, "it's your hometown." Yes, it is, though I haven't lived in the city or its immediate vicinity for close to 35 years. Moreover, anyone assuming such an assumed scenario simply doesn't know a thing about Philadelphia or its idiosyncratic denizens. The City of Brotherly Love, for all its surface similarities to other American cities, is in many respects sui generis among them; and it is in the city's differences from all other American metropolises that I glory. Indeed, what strikes me most about the town are its distinct dualities: history and modernity, dereliction and striking beauty, and, above all, blue collar grit and the highest of elite cultural offerings. Imagine, if you will, "Rocky" juxtaposed with "The Philadelphia Story"—"Philistines" and "Patricians," to use the taxonomy suggested by historian John Lukacs.
In many respects—despite centuries of changing demographics and the transition from industrialization to a deindustrialized service economy—Philadelphia has retained its unique character, derived from its 17th century Quaker origins. Like its founder, William Penn, Philadelphia's primary virtue is its modesty. Ostentation, trendiness, and self-promotion have never sat well with the civic psyche, and when these vices have been indulged, they have not served the city well. Nevertheless, geography—location smack dab in the middle of the New York-Washington corridor—and relative loss of influence to the south and west—despite its continued standing as the fifth largest city in the land, with a metropolitan area population approaching 7 million people—have conspired to cause this native modesty to morph into a self-loathing based in what can only be described as a congenital inferiority complex. Most Philadelphians, it seems, having unwittingly bought into the wider culture's worldview and associated assumptions, are convinced the grass is greener everywhere else (except, perhaps, Detroit). Such thinking, nowhere more in evidence than in white suburbanites' stereotypically uninformed comments on philly.com, validates the city's oft-repeated nickname of "Negadelphia." More insidiously, however, it has led to huge changes in the city's urban fabric over the past 65 or so years, changes which have done nothing to enhance, and much to diminish, its stature as a great world city.
|The Independence Mall Area, circa 1947|
|Independence Mall Today|
|Penn Center in the Early Days of Its Construction,|
with City Hall at Left
|Penn Center and Market West Today: What Were|
They Thinking? (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Philadelphia Skyline as it appeared in 1940
(linen postcard dated 11 May 1941,
from the author's personal collection)
|View of Philadelphia Skyline from Belmont Plateau, October 1984|
(photo by author)
|One Liberty Place, October 2012|
(photo by author)
I don't think it matters if the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building had been put there. Some vital part of the city's soul—one of the last things that made Philadelphia better than other American cities—was forever lost in the reckless decision to allow this skyward development (p. 162).In the three decades since that fateful decision, the march of taller-than-Billy Penn skyscrapers has inexorably marched down the Market Street corridor west of City Hall. These include the good (Bell Atlantic Tower, Mellon Center), the mediocre (Two Liberty Place, the memory stick-shaped Comcast Center), and the just plain ugly (the G. Fred DiBona, Jr. Building). As I write, Comcast is proceeding with their plans to construct the tallest building yet—indeed, the tallest building between New York and Chicago—the 1121' Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, on the very spot I attended college back in the 1970s, 18th and Arch Streets. To be sure, there are many who applaud such developments, seeing such construction as a sign of the city's vitality and imagining it to be a sign the city still matters in the 21st century. I am not one of them. What I see in such developments, and in the inane belief that such monstrosities as One Liberty Place and the Comcast Center are two of the five "Top Buildings or Works of Architecture in Philadelphia," is Philadelphia, or Philadelphians, conforming themselves and their patterns of thought to the mainstream American worldview, like the Israelites of old conforming to the Canaanites they ultimately supplanted in the land.
|Philadelphia Skyline from Boathouse Row, August 2008|
(photo by author)
|Skyline as seen from Benjamin Franklin Parkway, September 2010|
(photo by author)
I am nothing if not opinionated. And so, over the course of dozens of lengthy perambulations around my hometown over the years, I have compiled lists of 50 of the best, ugliest/most unfortunate, and lost/lamented buildings in Philadelphia. Over the next few months I plan on posting these, in the hope that my fellow Philadelphians would learn to appreciate what we have been bequeathed by our forebears, and that my readers from elsewhere would be encouraged to reconsider what they may have thought about the city from afar.