Can USA250 Make Philly the Star of America’s 250th Birthday?
In 1999, Dick Vermeil, the legendary former Eagles coach who had taken over the St. Louis Rams two years earlier, delivered three words of inspiration to his new team, which had finished the previous season 4-12—last in its division: “Why not us?”
Led by a former grocery clerk-turned-quarterback named Kurt Warner, the Rams won the Super Bowl that season.
In their own way, Sam Katz and Andrew Hohns and Meryl Levitz and the rest of the folks at USA250, in trying to get Philadelphia to do something very un-Philadelphia—i.e., to not blow it—are putting up their own sign to all of us, asking: Why not us?
“I’m not unmindful of the tendency of Philadelphia to think less of itself, to identify barriers and focus only on them,” Katz says. “But I am also not unmindful that there is a new generation, and new blood, that is doing things here that go largely unreported, all without the help of government. So yeah, I am optimistic.”
“Oh, the city is just so different,” Meryl Levitz says, mulling the changes since 1976. “I think in these last few years we have gone from zero to 90. Things have changed so much, physically, emotionally, virtually, for people. Center City has pushed out. There is this momentum and growth.”
She says this in the seductive cadence of a model on a TV commercial cooing about her hair coloring. I want to believe her. We all do. And yet there is a lot of my brand of cynicism in Philadelphia—some of it unjustified, but most of it, unfortunately, not. When you live in a town where the mayor can’t give a budget address to City Council because he’s shouted down from the gallery, where union thuggery is not only tolerated but actually encouraged, where large numbers of the people who come to the Convention Center say they won’t be back, it’s hard to imagine the bright shiny city on the hill, its soundtrack by John Philip Sousa. During our conversation in her office at the GPTMC, Levitz gushed to me about Katz’s documentaries on city history, telling me, “I can look at those and say, ‘So that’s why John Dougherty is John Dougherty.’ I can see him there.”
Unfortunately, I can see him right here. Along with Pat Gillespie. And the 17 members of City Council, all looking for their slice of the pie. And their counterparts in Harrisburg and Washington, and at Comcast and GlaxoSmithKline and Penn and the Parking Authority and the cheesesteak shops in South Philly, for that matter. I want to believe that everyone will come together, put the civic good first, put an oar in the water and start rowing toward a spectacular 2026 with no consideration for personal gain. But somewhere inside me sits that 13-year-old boy still looking forlornly at his TV set. He, shall we say, has his doubts.
Could we really pull this off? In my search for an answer, I call A.D. Frazier. Frazier was the chief operating officer for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, a $1.7 billion enterprise and one of the few Games to close its books in the black. I tell him what the Philly-ites are up to and ask him to tell me what he didn’t expect, the obstacles he didn’t see coming as the Games came together. His answer deflates me: “I never expected that there would be so many people I had to deal with who had their hand out,” he says. “Believe me, anything like this is going to bring them out of the woodwork.” He tells me how “the city of Atlanta was our most difficult adversary,” how the then-mayor (who was later sent to prison) made sweetheart deals that wreaked havoc with traffic and security. The Games were a success, he declares, investing $500 million in new infrastructure, including a new stadium for the Atlanta Braves. But the road wasn’t without its bumps.
That, of course, is to be expected in producing an event so massive. But an Olympics lasts for three weeks. Philadelphia is trying to do something that stretches for an entire year, possibly two. It seems unfathomable. And yet part of me admires the fact that Hohns et al. are trying, that they’re out there conjuring and dreaming. Why not us?
“If Philadelphia is going to prove to the world that it, not New York, was the cradle of democracy in the North American continent, that’s a more gossamer goal than putting on the Olympics for a few weeks,” Frazier tells me. “And I gotta tell you, there will be a lot of people who are going to say, ‘Why do we have to do this? We’re already Philadelphia. Everybody knows who we are.’ … But you’ve got plenty of good bones to work with there.
“Philadelphia,” he adds, “is an incredible city.”