Why New Yorkers Are Moving to Philly and What It Means for Our City
“8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place To Live,” ran the headline. A photo showed seething traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, gridlocked with moving vans and U-Hauls, with the explanatory text: “Citizens in each of the five boroughs packed up their belongings and told reporters they would rather blow their brains out with a shotgun than spend another waking moment in this festering cesspool of filth and scum and sadness.”
The headline was fake, and the newspaper was the Onion. But on September 2, 2010, as I sat in my crappy 1,100-square-foot hovel in Brooklyn—where neighborhood gangs regularly tagged my fence and chucked 40s into my yard—I laughed until I peed. And then I lay down on the floor and cried.
I’d lived in New York for nearly a quarter of a century. Things were possible then. You could be a clothes designer and open your own boutique in the East Village. Your band could start up a bar in Williamsburg. You could get your friends to swing a hammer and build a theater company in a work-live loft in Tribeca. After graduating from Columbia in the early 1990s, I worked like a nut at a journalism career, wrote two books published by fancy houses, was on TV a bunch. Later, I had my three young children in Brooklyn, and a crew of mom friends whose children and mine would romp in our living-cum-dining rooms. My life and New York City were a double helix of fabulous.
Then, in late 2007, the recession and my divorce converged. I was 39 and financially responsible for my children. I moved from progressive (read: expensive) Park Slope to edgy (read: less expensive) Red Hook. I lived in fear of foreclosure every month. The lights were shut off on more than one occasion. I qualified for food stamps. I grew vegetables in my anemic yard—not because I was some urban beekeeping eco-vore, but because I couldn’t afford to buy decent produce. By 2010, the only homeowners I knew who weren’t selling for liquid capital were high-financiers or trustafarians. And rents were untenable.
“This place sucks. … It just fucking sucks” was the sham Woody Allen Onion quote. It hit me: I can’t live in New York. Then I was struck by the meta grand piano from a three-story building: What about … Philly?
Honestly, the thought stank. I grew up on the Main Line and was snobbed out by the generations-deep blue-blood apparatus, so when I came of age in the late ’80s, I moved to Center City and attended Temple. Back then, Philly loomed like a menacing, crack-glutted acropolis, and I felt lucky I wasn’t raped or killed wandering around alone, as I often did. When I transferred to Columbia in 1989, I knew for sure: I was never, ever coming back.
But 20-odd years later, it was incontrovertible: Those of us with young families, in the so-called creative class—entrepreneurs, writers, editors, techies, graphics designers, teachers, small-firm ad execs and marketers, architects, anyone in the arts—were now high-status, poorly paid culture workers who could no longer afford to live in New York, especially with children. Things no longer seemed possible because they weren’t.
I could sell my house in a sketchy neighborhood for $860,000, buy a four-bedroom in Chestnut Hill for $340,000, and even after paying off my massive mortgage and Denali of debt still have a six-month nest egg that would enable me to contribute to private school. (I’d exchanged child support for tuition.) So what if Philly was slow, bankrupt and provincial? Just deal with it, I told myself.
I was wrong. Thankfully, very wrong.
It’s not news that New Yorkers have been infiltrating Philly for more than a decade. There was an understandable migratory spike after 9/11, and then, about six years ago, a flurry of articles about how New Yorkers in their 20s were descending on neighborhoods like Fishtown and Northern Liberties in the insultingly termed “Sixth Borough.” While the scope of the New York influx may have been unduly glamorized, the numbers aren’t laughable.
Since 2006, the official number of New Yorkers moving here per year—gleaned from tax returns, the IRS being the only source for such stats—has been in the 3,000s; in 2010, the official migration number was 3,095. But because the IRS misses swaths of people due to perennial filing boondoggles, Larry Eichel, project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimates that a more realistic annual number is somewhere in the 4,000s.
So consider this: Even if the numbers plateau, in five years, potentially 20,000 more New Yorkers will be calling Philly home, in addition to the nearly 25,000 who already have in the past six. The city is growing, even though droves of Philadelphians are still moving out of the city every year (around 50,000 per year since 2006, according to Eichel’s research). While transplants move here from all over, it’s worth noting that on some scale, New Yorkers are becoming the new Philadelphians. And even if a sizeable handful are commuting to Manhattan for work, NYC transplants are still shopping here, buying homes here, paying taxes here, sending their kids to school here—and changing the economic and cultural landscape of the city.
Meet your new neighbors: the NY-Delphians.