Philadelphia Deserves a Better Flag

Residents of D.C. and Chicago get their cities' flags tattooed on their arms. Philly's is "a seal on a bedsheet."

I know this fellow from Washington, D.C. No, not the guy who tried to help me dispose of my trash over Labor Day weekend. This one lives in Philly, but was born and raised in our capital city. He definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer: He is one of only two white people I know who live in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood he says reminds him of the Washington neighborhood where he grew up. And he wears his DC pride on his sleeve.

Make that his right forearm, which sports a tattoo of the District of Columbia flag.

If you’ve seen a District license plate – you know, the one with the “Taxation Without Representation” protest statement – you’ve seen the flag: three red stars above two thick red bars on a white field. Derived from the arms of George Washington’s family, it’s instantly recognizable and one of the most distinctive civic emblems in the country.

It’s also the best city flag in the United States, according to the American Vexillological Association – the people who make a business of studying flags and their symbolism.

We have a flag, too. You may have seen it flying beside City Hall: two light blue vertical bars flanking a gold one bearing the city seal.

It’s far from ugly, but would you get it tattooed on your forearm?

Chicagoans of all stripes have their city’s flag inked on their bodies. The second-best city flag in the country is likewise distinctive, and rich in symbolism: It communicates the city’s geography, its history, its values and the events that shaped it in its five bars – two light blue, three white – and four six-pointed stars. (Had the city gotten the 2016 Olympics, a fifth star would have been added.)

It’s an emblem of civic pride, which is what Philly’s was intended to be when the Rev. Dr. Henry C. McCook proposed it in 1894. Given how few people brandish it, or even notice it, it hasn’t really fulfilled its mission. There’s an organization called Partners for Civic Pride that seeks to fix that by promoting awareness and use of the city flag.

They love it, but flag scholars don’t: They call flags of this type “a seal on a bed sheet.” As Philly designer-photographer-blogger Michael Burlando points out in a recent Hidden City essay, such flags are hard to read. The seals may be rich in symbolism–ours certainly is–but they’re hard to decipher when waving in a breeze.

That’s why, at last Friday’s “Fast Forward Philly” event at the Center for Architecture, he proposed giving the Partners for Civic Pride a better flag to work with: A flag that is easily read and whose graphics make facts about the city and its history and values clear.

Two other flags that do this job well are those of Denver and St. Louis, both of which the vexillologists also admire. Both, perhaps not coincidentally, also emphasize their cities’ geographic distinction: Denver’s location at the base of the Rockies and St. Louis’ at the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

As a way of getting the conversation started, Burlando also proposed a Philadelphia flag rooted in geography–in this case, Thomas Holme’s 1682 city plan, with the addition of a diagonal slash for the Ben Franklin Parkway in its upper left quadrant (at left).

This flag also passes the quick-scan test: See it once and you immediately know what it represents. And it communicates something important about the city’s history to boot.

Ultimately, though, what Burlando would like to see is a public contest to come up with a new city flag design. Chicago’s is the result of such a competition, held in 1917. And there happens to be an unofficial one going on right now as part of the DesignPhiladelphia celebration. There’s even a second entry besides Burlando’s already: the “Reflag Philadelphia” project, conceived by the Bresslergroup industrial design firm, currently has its design for a future flag flying on three streets on the west side of Center City and at two other local sites.

We deserve a flag that salutes the city – one striking enough you’d wear it on your forearm.