Philadelphians Think Philly Sucks Less Than It Used To

And more things we can learn from Travel & Leisure's "America's Favorite Cities" survey.

I want to KO Rocky Balboa. And maybe—just maybe—so do you. For 36 years, the Kensington palooka has been the symbol of this city’s beleaguered spirit: Scrappy underdog, hopelessly overmatched, kinda stupid. Well, it’s time to hit the showers, champ. Philadelphians are tired of feeling down about their town, and outsiders are starting to notice just how nice it is here, too.

That’s the takeaway from Travel + Leisure’s 2012 “America’s Favorite Cities” survey, which ranks 35 U.S. cities on various quality-of-life measures. Slicing and dicing urban living into 66 categories, T+L presumes to have uncovered America’s top places for things like cultural attractions, public parks, music scene, shopping amenities, best times of year to visit and a whole bunch of food categories (of those, we cracked the top five for pizza and “street food”).

In T+L’s report card on Philadelphia, we only won a single category outright this year. America thinks we’re its most sports-crazed city. Oh, the irony in this lackluster, dispiriting year. But we came up big where we needed to: Self-confidence. You have to get a little creative with the data to see it, but it’s there. Comparing the opinions of visitors with those of residents offers a glimpse into our collective view of where we fit into the American cultural landscape. Do we hold Philadelphia in higher—or lower—esteem than outsiders do?

Last year, frankly, we laid an egg. On every measure in the 2011 survey, Philadelphians gave their city a lower score than visitors did. So this past spring I took to these pages (err, pixels) and scolded you for that lack of civic pride, goading you to do better this year. And you did. (Yes, I’ll gladly take credit I don’t deserve, and I’m not even a politician.) In the 2012 T+L survey, Philadelphians rated their city equal to or higher than visitors in 19 of 66 categories. Now, that score, which works out to 29 percent on my homemade City Self-Confidence Index, would get you a failing grade even in a Philadelphia public school—right? (Please tell me I’m right.) But I honestly think we’ve turned a corner. Going from 0 to 19 in one year shows me something. A little moxie. Maybe even the first gestations of swagger? Be still my heart.

And what are we so self-satisfied about? Our biggest margin of victory was for, hmm, driving ability. My daily dose of road rage begs to differ, but apparently we rank ourselves 14th in the nation behind the wheel; in the eyes of visitors, we’re 19th. We’re also favorably disposed to our public transit and walkability, museums, architecture, gay-friendly culture, cafes, microbrew beer, nascent but improving barbecue scene, flea markets (really, we have these?), worthiness for a visit on the 4th of July (duh, no kidding), and even, yes, our “charming local accent.” So take pride the next time you’re downashore and have a wooder ice while sitting on your beach tal.

Although visitors only rated us in the top five for a few categories, Philadelphia did surprisingly well as an experience overall. On the T+L site, you can compare two cities head to head, Thunderdome style, and see who wins in a destination deathmatch. Impressively, Philly beat 16 cities—but lost to 18 others. America likes us more than Las Vegas, LA and Miami, but not as much as Boston, New York and any city whose first name is “San” (muchachos named Diego, Francisco, Antonio and Juan all look down their noses at us).

Same as last year, the two most cocky cities in the country were Dallas and Phoenix—with plausibility-straining self-confidence scores of 97 percent and 95 percent—and I’m pleased as punch to say we beat them both in America’s eyes. Dallas is as hot as a frying pan and the people have worse accents than we do. Phoenix is relentlessly clean (in a thanks-for-not-littering-or-we’ll-cane-you-in-public sort of way) but also relentlessly dull. In town recently for a conference, I was stunned at the utterly nonexistent restaurant and nightlife scene around the convention center. The only places nearby were a Starbucks and a Hooters. Coffee and cheesecake—that’s all you’ve got for visitors, Phoenix? Bah. Philly’s Center City is teeming with activity, night and day. In Phoenix, good luck getting a bite to eat after 9pm.

In less good news, according to T+L, both visitors and residents think we’re—how can I put this delicately?—fugly. The south and the west are for the beautiful people, apparently, while we rank 33rd among visitors and 34th among residents in attractiveness. Ouch. And here’s a head-scratcher: as an autumn destination, visitors ranked us only 23rd, and we rated ourselves even lower at 29th. That’s bollocks. Never mind that melancholy Hall & Oates song, fall in Philadelphia is lovely. Cruise down Kelly Drive this time of year and you’ll see why we put the sylvan in Pennsylvania.

Public opinion polls are fun to pick apart and argue about, but we all know they’re for amusement purposes only. But it’s undeniable that Philadelphia is rebounding. Consider this: developers are looking to build 73 new market-rate houses—starting at $350,000 a pop—in Kensington. C’mon, can the symbolism be any more obvious? They’re literally building houses on Hope Street in Philadelphia. And charging big bucks for them.

Am I excited about what that bodes for our future? As the champ himself would say: Absolutely. Now let’s take one last run up the art museum steps as an underdog. And when we walk back down, let’s swagger.