If things haven’t been possible for small businesses and creative-class entrepreneurs in New York for years, they frankly haven’t been possible in Philly either until recently. But with new tax laws (including attractive tax credits for job creation, as well as a two-year exemption from city privilege taxes for businesses that create a certain number of new jobs), Philadelphia promises by 2014 to be downright friendly to those employing 20 people or fewer, in hopes that those that succeed will stay. (Premise: Amazon and Microsoft were once small, too.) This is what prospective New York transplants, many of whom run small creative-class operations, want to hear.
There might be good reasons to set up shop here besides taxes. In the many conversations I’ve had with entrepreneurs and city officials, I’ve found an emerging business culture that seems to operate on the Malcolm Gladwellian principle of “connectors”—people who network to help each other succeed—that stands in stark contrast to the New York style of stockpiling and safeguarding such connections.
That’s the credo of Philadelphia’s most famous co-working space, Independents Hall in Old City. An amorphous slipstream of independents of various stripes pays monthly or daily fees for desk space and wi-fi connections, but mostly for the everyday kismet of work connections: finding work and help from officemates. Many are NY-Delphians. And in the experience of 29-year-old founder Alex Hillman, this “connector” principle isn’t native to Philadelphia: It was imported, then incubated and hatched here.
Hillman says he was recently on a group panel before a packed crowd, discussing how to set up successful co-working spaces in Philadelphia. “Someone in the audience raised his hand and asked us if we’d always lived in Philadelphia,” Hillman says. “None of us had. And it turned out that almost no one in the room had, either.”
“It reminds me of all the World War II vets who came back to Philadelphia and decided to change it—the police corruption, the crime, schools,” muses Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz. “People told them, ‘It’s impossible.’ And these guys said, ‘We’ve just had bullets flying at us—we can handle Philly.’”
That seems like a pretty tall order. For one thing, transplants obviously have some work to do in the city’s public-school system. New Yorkers have a history of turning failing schools around, but such PTAs are typically led by rich moms, or at least those who haven’t had to work outside the home, and Philadelphia’s schools need a lot of work—more than many dual-income couples can put in. Still, maybe after we NY-Delphians pick ourselves up financially, we’ll have the wherewithal to roll up our sleeves.
As for me, I can finally pay my mortgage and utility bills. Within weeks of moving here, I was offered an armful of teaching gigs, at colleges and literary centers. Someone I recently met threw my family a party to introduce us to all the NY-Delphians she knew in Chestnut Hill; more than 10 families welcomed us. Everyone I’ve met has helped me find work. I’m beginning to think I can make it, which is more than I’ve been able to say in five years.
On the day we moved in, our neighbors brought us homemade bread and tarts. My girls and I stared. Finally, my older daughter spoke up. “Our neighbors used to spray-paint our house,” she said. “Now, our neighbors want us here.” And then we all cried.