Philadelphia's a hard sell. It doesn't seem to matter how far we go - never mind how far we've come - many in the mainstream press still seem determined to watch Philadelphia fail. We might be on the verge of curing AIDS and cancer, but we can't seem to shake our reputation as a "second-rate stopover" town. Those aren't my words, but the words of Washington Post journalist Frances Stead Sellers in a harshly penned article about Philadelphia's upcoming preparations - or lack thereof - for our Papal Visit.
Criticism is deserved, and no media has been more critical on the subject than our own journalists right here in Philadelphia. Local articles wax and wane between maniacal assurances that the event will be "incredible" to borderline panic, while regional memes employ pterodactyls and swamp monsters to protect the Pontiff. The local media has done everything it can to give us the words we want to read - along with some much needed comic relief. But with information lacking in sensical substance and often contradictory, we're still left wondering if the city outside the #popefence might wind up looking like the Zombie Zone we keep joking about.
But Sellers' article didn't focus on the problems our local media has been discussing, and barely treaded into the reality of the event's sheer size, as if a swell of more than 1.5 million pilgrims was just an average boat show.
Instead, she condescendingly stated that Washington and New York will host Pope Francis "in stride" ignoring that neither city will be hosting a public Mass. In terms of His Holiness's visit to the United States, D.C. and New York are the second-rate stopovers.
To be fair, Sellers - despite a few choice words - seemed to attempt diplomacy. She also fired off a small journalism war between our two cities. Holly Otterbein of Philadelphia Magazine accused the Post of trolling Philadelphia. David Warner used the City Paper to remind Washington that it's built atop a swamp, and in the casual nature of his paper, that our dick is bigger.
Neither did much to counter Sellers' claim (a claim that would have been taken in stride had she not gut-punched us with that "second-rate stopover" thing) and Washington's counter commentary was just as classless.
Benjamin Freed of Washingtonian unearthed an aptly Philadelphian "pugilistic" from his thesaurus and fired back at Philadelphia, referring to the Constitutional Convention as a "small political" gathering and the assertion that every Papal pilgrim will be coming from New Jersey, then delving into the tired fallacy that Philly has a Rocky fueled inferiority complex.
Warner's City Paper commentary is a rant if I've ever read one, but he was one of the few journalists to point out that the vast majority of Philadelphia's preparation headaches have been caused by the U.S. Secret Service, the authoritarian overlords from Sellers' and Freed's Washington, D.C.
Despite the smug nature of Freed's Washingtonian article, he quotes Sellers as a Philly fan. Rising above the words of Freed, this former Powelton Village and Italian Market resident had gushing words for Philadelphia's "rowhouses, restaurants, and theaters" and goes on to refer to Washington as a "government town" with "large parts of which close down on the weekends."
Although Freed ignores - or perhaps is simply oblivious to - Seller's thinly veiled categorization of Washington as an industry town with a dead downtown, Sellers seems to get Philadelphia and ultimately ends up on top of the bitter exchange of words she obviously never meant to start, likely wishing she'd reserved a bit of print to point out her local roots and affinity for Philadelphia.
As for Otterbein and Warner, well, Philadelphia's renaissance is something none of us are accustomed to, here or elsewhere. Yes, Philadelphians are a bit combative. We're no longer a "second-rate stopover" but we aren't completely removed from our bleak history. Those words strike a nerve in any seasoned Philadelphian and that should be expected.
Philadelphia has received an enormous amount of praise lately, but the praise is new, and new things are fragile. Philadelphia is a very real city with very real people, people who've been here a long time and know how much hinges on - or stands to be lost at - the hands of this renewed global interest in all things Philadelphia.
However unfounded, editorialized, or just plain made-up: media matters, and flip words from jazz-handed journalists - journalists in industry towns that reinvent themselves at the end of each national election, or powerhouses that continue to reach further into the belly of the 1% - have profound implications for cities that have to autonomously foster our identities.
We aren't a government town, and we're not going to handle the Papal Visit like a State Dinner, a Presidential Inauguration, or Ryan Seacrest's New Years' Rockin' Eve. We're going to handle it like the very real, diverse, and economically integrated city that we are.
On September 28th Pope Francis will leave. CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews, and every major newspaper in the United States will be spinning a few isolated incidents into a frenzied disaster, incidents that any reasonable person would expect amongst a crowd of 1.5 million people. Freed will feel vindicated and can go on justifying his bloated Beltway mortgage, the Otterbeins and Warners will retort, and a week later, the media will move on to the next story when they realize that the only people with a vested interest in Philadelphia's nonexistent failures are journalists with nothing better to talk about.
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