Off the Cuff: April 2007

I realized I needed a break from Philadelphia when I was so fed up with the state of things that I started writing a column about the relationship of John and Milton Street. (The Streets must be the strangest brother act in politics since Jimmy Carter was apologizing for Billy with the infamous words, “I love him, and he loves me.”) So I flew down to Naples a couple of weeks ago, and as soon as I got out of winter’s last blast, and the sniping of the mayoral race, and the violence of the city’s schools, and a murder rate that is worse than last year’s, and a new Temple University poll that tells us almost half of Philadelphia residents wish they could permanently leave, and the realization that Milton would probably be a better mayor than John …

You see how hard it is to let go. Now, having spent a few days away, I have a new theory about Florida: It’s not the warm weather people crave so much as the need to get away from a lifetime’s worth of what has gone wrong — that’s how I feel, sometimes, about Philadelphia. Maybe the hardest thing to do is to renew hope. But not renewing hope is a terrible idea. So here I am, sitting in the Florida sun, with the understanding, once again, that my city up north is a state of mind, as much as anything. The problems are great, yes, but we’ve come so far, in so many ways, and maybe it’s a long walk along the Gulf that is ruining my perspective, but here goes: Philadelphia really is a wonderful city.

It’s a matter of faith. Before I left, I looked back at something I wrote after the Republican Convention came to Philadelphia in 2000. Remember how great the city looked then? One nasty scribe from Pittsburgh was poised to see “Hiroshima with hot pretzel stands,” but the media and delegates were blown away by a clean and friendly city. The challenge over the long haul, I wrote back in 2000, isn’t removing so many junked cars, or cleaning up trash on the Expressway, or fixing the neighborhoods. No, the challenge is looking at ourselves in a fundamentally different way, with the belief that we really can solve problems, make changes, and move ahead. We’re a city, after all, that has spent the past hundred years locked in a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, where we convinced ourselves that we can’t compete with the rest of the world.

In some ways, of course, I’m giving myself a pep talk, remembering how the Republican Convention gave me hope, just as the renewed downtown has since then. But the same point applies to our collective psyche. We’re always at risk to backslide into a tired, overwhelmed hopelessness — especially with some of the latest local news. But we can’t let that happen.

So once again I’ve realized, down here in the Florida sun, that it’s too easy to get completely caught up in the city’s problems, and then allow that mind-set to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s why it’s so important to step back occasionally, to take a sunnier look at what we do have: the great restaurants, the new condos, the arts scene, the general energy downtown. … The litany can go either way, toward hope or toward despair. And that’s the tricky thing about continuing to bring Philadelphia back: If we don’t believe in the city, if we stop seeing what’s wonderful about it, then fixing the problems becomes impossible. Spending a month a thousand miles away from the John and Milton show is helping me see that, once again.