What Keeps Philly From Being a Real City?

Just look at what we did to John Bolaris!

I grew up being told by one of my parents that Philadelphia would always be a second-class city, no matter what. The other one told me Philadelphia was the exquisite, glistening center of the universe. They told me I was welcome to draw my own conclusions about the matter, just as I could about religion. What I decided in the end was that Philadelphia was God. Which is to say that the parent who believes Philadelphia is a second-class town is rather disappointed by my life choices.

By choosing Philly as my object of worship, I’ve narrowed the aperture of possibility a bit, but I generally feel okay about it. After all, the fact that Philadelphia is a major metropolitan center of massive importance isn’t known by all, necessarily, but it is known by many, and as of 2012, it does feel very much like a “real” city—as real as New York, Chicago or L.A. Yet we still lack the prominence and credibility that smaller real cities—like Boston and San Francisco—enjoy.

So whenever something happens in Philly and is noticed nationally, I get very hopeful, as though this is The Thing that will bring our true glory to the world’s attention. It might be a Catholic Church sex-abuse trial or Rick Santorum or our terrible school district, but that’s okay. If the word “Philadelphia” is spoken on a national platform, maybe by Scott Pelley, I am thrilled.

But sometimes we hit the national news and I find myself cringing—not because something horrible happened here (horrible things happen in big cities) but because whatever’s being highlighted reveals our parochialism. In those moments, I have to concede to Parent No. 1 that we still have obstacles. A few moments from the last week. Add your own.

1. Ed Rendell’s book promotion. Our former mayor and governor is a national political player because he’s so very bright and knows how the game is played. We all know he can get into Biden-like spirals of saying things he probably shouldn’t, but it endears him to the national media. Right now he’s doing media appearances behind his new book, whose title—A Nation of Wusses—comes from one of those nationally recognized off-the-cuff remarks. But why use the same phrase for his book title? It’s so juvenile and dumbed-down, and while it was funny in that impromptu moment, it’s actually kind of embarrassing spelled out on a book cover. It makes Rendell seem more like a shock jock or a sports coach than a credible political figure.

2. Joe Blanton’s facial hair. Better men than I (much more manly, for one thing) have mocked the Phillies’ facial hair, so I won’t belabor the point, but I will say this: I saw the Phillies’ Blanton being interviewed on TV, and I was physically unable to hear a single word he said due to that tuft on his chin. It was as if the tuft was screaming: “You will never be a real city! Ha ha ha.” Evil little tuft.

3. John Bolaris on 20/20. The fact that Philadelphia’s biggest celebrities are newscasters and weathermen is Challenge No. 1 when it comes to being a real city. But Challenge No. 2 is the way we tear our celebrities to shreds as soon as our affection turns sour. Watching the Bolaris segment on 20/20, I realized for the first time that he had actually been the victim of a crime committed by a sophisticated organized crime network. The FBI took his case very seriously, which I didn’t know. In fact, I knew very little about the case because I—along with pretty much every person I know—had been too busy mocking Bolaris and laughing at his misfortune. We should really stop eating our own here, though they’re very tasty.

4. Me. Philadelphia-centric writers like me bring the whole city down a notch when we engage in this public fretting about whether Philly is “real” enough. Only small-town people—or small-town thinkers—worry so self-consciously about their city’s image. Transplants and people new to town think people like me are weirdly obsessed, and we are. If only Philly could get rid of all the Liz Spikols, there might be some hope for national respectability.