Friday, January 8, 2010

"This Town Needs an Enema!"

It has happened a dozen times before, an economic or social opportunity presents itself to allow Philadelphia to enjoy a successful renaissance, only to be killed by our own stubborn pride. It's why smaller cities like Portland, Atlanta, and Charlotte attract business and residents and we don't. Old cities have baggage. Descendants of the transplants that preached progress and innovation when these post-industrial cities were the Portland or Seattle of the 19th century keep their cranky, entitled voice looming over us, holding back progress and keeping competition out of the city. Combine this corrupt Boys Club with a neglected and largely impoverished voting base who continuously elect unqualified friends to influential positions and you've got the recipe for every Industrial Fallout Zone in the U.S. Cleveadelphannatitroitamore.

With all due respect to the natives of any one of these cities, I can't imagine why anyone would choose to live - or stay - in any major city if they were content with business as usual. The whole premise of the American City is in the excitement of progress, competition, commerce, change, and innovation. We should walk out our door everyday and say, "Wow, I wonder what that new building is" or "I wonder what they're opening up there." If that's not your thing, there are several hundred Pennsylvania towns frozen in time.

Certainly these new cities like Portland and Charlotte are far from utopias and they will someday too have their day in the dark, but as they essentially play the roles of the Philadelphias and the Clevelands of the 21st century, they don't harbor a large population of old timers who reject all change. A few residents may remember the "good ol' days" when places like Seattle were simple logging towns, but those voices are exponentially outweighed by the new blood that has turned those places into corporate work horses. Urban newbies - NIMBY or not - might be idealistic, but they're not clinging to anything that simply doesn't exist anymore. Whether the NIMBYs' opinions are right or wrong, they are not typically opposed to change.

Our problem is that Philadelphia and other massive post-industrial towns are too big for our own good. NIMBYs are in all cities, but they are a problem here because a broken system brought on by years of public neglect gives them an unbalanced voice. Of the country's large, old industry towns, only New York and (barely) Chicago have managed to attract a broad enough demographic to have either diluted or reversed this damage, and even in their cases much of that reversal is an illusion. It might be simplistic to say, but we need new blood throughout the city or we're going to continue to progress like a derailed train.

It is hard to bureaucratically compare old industrial towns like Philadelphia and Detroit to hip new techno-towns like Portland and Seattle. These perceived urban revolutionaries are chock full of idealistic douche bags that hail from wealthy suburban families, enabling them the luxury of affording the excessive cost of such idealism. Even if you swing left, it's hard to take West Coast liberals seriously if you ride SEPTA everyday. However, not all of their successes should be wasted on other cities, including ours. It's true, most cities are too dynamic to simply say, "implement the Portland model", but some of their practices are worth looking into. Portland has a successful public transportation system in a city designed for the car and they moved an entire, major interstate across a river. These are huge accomplishments.

Yet with over 300 years of experience behind Philadelphia, setting up a cafe or public restroom on the Parkway is seen as a major feat, and modernizing public spaces smaller than most Oregonians' back yards is a completely unheard of endeavor requiring millions of dollars, costly and time consuming union bids, City Council kick-backs, neighborhood arguments, community meetings let by unqualified residents with no understanding of urban planning, ultimately resulting in a multi-million dollar hole in the ground.

Certainly all cities can be picked apart, their accomplishments and faults analyzed, and they are what they are for whatever reason. No two will ever be alike, and attempting to do so inevitably leads to the Disneyfication of neighborhoods. But Philadelphia's reluctance to join the 21st century, hell, the TWENTIETH century, has left us with the an unnerving choice, to either follow the success of older cities such as Boston or San Francisco and compete nationally, or to continue to decline until we're an asphalt prairie of surface parking lots like Detroit.

To quote the Joker (again), "This town needs an enema!"

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