It was stifling in a way Gen Xers can’t possibly imagine; even the TV was black and white. Grown-ups were automatons, marching in circles: work home work home work home work home church work home work home, with two weeks in summer at the Shore. We weren’t sure what we wanted, but we knew it wasn’t that. So we fought with them, all the time, over everything: hair, jeans, war, God, pot, Nixon, rock-and-roll. We were dreamers. We thought big. We believed in a new age, the Age of Aquarius. “Imagine,” John Lennon exhorted us, and we did.
We were fighting more against than for, but as it turned out, Vietnam was bad; Nixon was a crook; how long our hair was didn’t matter. Numbers and righteousness were a dangerous combination, but we made it work for us. We were the Niagara Falls of generations, unstoppable, plunging ever onward, tumbling over ourselves in bubbling, churning enthusiasm. My younger coworkers would snigger at the idea of Harmonic Convergence, those three days in August 1987 when we hoped a new planetary alignment might change the Earth’s karma and, as Shirley MacLaine put it, open “a window of light.” (Shirley MacLaine!) But we honestly believed we were part of something big, something important and good.
Gen Xers don’t know what Philadelphia was like then. They don’t remember those other three days in August, in 1964, when rumors that cops had killed a pregnant black woman set the city on fire. They never saw downtown before we began to rebuild it, rescue its 19th-century ruins, rehab its vacant rowhomes and repopulate the empty streets. NoLibs? Fishtown? Hell, Center City was scary then, strewn with litter, pockmarked with peep shows, hookers strolling what are now the best addresses in town. You had to be brave to live at 17th and Delancey. We got robbed. We got mugged. We stuck it out.
We couldn’t stop voting for Ed Rendell, for anything; he was us, an optimistic bear determined to remake the city by sheer force of will. The Gallery was a bold urban experiment. South Street was where all the hippies met, not a chain store in sight. We ate at Little Pete’s and Day’s Deli, or we ventured to Chinatown. Penn wasn’t on anyone’s “Best Colleges” list. There were parking spots.
Willard Rouse III became our Dumbledore, waving the blue wand of Liberty Place at the offspring of suburbanites in Doylestown and Downingtown and Cherry Hill: Come back! Come home! And we did, to our parents’ horror: They’d worked so hard to get out of Philly! But the Inquirer was drowning in Pulitzers, Big Ed was scrubbing the City Hall toilets, and Neil Stein and Steve Poses were giving us places to hang that weren’t the bus terminal. We molded the city to our tastes: The Convention Center! The Kimmel! New stadiums! Then we took on the ’burbs, building our big-ass houses, putting in malls and restaurants, rejuvenating Main Streets, everything spiraling upward in blissful prosperity.