Off the Cuff: April 2013

In the 60 years he's been working with Philadelphia magazine, D. Herbert Lipson has seen Philly's ailments intensify. But all we really need is a hard, honest look at ourselves to turn it around.

I’ve been working in this business since Harry Truman was president; just in case anybody needs a history refresher, he left office 60 years ago. That’s when I came to Philadelphia and started working at this magazine, which was then owned by my father.

Philadelphia was a different city then. It wasn’t so poor; in fact, business and industry were still booming. It was a safer place—you could go almost anywhere in Philadelphia, at any time. There was much less violence; murder was almost unheard-of. City government was corrupt but actually seemed to get things done. Business leaders actively took part in civic affairs.

What happened to Philadelphia happened to a lot of cities, especially in the eastern part of the country. Industry—jobs—left. An underclass grew. Racial tension flared. Solutions seemed beyond the ability of City Hall or the business community to solve—what little remained of the business community, that is.

We’ve been trying to find solutions for what ails us for a long, long time now. I admit, I’ve asked myself a tough question more than a few times over the past decade or so: Why do I still care as the city seems to continue to deteriorate?

Why, in other words, do I still own a magazine dedicated to this city, if the city’s deepest problems are not solvable?

Because in a sense, I still love Philadelphia, and because I still believe that our problems might be solvable. But I think that the number one roadblock to doing better as a city is our unwillingness to honestly face our most wrenching problems. Sometimes, brutal honesty isn’t pretty. But being honest with ourselves is a necessary first step—one this city finds very hard to take.

Yes, Philadelphia needs jobs desperately. We need a healthy dose of possibility—of optimism—especially for our poorest citizens. And we also need to become better educated, and less violent. We need to graduate from high school, and from college. We need our children to have families that stay intact. And we need to find solutions to these problems ourselves; no one is going to come in with a magic wand and make it all better.

Perhaps all these things are obvious—though we often behave as if they aren’t. Or we miss what is going on right before our eyes. And it’s easy to despair: It’s true that in the 50 years I’ve been writing this column, most of the changes I’ve seen in the city haven’t been for the better. So it may be a leap of faith to continue believing that we can solve our problems. Perhaps it is wholly unrealistic.

But I am sure of one thing: We will accomplish nothing unless we take a hard, honest look at ourselves, and try to understand exactly what is going on in Philadelphia. Which is exactly what the magazine will continue to do.