C’mon, Philadelphia. It’s not that bad.
Sure, the schools are underfunded. Yes, the General Assembly seems to want to kill our transit system. Fine, the economy here is growing too slowly. Sure, you can even call us fat.
Still, there’s something about this week’s poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts that bothers and even surprises me. Forty-five percent of Philadelphians think the city is on the wrong track. Nearly half! Which wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that that number is up from 37 percent in 2009.
Which tells me that people have short memories. Because 2009 was almost an apocalyptically bad year. It was, literally, a year that had me wondering at times whether the United States as we knew it—whether civilization itself—would survive.
Sound extreme? Remember this: 2009 was the year that unemployment nationwide first went over 8 percent. Then 9 percent. And finally spiked at 10 percent. We hadn’t seen anything like that in decades.
In response, the newly elected Obama Administration basically threw its agenda overboard for a year in order to pass a nearly $1 trillion stimulus. By 2009, the four largest U.S. banks had lost half their value. By March, one estimate assessed the total amount of lost wealth—globally—at a 45 percent drop. In June, the World Bank estimated that global economic production would decline by 2.9 percent, the first drop since World War II.
It was terrifying. It felt like the very concept of money was going away. And that we had nothing to replace it with.
Things weren’t much better in Philadelphia. Here’s an excerpt from a column I wrote that November—probably the most profane I’ve ever put to print—accusing the city of losing its fighting spirit:
Mayor Nutter’s hopes for a renaissance were dashed when he could barely keep the city’s pools and libraries open. We got a little too close to the “doomsday” budget for comfort—creating a summer of increasing anxiety about whether Philly would revert to some 1970s urban battlefield if we couldn’t pay the bills. Unemployment rose to the third-highest rate among the nation’s big cities. Then the SEPTA strike. And in the midst of it all, the Phils lost the World Series to the New York freakin’ Yankees!
What did we do about all of this? We bitched a little bit and complained a little more. Resigned ourselves to the idea that we are, after all, Philly. That sound you heard all over town last week? It was the deep sigh of an inferiority complex reasserting itself with a vengeance. You could see the thought bubbles forming over people’s heads: “Maybe we deserve second place.”
Admittedly, some things did get worse over the next couple of years. The progress we thought had been made by Philly schools turned out to be an illusion created by then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her band of cronies. (Observing the rule that one shouldn’t speak ill of the dead … we’ll move on.) The city’s thugs chose 2012 to try and reclaim the “Killadelphia” moniker. The unemployment rate stayed pegged above 10 percent, the poverty rate at more than twice that number.
Yet, the city seems a healthier place than it did in 2009. Maybe it’s because the national background noise—while still not great—is less panic-inducing than it was four years ago. But murders are down. The schools, well, at least we’re having an honest-if-painful discussion now, the one we should have had years ago. Libraries and pools have more or less stayed open to the public. The city’s bond ratings are the highest they’ve been in decades. There are cranes rising across the city, which means building, which means jobs. My neighborhood near South Street West is finally an inviting place to be out with your family after dark, with more coffee shops, diners and fro-yo places than there were two years ago.
Civilization in Philadelphia, while remaining the challenge it has always been, no longer seems to be at the highest crisis level.
Perhaps most importantly, it feels like the city’s fighting spirit is back. It’s just a sense, of course, but it seems most manifest to me in the way folks are battling to save their public schools and SEPTA. The willingness to fight for what you value can be awfully important; Philadelphia feels naked without it.
So why the worse attitude? My editor offered one reminder. The Phillies lost the Series in 2009. Donovan McNabb lost his last NFC Championship earlier that year. Neither team’s fortunes have been nearly as bright since then.
Which, yes, it would be nice of the city’s teams and the city could both perform well at the same time. If you take the ballplayers out of the equation, though, 2013 sure feels like a better year. We might do ourselves a favor if more of us believed it was true. Unfortunately, Philly is not a “fake it till you make it” kind of town.