Don’t Look Now, but Philadelphia’s Self-Loathing Is Waning
Hating on our city has been a popular pastime for decades, but the tide might finally be turning. Last week, the Pew Charitable Trusts issued a report on the city with sobering statistics on our weak local economy, mediocre schools, high crime rate, yada yada—all the usual problems. And on cue, the national media wasted no time writing Philadelphia’s obituary. Lost amid the melodrama was a refreshingly upbeat vibe among residents. The Pew survey shows public sentiment at a turning point: Although 35 percent of respondents felt the city had gotten worse in the last five years, 59 percent expect it to change for the better in the next five. And among newer city residents, the margin was even better: four to one in favor of a positive outlook.
Has our ingrained pessimism finally bottomed out? That would be pretty astounding for a city that once had to put up billboards that said “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.”
It ain’t easy being the troubled middle child of the mid-Atlantic. Even in the best of times, Philadelphia has a bad case of Jan Brady Syndrome, perpetually overshadowed by our urban neighbors, the glamorous Marcia (New York) and precocious Cindy (Washington). And with local politicians that can best be described as uninspiring, it’s even easier to lapse into a state of knee-jerk cynicism.
Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to rag on our own city, and ourselves. Consider this cringe-worthy example. Each year, Travel + Leisure magazine surveys its readers about 35 U.S. cities, rating them on things like cultural attractions, food, nightlife, friendliness, etc. Last year, visitors to Philadelphia rated the city pretty respectably—giving us a bunch of #1 and #2 rankings—but on all 57 categories in the survey, Philadelphians rated their city lower than did visitors. Every. Single. One. Dammit, Jan, stop judging yourself against Marcia-Marcia-Marcia.
Curious about the perception gap between visitors and residents, I crunched the numbers on all 35 cities in the T+L survey (see the table), tallying how many times the locals rated their city equally to or better than visitors. Who’s brimming with self-confidence? None other than two of Philly’s rivals: Dallas and Phoenix. Opinions of those cities’ residents met or exceeded those of visitors on every measure. I’m all for self-confidence but, come on, that’s brazen arrogance.
Now, Philadelphians are certainly known for being competitive. After all, T+L rated us the most “sports-crazed” city in America, so let’s make a sport of civic pride, shall we? Travel + Leisure starts its 2012 survey in May. Let’s try to move the needle this year. Can we win one, just one, category in our own eyes? Check out the list here and take your pick. With Philly Beer Week’s sudsy goodness to look forward to, best microbrew beer seems like a natural. But there are so many fun things to do in town these days that I’d like to see improvement across the board in the 2012 results. Or you guys could let Dallas and Phoenix beat us again, 57 to zip. Your choice.
Yes, a restaurant opening or a hipster art studio isn’t going to bring down the crime rate or suddenly make good governance a priority. But quality of life is the gateway drug that attracts young people to the city; once they settle down here, they start focusing on city services, or lack thereof, and do something about it. Take my friend Chris Sawyer. He’s just an Average Joe, but was fed up seeing those tacky illegal signs on telephone poles promoting dubious businesses. So he started a website to shame the perps and actually managed to get the issue into the political conversation. Now his neighborhood looks a little better, and the scammers are on notice.
Do we all need to take up a pet project like that? Nah, it’d be enough if the hard-core Negadelphians would just clam up and let others get on with improving things, and then open their eyes to the results. Don’t let the corruption and inertia of our government blind you to the positive mojo being created by our people.
Will it last? I dunno. Maybe the recent Pew survey showing an outbreak of optimism was a fluke, the fictional George Glass boyfriend Jan made up for herself. (Do not challenge me on how far I can stretch a Brady Bunch metaphor. I’ll go the distance until we’re talking about the Mummers being eccentric Aunt Jenny, and the cute-but-irritating hipsters being Cousin Oliver.) But one way or another, we’ve got to abandon our circular firing squad mentality. Hold your fire once in a while, please?
Try to focus on the positive for a change. We had a mild winter. We’re having a lovely spring. It’s early enough in the baseball season to enjoy a Phillies game without fretting over our iffy playoff chances. So if some boneheaded thing around town aggravates you during this beautiful, breezy April, I say to you with nothing but good intentions: Go fly a kite.