Monday, January 11, 2010

Surviving Sex and the City

It's a relatively new philosophy, the idea that a successful urban core must be a meticulously maintained playground for the rich and trendy. I blame Sex and the City. I don't think most people who live in big cities necessarily share this attitude, but many of the vocal ones blogging from their Macs at Starbucks sure do. The condo craze transplanted so many urban newbies from homogenized suburbs, as well as the most recent generation just now entering the work force who are cultural products of the Roaring 90's, it makes complete sense that these two archetypes cringe at the thought of returning to the days of Woolworth and a society at harmony with economic diversity.

The Sex and the City phenomena isn't necessarily good or bad. It renewed an interest in our cities and brought life to the streets, restaurants, and boutiques. It saved priceless architecture, expanded neighborhoods, and renewed downtown living as a valid option. This was particularly beneficial to the larger cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, who although they lost considerable population during this nation's urban dark ages they were able to maintain a viable population at the urban heart unlike places like Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

What hurt Baltimore and Pittsburgh's downtowns is the disconnect between residential areas and their downtowns. Ed Bacon, at the opposite end of the Sex and the City philosophy, is often credited with saving Philadelphia's urban population. While he may have dictated all of Philadelphia's mid-century development, he viewed the city as a massive office park. Bacon was a product of his time. Like the vision employed in every other mid-century city, Bacon wanted to chop up Center City into urban islands, focusing on office development and freeways to get commuters in and out. Philadelphia maintained a residential core for the same reason New York and Chicago did. Bacon's vision didn't save Philadelphia's downtown population, but like New York and Chicago we had enough people to survive his vision.

Unfortunately his philosophy left us with suburban amenities far outweighing those of the city. Urban retail in Philadelphia is impractical. It is all or nothing. You can have your dog dyed pink or find a dollar store, but you can't walk to a decent grocery store. While many urban newbies want to make Center City the Delaware Valley's go-to shopping destination, maintaining it as Philadelphia's primary shopping destination is far more important. The suburbs are more than welcome to service the suburbs, but they should not be serving as Philadelphia's primary shopping resource.

While Philadelphia may be responsible as our region's cultural center, accepting this responsibility comes with more than 50 years of economic decline, corruption, and poverty. A city can't just accommodate the wealthy or you wind up with the fallout San Francisco, DC, and Boston are currently experiencing from attempting to maintain the illusion of extremely high standards. We do have a responsibility as the region's cultural representative to set extremely high cultural standards but that is not synonymous with high end shopping. To truly embrace these high cultural standards, a culture must acknowledge and accommodate all of its demographics. Sadly cultures that preach tolerance from a soap box are often the same cultures that sweep their economic diversity under the rug...or ship it to Oakland.

Realistically, retail on Chestnut Street and Market East mirror a large part of Philadelphia's population and thus generate a large chunk of tax revenue. Walnut Street represents the idealistic philosophy that has left other major cities in the red as it is afforded by a much smaller part of Philadelphia's population. Both have their place and balance is vital.

The idea that a city should be on the high end of everything is completely at odds with what the American city is and has always been. The worn storefronts on Chestnut Street and Market East serve as Philadelphia's downtown staples because the Sex and the City set has convinced us that they should be Starr restaurants or nothing, leaving us in the middle to drive to the suburbs for paper towels because this small population of vocal snobs thinks Center City is too good for a Target. A city can't sustain itself on luxuries and the upper-middle class. To succeed we need to accommodate, and tolerate, everyone.

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