Off the Cuff: December 2007

It is very hard to look into the mirror and see what everyone else sees, but now there’s no escaping it: Philadelphians are ugly. We were recently tabbed by Travel & Leisure magazine, in an online poll, as dead last among 25 U.S. cities in citizen attractiveness; we’re not seen as stylish, either, finishing 24th in that category. This seems to come as a shock to most of us, given the subsequent comments in our newspapers defending the city as “vibrant” and alive, with “beautiful” and wonderfully diverse people and so on. Apparently, it’s the rest of the world that just doesn’t get it. You know the argument: Philadelphia is a hidden jewel of a place, a wonderful city, and if those naysayers only spent a little more time to check us out, knew what it was really like here …

Well, guess what, folks: What the world sees is the layer of crud over everything, including us. We’re not clean — the city finished 22nd — or safe (23rd). None of this surprises me. I’ve been railing for a long time about how shabby we are, how Philadelphians present themselves poorly. I get the feeling that I’m written off as someone who comes from another era, which is true, given that I came of age in a time when men wore hats and women wore stockings. But here’s what we don’t get: Even in the age of informality, when sweatpants and t-shirts are the de rigueur attire wherever one goes, looking good still counts.

Not so long ago, a national high-end retailer wanted to put a store on Walnut Street. A couple of its executives drove down from New York one day, parked their limo on Walnut, and gazed out through tinted windows during lunch hour at the slovenly crowd that passed by. Then they drove back to New York, after coming to an easy decision: Philadelphia is not the place for high-end retail.

Several weeks ago, I took our style editor to the Palm for lunch, and just for fun, we counted the number of men we saw wearing suits and ties on our walk from Broad and Walnut back to our offices at 19th and Market. The tally was three. We sometimes invite staffers down from Boston magazine, our other city publication, and they’re startled by what they see, not only from the cab coming into Center City, but also once they hit the pavement: We prance about in public looking like we’re walking the dog in the backyard.

Our inability to see ourselves as we are is both amusing and frustrating. Recently I had dinner with a couple who live on Rittenhouse Square, and as we talked about the park, I noted the obvious — that it is overused, dirty, a mishmash of this and that. The woman I was with suddenly proclaimed, “I think Rittenhouse Square is woonderful!” Sure, if you don’t notice the bums taking naps under newspapers on the benches, and all the leftover lunch scraps.

Which reminds me of a story. Back in the ’80s, when I lived on Rittenhouse Square myself, I was on a committee trying to clean up the park. One day I walked through the Square with Hobart Caywood, then the head of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, and shared my frustrations over our fellow citizens who saw fit to use it as a campground and a toilet for dogs.

Hobart, who was from North Carolina, explained how he dealt with miscreants. “I’ll tell you our little secret,” he said in his Southern drawl. “We violate their civil rights, and bring them before a federal magistrate.” Which, he said, sent the appropriate message.

I’m really not suggesting we start arresting people for how they look, because that would require incarcerating three-quarters of the city’s population. But there is a problem, one we seem blind to: At a time when the future of the city, once again, seems to be hanging in the balance as a new mayor is about to take over, our unwillingness to see ourselves as the rest of the world does hurts us more than we think.