Off the Cuff: October 2017

I’m going to go out on a limb to make a claim: No one cares more about the fate of Philadelphia than I do. I came here in 1952, fresh out of Lafayette College, to work at this magazine. To say that we’ve gone through better than half a century of hard times — well, the story isn’t quite that simple, or dark, but it’s one we all know. Philadelphia has been in trouble for a long time. And when I picked up the Inquirer one Saturday a few weeks ago, two stories on the front page captured the dilemma we face perfectly — and, frankly, made me feel a little sick.

One story, headlined “Would Amazon choose Philly?,” revealed that the Seattle-based tech giant is seeking a second headquarters somewhere in North America. The second story was wrenching: “Block’s leader shot dead,” about the murder of a Spring Garden community activist who refused to give his car to two robbers — his two-year-old daughter was sitting in the backseat. So they shot him in the face in front of his little girl. The irony of those two stories, juxtaposed as they were, couldn’t have been worse: the possibility of a big company picking Philadelphia, with 50,000 new jobs in the offing, with national exposure of our comeback — but there it was, our reality. What the city is really like.

It’s not just the 210 murders to date this year (and counting). It’s our utter unwillingness to look at a whole raft of serious problems directly: Our schools are terrible; the city is filthy; our government is corrupt; City Council and the Mayor are inept; our business environment is completely unfriendly; our inner city is woefully impoverished. Do any of these points tell you something you don’t already know? Of course not.

Then why aren’t we doing something about the problems? Why don’t we recognize that the city is in crisis instead of pretending that it’s on the upswing — that we’re on the brink of great things about to happen?

Amazon is looking to invest $5 billion wherever it parks its second headquarters, and the company is openly soliciting cities with a sort of challenge: What have you got? (Read: What tax perks and other financial goodies are you offering?) Amazon is looking for a stable business environment, land close to an international airport, major highways and public transit that function well. Not to mention a large pool of tech workers. I don’t see us passing the test on any of that.

Part of the horror of the murder of Gerard Grandzol, 38 years old, was how invested he was in his neighborhood. He pushed City Council for services in Spring Garden, manned the grill at block parties, repaired bikes for kids on Melon Street. He was killed when he got home after playing Frisbee with his daughter. Senseless violence might be our most dramatic problem, yet we need to understand that it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what ails us. Instead, we act as if the city has really turned a corner. I’m afraid that Philadelphians have mastered the art of self-delusion.

That’s what drives me nuts: I would love Amazon to pick Philadelphia as its second North American headquarters. I would champion all those new jobs and what they say about my city. But I don’t believe it will happen, and the reason it won’t was right there on the front page of the Inquirer a few Saturdays ago.

Published as “Off the Cuff” in the October 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.