I was 13 years old in 1976—not exactly a budding patriot, but a good enough student of American history by that point to understand that the bicentennial of the country was a big deal. And so it was that on the bright and beautiful morning of July 4th, I bounded in from church (it was Sunday) and tore up the stairs to my bedroom in Northeast Philly, changing into my own version of the Stars and Stripes (red shirt, blue shorts, white sneakers) for not just any day, but the day: the nation’s 200th birthday.
I spent a portion of the early afternoon across the street at Jardel playground, where I had somehow been assigned the responsibility of ensuring the legitimacy of the water-balloon-tossing contest. When I got home, I flicked on the TV, then plopped into the rocking chair in our living room to see the July 4th hoopla breaking out all over town—this town, our town, the birthplace of liberty. My parents were suitably puzzled by my newfound civic pride.
“But it’s the Bicentennial!” I replied. “The eyes of the nation are upon us!”
“The eyes of the nation are upon us?” my father replied, incredulous.
I’d heard it somewhere. The point was that growing up in Philly in the ’70s was one big inferiority complex. All the national discourse was happening in D.C.; all the TV shows were made (and set) in L.A.; even broke-ass New York mattered enough to warrant President Ford paying attention, even if only to give it the finger. Philly? Philly was cheesesteaks, police brutality and the occasional Mob hit. Rocky wouldn’t debut in theaters for another five months. But the 200th anniversary of the founding of the nation—this was finally our moment. Our birthday. Our turn.
I don’t remember how long I sat there, my 16-ounce bottle of chilled Pepsi-Cola on the table next to me, both of us slowly losing our fizz. I scanned the television, got up to change the channel to CBS (remote? Who had a remote in Northeast Philly?), then sat back down again, rock rock rock in the chair, up again, change the channel to NBC, down, rock rock, ABC, rock rock, repeat. The only thing I really remember is that I sat there and watched … New York. D.C. The occasional glimpse of Boston. Tall ships. Random celebrities. Happy people in green foam Statue of Liberty hats. And as I took in the nation toasting its past, my confused adolescent brain could only muster one question, over and over and over:
Where the hell is Philadelphia?