Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Through My Rosy Glasses

Forbes released yet another list and, not surprising, subjectivity landed Philadelphia pretty deep at #15. You know when Philadelphia finds itself behind Phoenix, something's off. 

Still, even if it's just morbid curiosity, these lists are fun to sift through. More often than not they foster a contrarian rant proclaiming why your city deserved a better position. So here's my rant.

This time Forbes ranked the twenty U.S. metropolitan areas with the most new construction. Right off the bat, the article delves into the oil industry's impact on Texas. That's valid. But the survey based is rank order on a city's percentage of spending compared to previous years. That is riddled with confounding variables. Namely, increased spending doesn't equal more development. Cities with a high cost of living have to spend more money on construction. Cities with powerful unions spend exponentially more on development than more development friendly cities. And, in the case of Philadelphia, relaxed union rules have made development potentially more affordable. 

But, as so many of these ridiculous lists do, this survey seems to be more about image than quantifiable substance. So naturally, Philadelphia didn't do so well.

That might not be a bad thing.

We don't need Forbes to tell us we rock.

Do other cities have a better image? Yes. Thanks to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck setting every one of their ******* movies in Boston, our chief historical rival has a better national image than a city with three times the population and much better architecture. Yes, I'm being entirely opinionated about that because I can.

San Francisco, which surprisingly landed just ahead of Philadelphia, definitely earned its image. It's a beautiful city that managed to attract some of the most wildly innovative business markets. But it also has a notoriously narcissistic reputation few cities can rival. San Francisco is great because the Chronicle says so.

It's unfortunate, but San Francisco suffers from a similar reputable woe as Philadelphia. Their smug idealism is our throwing snowballs at Santa: a stereotype that exists in a fairy tale based on a select few, but far from wholly true. 

But that's what all major cities deal with and why these lists are complete and utter bull****. Unless you're talking about Farmville, VA, you can't even try to pigeon hole any city as successful, fit, sick, or young. There are simply too many people. 

However there are some things that empirically set Philadelphia apart from our more "successful" counterparts, if Forbes is to be believed. Our undoing is our saving grace. You have to ignore what you think of a city, what's being built, and how affluent its residents are. You have to solely think of a city's potential. And that's one area in which Philadelphia not only thrives, it's an area we are seriously tapping into.

High priced cities like San Francisco have nowhere to grow but vertically. Cities like D.C. have nowhere to grow but out. The populations of Forbes' "better" cities are growing, and in turn, so is the cost of living.

But Philadelphia is an anomaly. As opposed to cities like Detroit or St. Louis, we have a relatively stable business market. But we also share a built environment the size of Baltimore waiting to be redeveloped. We have land, abandoned apartment buildings, and shelled row house waiting to be revitalized and redeveloped for at least another fifty years. That will help us attract refugees out priced from New York, D.C., and other pricy cities as new development improves our image, both of which can attract new business. 

When you consider that, a city's image isn't relevant to anyone who's looking at a city's potential. In fact, a "good" image like San Francisco or New York might even signal that a city's being maxed out. When the nearest affordable apartment is in Queens, that's a very long train ride to ponder the better quality of life you could have in Philadelphia. There will come a time when retail employees, waiters, and artists can no longer afford cities known for shopping, restaurants, and art. Then what? When that day comes, Philadelphia is already the next best thing. It might even be the better thing.

1 comment:

  1. I have to disagree with you about the "throwing snowbals" aspect being only a select few. That aspect will always be present in the non-Center City, non-gentrified neighborhoods of Philadelphia. This is a city of fighters, going back all the way to the time when many of our ancestors were poor immigrants working under conditions most of us can't imagine. This is the city where they ripped up rails out of the street when a railroad company had one of their labor heroes killed. This is a city that turned very nice stadiums in their day into hell for opposing teams just by the toughness and mercilessness of fans. This is a city that has produced some of the best fighters and where that not very friendly type of vibrancy has existed in parts of the city going back almost to its founding. Places like Kensington, South Philly, and even Southwest Philly have a reputation for a reason, going all the way back to colonial days.

    That's what makes Rocky so special to an extent. It's the story of a working man, overlooked by the rest of the world and down on his luck, who not only takes the city by storm but eventually the whole boxing world. To top it off, he runs up the steps of probably the biggest symbol of the city's "old money", sophisticated world in a way that can't be done anywhere else. That's the same with the Mummers and all of the other unique Philadelphia things. What makes Philadelphia great to me is that it is the only city in this country that is not generic and never has been. San Francisco can pretend they have "counter culture" on lock but that's a joke. New York was the center of diversity and culture and of melting pots but that's only because of the conditions that made that possible. Philadelphia on the other hand has from its very founding been unique. There's good and bad to that. No matter how much the city (especially Center City) cleans itself up though, there will always be that "F*ck you, nobody disrespects us or tells us what to do!" aspect of the city, and to me that's a great thing.

    If you haven't yet, you should watch "In Penn's Shadow" in the "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment" series. It really shows the roots of where this comes from in the fact that Penn's experiment of personal freedom eventually attracted everybody who wasn't accepted by mainstream Europe. Like they mention in the episode, the city is always struggling with its multiple identities, specifically the ideals of Penn and the original standards for Philadelphia and the whole state, and the global conditions that create aspects like the lawlessness and the outcasts and the corruption and power dynamics that come from all of that. San Francisco can pretend they're great all they want, along with every other US city. No city is at its heart as great as Philadelphia though, and if people don't get that then F em.