After the Pope: So What Now, Philadelphia?

This was a very different city during pope weekend. Did Francis's visit change us?

cleaning up

Cleaning up. Photo | Liz Spikol

After the Mass ended on Sunday and the pope and the dignitaries filed out, I stayed behind to watch the stage being dismantled. There was a huge crew of event staff who were speedily folding and stacking the hundreds of white chairs; they were moving so quickly, it was like watching a local, operational version of Koyaanisqatsi. It occurred to me that I’d never seen Philadelphia people move so fast, but then, this whole weekend seemed to bring out the best in everyone. In fact, when I went to the front of the stage to see where the Pope had been sitting, I felt overwhelmed with pride — and relief. I gazed up at the word PHILADELPHIA in huge gold letters and said, out loud, “We did it.” Then I looked around to make sure no one heard me. I’ve spent years perfecting the art of appearing sane.

Many people have wondered if this weekend will change the city in any permanent way. That’s a tall order for a hidebound place.

One thing that won’t happen: The bizarre and wondrous feeling of bonhomie that so many experienced will not last. It simply cannot. It’s like when you’re on vacation and you feel so relaxed and you and your spouse are getting along perfectly and the world seems like a benevolent place. You think, “I’m going to feel this way forever.” Then within an hour of landing in Philadelphia, you’re stuck in traffic on 76, you and your spouse are arguing about the best route home, someone cuts you off and there you are, giving the finger to a stranger. Goodbye, vacation self. Hello, reality.

So we’re not all going to be better people now. But hopefully smart and influential individuals will look at the circumstances that enabled so many people here to be their vacation selves and translate some of those elements into public policy. The way that people instinctively turned traffic-less roads into places for recreation and leisure indicates a need, perhaps, for more open spaces. The fact that local law enforcement and SEPTA and Convention Center personnel were so friendly and helpful shows that they are capable of being this way all the time, which I would not have known. (Perhaps SEPTA can start an incentive program — perks for employees who permanently assume their Popeadelphia affect.) The number of people who biked around demonstrates that more people would ride bikes in Philly if they felt they could do so safely. Elements of the weekend that didn’t go smoothly will serve as learning opportunities for various agencies.

But the biggest shift, I think, will be in the perception of Philadelphia, both within and without. As my colleague Dan McQuade wrote, “The most important news from the weekend, of course: Nothing catastrophic happened.” The reason this is important is because people who live here often assume that the city will screw things up. For some, it’s an unfortunate legacy of the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, when we threw a big party and no one came. But it’s also something deeper: an ingrained cynicism, an overarching assumption that if it’s here, in Philly, things will go awry. Every day I see someone on Facebook respond to Philadelphia news with the phrase “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Thing is, we can have nice things. We often do. We even had a nice papal visit before this one in 1979. But people more keenly remember the city’s failures — not because they’re sad about them, but because they embrace them, defiantly, as part of the city’s DNA. I even remember some hand-wringing over the Phillies’ World Series triumph: If we were no longer underdogs, who were we? (No need to worry there, as it turned out. We’re back in last place.) There is a certain comfort in believing you’re not one of life’s winners; having low expectations means you’ll never be disappointed. It also removes the pressure to excel.

Well, sorry, Philly. The city has amply proven that it can competently host a massive international event. Not everything went perfectly, but how could it? Perfection is unrealistic in this context. All things considered, it went very well. The majority of the thousands of people who visited the city this weekend will likely speak highly of it. And the residents who stayed here for the event will see their hometown in a different light, at least for a while.

The next time the city hosts a large-scale event, we won’t feel that foreboding of disaster. Nor will residents leave town in such large numbers. Instead, we’ll look ahead with optimism. Well, optimism is a loaded word for Philadelphians. Let’s just say, “not dread.” That in itself will be a very big change.

Follow @lspikol on Twitter.