Here are the things I wonder about: When we have children, will they have the accent? Will they think beach tags are normal? Will they even know what a hush puppy is? Will they care, to a bizarre degree, about local radio and TV personalities? Will they have gone to school or camp or both with half the city by the time they’re 17? Will they know every back road, like my husband does, between the airport and King of Prussia? Will they say Passyunk or Pashunk? And so forth.
Some of this train of thought feels a little more bitter than sweet sometimes, but I comfort myself by knowing that at least my children will, unlike me, have a birthright to this town, which is something that matters a lot here. It’s like a secret handshake between the natives: Where you grow up/attend elementary school/have your first boy-girl dance is shorthand for an entire upbringing.
Philly, Kirsten admits, is all about who knows whom, and how: “If you know someone went to such-and-such high school or grew up in Lower Merion, you can sort of ‘know’ them before you know them. I find myself doing that all the time, and I kind of hate it, but oh well.” It’s been that way forever. There’s the old Mark Twainism: “In Boston they ask, how much does he know? In New York, how much is he worth? In Philadelphia, who were his parents?”
On the flip side, it sure can be cozy sometimes, in a way that people from cities that don’t have secret handshakes probably can’t understand. Call it parochial (nearly everyone does), but I think it comes back to the way Philadelphia is built—as a series of neighborhoods, sometimes even in a series of literally connected twins and rowhomes, that create a tie that binds.
“When my best friend Ricky Benz moved to Cinnaminson when I was 10, it felt like he was moving to Kentucky,” Michael recalls. “I never saw him again—to my parents, he might as well as moved to Kentucky. If it wasn’t on your block, it wasn’t.”
So little Ricky was lost to history, but Michael’s family remains tethered to the house he grew up in, an exceedingly devoted crew, what with the Sunday Eagles games and too many gatherings throughout the year to even keep track of. “I’m just not sure that would have happened if we had lived somewhere else, somewhere more cosmopolitan, like California,” he mulls. “My friends who did grow up elsewhere step into my family orbit and are amazed at the tightness.”
Of course, people everywhere have family, and lots of those people have close ones, but I still think he’s onto something. First, I have never met so many people in one city who have so many cousins within spitting distance—and I am from the South. Second, we’re not just talking blood relatives: There’s a familial closeness here that seems to spill out of people’s front doors and onto their sidewalks and blocks and into the neighborhood. It’s what I think people conjure up when they talk about small-town America, but ramped up a few notches because of all the passion. Philly’s like “one big Italian family,” as one friend put it. That seems right. There’s certainly a lot of red sauce. Or gravy, I mean.
But as with any big Italian family, unless you’re born into it or have been there for a good long time, it can be a little hard to work your way inside. And as someone who has pride in her own roots but pays the same taxes, worries over the same problems and tries to contribute to the same solutions here, that ancient but lingering attitude that one must be from here to be of here is fairly galling. I once got into an argument with a longtime Philadelphian at a dinner party after casually suggesting that our city’s tolerance for nepotism and political dynasties seems to run rather high.
“That is the way it has always been,” she said. “It works for us.”
“Maybe things could work better with some fresh blood,” I replied.
“Maybe you should find somewhere else to live if you don’t like the way we
do things,” she retorted.
But the benefit of those moments, where you occasionally feel like you’re still on the cusp of full citizenship, is the ability to retain a sort of dual identity when it serves your purpose. You can easily say to your husband, for instance, that “You people are psychotic with your incessant honking,” while you can chirp to your guests that “Yes, we really do have an amazing local beer scene, don’t we?” You Philadelphians sure are obnoxious on I-76, but man, do we do a good Italian hoagie.
Speaking of hoagies: You can’t talk about becoming a Philadelphian without at least mentioning Ed Rendell. He’s from New York, but managed to become more than just a beloved mayor and well-reputed governor: He became the proud, sandwich-eating, loudmouthed, warm, funny, confident, passionate, sports-obsessed emblem of Philadelphia. Our sort of modern-day Ben Franklin. Who also wasn’t a Philly native.
Will the new folks now pouring into the city every month become true Philadelphians? Or will they, by sheer number, change what it means to be a Philadelphian? I’m not sure it matters. There are varying paths to becoming a Philadelphian; it’s been done millions of times over. If anything stops me, it’s not Philadelphia, with its wonderful old buildings and hewgies and amazing parks … or even its tiresome insistence on because it’s how we’ve always done it. If anything could stop me from becoming a Philadelphian, it would be me, and that sort of mythical, cinematic beauty your old home suddenly takes on the moment you leave it (Oh, the hills! The rivers! The sweet plucking of the Tennessee Waltz on the dulcimer!), which is a rarely discussed symptom of any transfer of citizenship.
But at those times when I feel those pangs, as adrift as I was that first week on Chestnut Street, I go back to what worked then: walking around the city. I’ll take the long way home from work, swinging past the glittering Comcast Tower and the gold dome of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and then along the majestic Parkway that still takes my breath away. I’ll wind my way through archways of trees and down narrow veins of streets I am so proud to call my neighborhood, my neighbors’ houses glowing from within. And I end up happy again, inside the slender red-brick building where my husband and my heart are. I’m home.