Friday, May 13, 2016

Is Philadelphia Better Than It Was?

Whenever one of my fellow Philly-philes posts an article on Facebook about a new building, business, or emerging neighborhood, I get a little giddy - and indulge in a bit of pride - that my adoptive city is finally getting the recognition it deserves. 

Those in my former city to the south are eating crow as they claim to forget the snide comments they made when I relocated here in 2003. But the thing is, I didn't move to Philadelphia thirteen years ago for an investment, at least not in the financial sense. I moved to Philadelphia because it's the city I truly love, and have loved since I first saw it in 1982. And as anyone who saw Philadelphia under Rizzo, Green, or Goode can attest, to love Philadelphia in its darkest days is to love it like family, to love it at its worst.

Today that pride is waning. Sure, I'm proud of our humbling skyline, top-notch restaurants, and award-winning architecture. I'm proud of Mayors Nutter and Kenney who have and continue to set the nation's bar for LGBT equality. And I'm proud that this once forgotten city tucked between the country's political and financial capitals has finally found a place amongst the world's greatest travel destinations.

But in today's urban renaissance, it seems impossible to balance what made our cities great with what's making them appear greater. The rally cry of amateur real estate moguls, "this city's about to pop," sums up the callous notion that cities aren't homes, but investments. 

Ten years ago, MySpace posts would rave about Philadelphia's unexpectedly amazing restaurants. Friends from New York or D.C. would nod, but pay little attention. Philadelphia was still Philadelphia, and at the time, the country's best kept urban secret.

Now that we've "popped," the posts and raves read like those of any other city: food trucks, bikes lanes, beer gardens, beer gardens, and more beer gardens. These are tokens of a great city, but they are tokens nonetheless. They aren't defining anything uniquely Philadelphian like the restaurant scene Steven Starr fostered more than a decade ago, but they're defining a city just like any other. 

That homogeneity is unfortunate for a city as diverse as our's, but it also explains the nation's interest in the city. Like conventioneers looking for Applebee's or Fuddruckers, those new to Philadelphia are seeking familiarity, and they're finally finding it - or creating it - in gourmet french fry joints and free yoga.

Does any of that make us better than we were? I can get a beer on every corner, but I can't find a local coffee shop open after 9PM anymore. We're not necessarily becoming a better city, we're becoming a boutique city, the very idea that transformed every gritty American city into a bubble for wealthy consultants. Once upon a time new residents moved to cities to become part of an existing, Seinfeldian experience. But now every inch of a city has to be terraformed right down to our alleys and viaducts at the behest of one very specific kind of person. The investor. 

Rather than engaging in the character that's left, they are blind to what is right with a place, or was right with a place, and fixate on perceived problems that need to be solved. Instead of becoming part of the city, they regard longtime neighbors as townies, mingle solely amongst themselves, and wait for the day when their neighborhoods are flooded with the suburban trappings they begrudgingly think they need.

Moving to a city no longer comes with the caveat that you'll buy tools at 10th Street Hardware and forage Reading Terminal Market for produce, not when we're about to get blitzed with three Targets. The unique venues, diversity, and locally owned businesses that allowed Philadelphia to survive the bleak days of suburban flight are being transformed into tourist attractions, tokens in their own right instead of the assets that they are.

Old habits die hard, and those who flocked to the suburbs in the mid-20th Century are returning en masse, and they're bringing their ilk with them. Many want the idea of a city, one they can watch like a Netflixed rerun of Friends from their table at Green Eggs Cafe, without engaging in the diversity that gave the sitcom its robust setting. 

I'd be the first to tell you that cities are constantly evolving, and if you expect one to stand still, you're not going to enjoy it. All cities are constant construction zones - literally and figuratively. Despite the best efforts of Brooklyn refugees, Millennials, and retirees driving change towards a perceived completion date, the project will never be done. 

The Great American City hasn't seen this kind of resurgence since the Industrial Revolution and the Roaring Twenties, eras fraught with similar divisiveness that's been lost to glossy photographs of Gilded Age mansions. But the transformation is divisive. Real estate developers like to claim that business isn't personal, because it isn't personal to them. But it is personal to everyone else.

Today's Philadelphia is just another crescent in the ever rolling coaster of its prowess. As cities like San Francisco and New York are - or should be - starting to learn, the peaks are unsustainable. Bike lanes will fade, beer gardens will close, and cities will return to their most pragmatic purposes.

Philadelphia survived the grimmest hours of American history, so I'm optimistic our identity can survive brunch. So are we better today than we were ten or twenty years ago? Is Philadelphia better than it was when I first saw it in 1982? My answer, is "No." But only because those of us who truly love Philadelphia know we didn't need to be. We love it like that crazy cousin you laugh at, complain about, and whose life we're obligated to be a part of because down deep we know she has a heart that pumps our own blood, and because - despite all her flaws - she's the most interesting person we know. 

We were always better than so many other cities for more reasons than not. And if we deserve recognition for anything, it's our perseverance, our inherent uniqueness, and not the complements that make us "as good as" any other city. That's my Philadelphia, and I'll still be here when the roller coaster starts to fall. That's the most exciting part.

No comments:

Post a Comment