Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why Philly Could Never Be the Next Detroit

I read John Featherman's article for the same reason most people did: it had a catchy headline. But his insight seemed to be a lot of speculation. will run anything that gets the comments going, and saying Philadelphia could be the next Detroit did just that. It doesn't matter that it's based on very little.

He fabricates the notion that pundits are abuzz with speculation about Philadelphia's impending doom, as if this is the top story on CNN, then cites an obscure story in a weekly Republican paper.

At one point in the article I had to ask myself if Featherman had been to Detroit, either now at its worst or thirty years ago when it was pretty bad, or if he figured he could just blindly pass off this article and get people talking.

It's funny, whenever journals are looking for something to fill their HTML they rank of a bunch of cities, or publish an article like this. You'll get one camp screaming how great their city is, and another camp crying that we're about to wind up under the Thunderdome. Either way you get everyone talking about it, because we all fall for it, myself included.

Here's why John Featherman is wrong (despite the fact that he likely knows he's wrong):

First of all, Philadelphia has had a tourism industry that has thrived in one way or another for two centuries. Sure, we've had slumps, but those slumps were shared with national downtimes. We didn't see the tourist draw we see today back in the Sleazy Seventies, but neither did DC or Boston.

Detroit never saw this. I'm sure there are some tourist attractions, and there were probably more in the past, but never any that came close to rivaling Philadelphia's.

Second of all, Detroit's geographic location is unappealing and without shifting the poles of the earth, that won't change. Philadelphia's an hour from some of the most popular beaches in the country, Detroit is on a cold lake.

Philadelphia's close to DC and even closer to NYC. Detroit is somewhat close to Chicago, but their relationship doesn't trade weekend getaways the way Philadelphia does by sharing a coast with so many major American cities.

Neither of these facts are entirely reliant on our local politics. Sure, a swimmingly run City Council might attract more tourists and weekenders, but most come here knowing nothing about the city, particularly the intricacies of our tax burdens, weird liquor laws, and massive amounts of vacant properties. And most don't care.

Also, Philadelphia's aging infrastructure is part of its advantage. It's an old city, therefore central and dense. Center City has never died even in our darkest days. We weren't built around the car, so our city is compact, even many of our suburbs.

When a street or neighborhood looses a house, even in Center City, it's less noticeable than a dilapidated mansion in sprawling Brush Park. That's not to say blight doesn't hurt our cityscape, it's a real problem in Philadelphia, but it isn't as noticeable to visitors and potential property owners as it is in newer cities dotted with vacant strip malls and suburban ghost towns.

Plus, and this shouldn't even be mentioned on an architecture blog, most people are willing to put more money into a run down townhouse designed by Frank Furness than an 80's era split level.

Finally, and here's where I'll profess my true bias: Philadelphia is just better than Detroit, it always has been and always will be.

Philadelphia is America's London, our major city that laid down the political, business, and social structure of what America would become. It was, is, and always will be a microcosm of American life.

It's what kept us from collapsing like Detroit or exploding like Portland. We've never been identified with a specific industry like DC, Los Angeles, or Detroit.

This has helped us and hindered us at the same time, but more importantly it's kept us relevant. While Hollywood and the internet turned Los Angeles and Seattle into boom towns, they've all experienced the aftershocks of having nothing to fall back on.

While we've never really been a boom town, save 1776, we've never experienced a complete absence of industry like Detroit.

The economy will always wax and wane, and we might be headed down, maybe, but at worst we'll experience the 70's all over again.

But we will never be Detroit.


1 comment:

  1. "Impending" doom? What part of rampant poverty, corruption and school closures have you missed?

    Of course this is all burying the lead - the USA is the next Honduras.