Philly’s Fake Inferiority Complex

Enough already!

There is a popular narrative about Philadelphia that I’ve believed ever since I moved here, if only because it’s repeated so often. It’s the theme of every sports story, every political story, and most every retail or business story here. It goes like this: Once upon a time, Philly suddenly realized it hovered in the shadow of D.C. (the center of politics) and New York (the center of everything), and then it felt inferior, and it has felt inferior ever since. And so if you’re from Philly―the story goes―your city pride is tempered by a certain underdog quality, a Rocky-esque paradox: Even when you’re a winner, you’re still never really a winner.

Frankly, I’m not buying it anymore.

A little more than a week ago, I listened to Chris Satullo make a compelling case on WHYY as to why Philly’s slight growth was so good for the city’s psyche. But then he said this: “Figuring out Philly is calculus, not arithmetic. That’s why some of us love it so. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be Philly. If you can’t handle paradox, pal, this ain’t the place for you.”

Some Philly natives would say, semi-fondly, that only in our city can referencing oft-troubling paradoxes actually sound like braggadocio. But I heard Satullo’s comment, and a lightbulb went on: It doesn’t sound like bragging. It is bragging. We think we’re inferior in the way Woody Allen thinks he’s inferior―which is to say, not really at all. We’ve just made a totally neurotic, sometimes-entertaining, occasionally-annoying career of pretending that we think that we’re the always-and-forever underdog.

We’re fakers. Indulgers in faux inferiority complexes. I’d say that we even act superior in our belief that we are just soooo complicated, so much more loaded than other cities, thanks to that age-old inferiority thing. You think you’re complex? Please. Just try being a Philadelphian. We’ve really got issues. It’s a bizarre sort of elitism, this assertion that it’s uniquely Philadelphian to harbor mixed emotions (like love and shame) about one’s hometown. As if people from, say, Baltimore don’t have deeply conflicted feelings about their crime-ridden city. As if people from, say, Nashville―my own hometown―couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to love and identify with a place where things have sometimes gone dreadfully, inarguably wrong.

That’s another reason, by the way, that I know the inferiority thing is total hooey: I’ve lost count of how many times my Philly pals have casually assumed that education or culture or merit of cities anywhere to the south or west of here is altogether less than that of ours. From where I sit, the Philadelphia ego looks just fine.

Fact is, any inferiority story Philadelphia might have told stopped ringing true a really long time ago, I think―even before Marc Vetri got raves in the Times, before the Phils won the World Series, before Comcast came (and then bought NB-freakingC) … and long before we stole Cliff Lee. From the Yankees. But still, we cling to that story. Because we like it. (Hey, it worked for Rocky …) The only people who like it more than us are New Yorkers. Just Google “inferiority and Philadelphia” and see how many of the links that pop up are Mets sites.