Post-Pope, Frustrated Nutter Asks Philly: What Kind of City Do You Want to Be?

In mayor's eyes, a huge success is being belittled by negative Philadelphians.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter walks down a blocked off Market Street, with City Hall in the background, in Philadelphia on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, before Pope Francis' trip. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter walks down a blocked off Market Street, with City Hall in the background, in Philadelphia on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, before Pope Francis’ trip. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Mayor Michael Nutter has heard the critiques of last weekend’s Papal visit to Philadelphia — and he thinks they lay bare some disturbing qualities about the city he leads.

“We have to figure out as a city, how do we declare victory, how do we enjoy success, how can we be more positive about any number of things that go on in this city,” a plainly frustrated Nutter told me yesterday in an impromptu phone interview soliloquy.

In the mayor’s view, Pope Francis’s visit was a huge success for the city, an event capable of elevating Philadelphia’s profile on the world stage.

“If you were here, it was one of the most spectacular things you ever saw,” Nutter said. “The only people criticizing what went on is us. We pound ourselves, criticize ourselves unmercifully, and everybody else [outside of Philadelphia] is saying it was the best of all events.”

The mayor is obviously speaking partly to the media here. At a post-papal press conference on Monday, I asked him if, looking back, there was anything he’d do differently, or that the media and Philadelphians as a whole should have done differently, to encourage more people — local residents in particular — to come to the Francis Festival. Part of his headline-generating response was that the press had “scared the shit out of people” ahead of the event.

On Wednesday, though, it was clear Nutter was talking about much more than the press. He was addressing what he considers to be a widespread self-defeating, parochial attitude that holds Philadelphia back.

“If we just want to be the city in between New York and D.C., and we just want to be the Rocky steps and Liberty Bell and cheesesteaks, we can do that. We have that market, and we can try to live on it. I think that’s not enough for us. We can do more,” Nutter said.

In other words, big cities do big things, and with big things comes a certain amount of inconvenience. For Nutter, the post-papal complaints amount to Philadelphians saying they’re just fine playing the second stage.

“Inconvenience is accepted as being part of being a leader, of being a big city, being a place where other people want to be. And we constantly hammer ourselves, demean ourselves, tear down what we’ve done, and every moment snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory,” Nutter said.

The mayor brushed aside laments from businesses about the weekend as entirely missing the point of the pope’s visit. He seemed to be responding directly to critiques leveled by restauranteurs such as Stephen Starr and Marc Vetri.

“The weekend was a spectacular success for us, notwithstanding long lines, security restrictions or how much money people made. I mean, are you serious? The pope comes here, he talks about poverty, inequality, and capitalism, and folks are complaining that they didn’t make enough money from pilgrims who are sleeping on folks’ living room floors and eating sandwiches,” Nutter said. “Now I’m sorry if you didn’t have enough of them come in to sell all your pecan crusted salmon with basmati rice, but that wasn’t this crowd. This was a spiritual, holy event. That’s what they came for.  They’re not conventioneers. That was not the purpose of this event, and for our purposes it was never touted as such.”

It’s true that City Hall didn’t generate any economic projects, but the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau did. They estimated the visit would generate $418 million in economic benefits. And while the city may not have touted that figure, the administration certainly encouraged the perception that the visit would be an economic good for the region.

His view now on the economic impact? “The lifting of our profile on the world stage will pay dividends for a long time to come.”

But mostly he dismissed the notion that this event should be judged on either dollars earned or the crowd count.

When asked about the number of visitors, Nutter noted that when the Vatican first agreed that the Pope would visit Philadelphia, it was the only city on his itinerary. Then D.C. was added, then New York — and in both cities there were opportunities for members of the public to catch a glimpse of His Holiness. Those events drew large crowds, albeit nothing like the size of the crowds on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway this weekend.

Nutter’s implication was clear: this event would have been bigger, had Philadelphia remained the only city on the Pope’s itinerary.

As I mentioned above, this conversation was more soliloquy than interview, but when I raised the issue of what seemed like many to be wildly excessive — and seemingly crowd-discouraging — security precautions, Nutter was a little terse.

“If one thing happened, that press conference on Monday would have been a whole lot longer,” Nutter said, referring to the possibility of violence. “It’s the world that we live in. Everything changed on 9/11.”

The mayor has been criticized extensively in the press for the extent of the security precautions, though it’s not been clear just how much authority he had to actually amend them, given that the papal visit was declared a National Special Security Event, a designation that gives the Secret Service control over many security decisions.

Still, I don’t see much in the way of self-examination from the mayor or his team about the administration’s very central role in creating a palpable sense of unease and even fear over the pope’s visit. That’s disappointing.

Nutter, it seems, hoped and expected those local criticisms — not just of his leadership, but of the city’s capacity to successfully handle events of this scale — would recede after the weekend, which really was quite magical on the ground.

I get where he’s coming from. Yes, crowds were smaller than expected (though we don’t really know how big they were just yet), and it’s a real tragedy that many Philadelphians got the message they’d be better off staying far, far away. And yes, the security lines were a fiasco, and many local businesses fared poorly.

But taking a broader view, this was a deeply memorable event for hundreds of thousands of people. And anecdotally, it looks as though the world thought Philadelphia looked pretty damn good when the time came for its closeup.

“Sometimes people see things in us that we take for granted,” Nutter told me. “Sometimes the glass is actually a little more than half full.”