Philadelphia was once the biggest, baddest town in North America.
We were once second only to London in size in the English-speaking world. The national capital. The nation’s financier. The biggest port. The center of American publishing. The birthplace of the advertising industry. A pioneer in broadcasting. The home of the nation’s first university, hospital, library… the list goes on and on.
The university, hospital and library are all still around, but just about everything else is gone, long gone. (Save maybe for that broadcasting stuff, thanks to Comcast.) Yet somehow, it seems that whenever there’s a discussion about Philadelphia today, that past weighs heavily on our collective consciousness.
While Philadelphia’s port officials seem to understand just where the port fits into the larger global trade picture, as I noted last Friday, others here seem to pine for the days when the Delaware River hummed with port activity from Hog Island to Frankford Creek. Discussions about the city’s corporate community sometimes hearken back to the age when the city was home to mighty railroads and major insurers. And you can also count on someone to bring up that Birthplace-of-the-Country stuff when the occasion warrants.
In short, this place still hasn’t quite shaken its massive municipal inferiority complex, nurtured by a 300-odd-year history of other cities stealing our thunder. Washington got the capital. New York got the banks and media. Boston has the college-town rep. And we are an also-ran all around.
That complex shows up in other ways too, such as the way we exult when some national publication ranks Philadelphia highly in some desirable category (case in point: the most recent Travel + Leisure readers’ poll, in which this city took top honors for arts and culture tourism). Or, for that matter, the collective pouting when we take top honors in some undesirable category (case in point: the city’s appallingly high poverty rate). Or the constant looking over our shoulder at Detroit, an anxious glance fueled by the conviction that deep down inside, we’re really just a bigger version of that city with shinier skyscrapers.
I’m a product myself of a city with a pretty healthy municipal inferiority complex, too. And the way it got past it might offer us some lessons for getting over ours too.
Kansas City’s good citizens for years objected mightily whenever anyone called the place a “cowtown.” They pointed to the city’s prized parks and boulevards, its museums and its tony Country Club Plaza as signs that it really was a sophisticated place. But sometime in the 1990s, some younger folks decided that rather than fight the city’s heritage, which also included a Democratic political machine that put Philly’s to shame while allowing a wide-open culture that nurtured some of the best jazz talent in America to flourish, they should embrace it. While it’s been some time since I’ve been to KC, the city I last laid eyes on a few years back was a far more self-confident place than the one I left for college and for good in the mid-1970s, and it’s in large part because the city came to terms with its past rather than denying it.
Here we have the opposite problem: As Faulkner said about the South, in Philly, the past isn’t really past. Newer arrivals, when they offer their opinions about the city and what it could become, are reminded by natives that they’re Not From Here and Don’t Understand Its History.
Maybe they don’t need to. Those new arrivals, unencumbered by notions of the way we do–or did–things here, have injected new vitality into a growing portion of the city’s core. Our challenge for some time now has been, and remains, how to engage them more deeply with the city as it is now in order to move it more firmly into the future.
To do that, we may have to come to terms with the fact that our city’s past is indeed past–dead and buried, an artifact to admire and show off to the visitors, but one with less relevance to what’s going on now than many of us seem to believe.