My Neighbors Can’t Believe I Left San Francisco for Philly. I Can’t Believe I Waited This Long

It wasn’t until I returned to my hometown that I realized just how ingrained our inferiority complex is. It’s time to embrace what the rest of the country has: Philly is great.

philly inferiority complex

It’s time we gave up the Philly inferiority complex. Illustration by Matt Harrison Clough

For the past six months, my phone has been blowing up. I’ve gotten at least a hundred text messages from friends and acquaintances who are itching to move. They’re in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, even London. All of them ask me some version of the same question: Is Philadelphia as great as it seems?

I’m so exhausted trying to make ends meet in the Bay Area. Are you happier there?

Is life easier in Philly? It seems easier. We just got rejected from five preschools and our landlord is raising our rent. Again.

A rat stole our takeout delivery from the stoop. F*ck it. I’m moving. Tell me how much you love your life. Do rats steal your shit in Philly?

As the pandemic has pushed people to their breaking points in America’s most populated and popular cities, Philly seems like the place to be. In the past year, the City of Brotherly Love has seen an influx of new residents, with an estimated 7,500 people coming from New York City alone. House prices are on fire but still relatively affordable compared to the cities my pals are looking to flee. Everyone is buying, and inventory is low. Three of my friends from New York competed against each other to buy the same Fishtown rowhouse. It got so heated, they may never speak to each other again.

This makes complete sense to me. I’ve spent significant time in all of these cities, and Philly is by far my favorite. When asked, as I am so often these days, I find it easy to convince my out-of-town friends that Philadelphia is wonderful. It’s much harder to convince the people who already live here. And it’s especially difficult to convince people when they hear I’ve come from the West Coast.

A few weeks after I moved back to Philly in 2018, a friend invited me to an Easter egg hunt up on Lemon Hill. While I wasn’t initially jazzed about spending the morning in public with my toddler, who was going through a dedicated pants-free stage, the event turned out to be a sheer delight — hundreds of giggling children scrambling across green grass, the city skyline and the Art Museum looming cinematically in the distance.

I was excited when I recognized a new neighbor, so I walked over to introduce myself. After the initial chitchat, the question came:

“Where are you moving from?” he asked.

“San Francisco,” I said, and added that I grew up in the Philly ’burbs and went to college here two decades ago. “I’m happy to be back. It’s a relief to be home.” But as I nattered on about how much I love the restaurants and the arts scene, he looked at me as if I had just told him we’d decided to relocate from the Garden of Eden.

“Why would you leave somewhere like San Francisco to come here?” He clutched his small child close to him in a protective measure: My obviously bad judgment made me suddenly suspect.

I glanced around at the happy gaggle of children collecting their eggs, the parents chattering and gnawing on hot pretzels, the volunteers giddily snapping pictures, all of it free to anyone in the city who wanted to participate.

“This is one reason,” I said, trying not to be defensive. “This is just nice. The whole neighborhood getting together on a holiday … Everyone is friendly and welcoming. This is so pleasant.” Then I asked if he had ever actually been to San Francisco.

He shook his head: “But I’ve seen it in movies, and it is beautiful. Way nicer than here.”

Well, that’s true: In the movies, California has a home court advantage. The people who write for them never leave L.A., and they’re extremely smug about it. For them, Philadelphia proves more enigmatic. I’ve written books set here and had them optioned for television shows and movies. I’ve been in those writers’ rooms as Holly­wood types try to imagine a show set in Philadelphia. They ask a 21-year-old intern to Google the city and tell them what clichés to insert. That’s why there’s more Yuengling, cheesesteaks, Rocky Steps and youse-ing and less of the gorgeous public art, the vibrant tech scene, or the elegant fashionistas. It’s as if the art directors on those shows all have a designated Philly filter that renders everything shot here in a dismal palette of brown and gray. (Speaking of self-loathing, we seem to have internalized that grim aesthetic. Mare of Easttown, we love you, and we love that you were created by a local, but come on.)

Anyone from Philly should know that the movies aren’t real life. And that’s what I love about being back home: real life. Unlike in San Francisco, where I often found it hard to move beyond superficial small talk that involved a lot of acronyms for raising money, I have never had a dull conversation in Philly.

I’ve had weird conversations, for sure. One gentleman invited me to come see the perfectly preserved mummy of a UFO he had buried in his backyard on Passyunk. Not just a UFO, a mummy UFO! The guy who painted our house told me his great-uncle was part of the JFK murder conspiracy. (He didn’t pull the trigger, exactly, but he was involved in the plot.) I was once given an intense but accurate tutorial in an Uber about how to properly braise pork chops. (The secret: Tabasco sauce, Dijon mustard and love). One old-timer bartender told me the dirtiest joke I’d ever heard. (It involved two nuns and a Mexican hairless dog.) I loved her so much that I wrote her as a character in my new novel. That same bartender also told me I was in dire need of an eyebrow wax.

In California, no one will ever just tell it to you like it is. I once tried on a dress in a San Francisco boutique when I was about five months pregnant. I walked out of the dressing room and asked the salesclerk if I looked pregnant or just fat. She stuttered and glanced away, horrified that I would demand such honesty. I did the same thing in Philadelphia when I was pregnant with my next baby. You know what the salesclerk told me? “Kinda fat.” I will buy clothes from that woman for the rest of my life.

I wanted to get on a plane with my new neighbor and take him to my tiny and ridiculously expensive old apartment in the NoPa neighborhood in San Francisco. It was in a beautiful old Edwardian apartment building not far from the Full House Victorians he must have seen on TV. And though the apartment looked idyllic on the outside, it was located in a city with the same problems as any other big city — and sometimes more of them. (“California’s Biggest Cities Confront a ‘Defecation Crisis,’” the Wall Street Journal warned in 2019.) There were days when my toddler would walk out our front door and find drug paraphernalia on our front steps, or I would walk directly into human feces on the sidewalk below our stoop. The poop never makes it on television.

While living in San Francisco, I didn’t get a full night’s sleep for nearly a year because the very photogenic Victorian mansion next to us was filled with 20-­something tech bros who liked to belt out Taylor Swift karaoke at one in the morn­ing while doing Jell-O shots and yelling what I think was “Cuddle puddle!” They parked all four of their six-figure Teslas in front of a row of battered tents set up on the sidewalk by other San Fransisco residents who didn’t share in their good fortune.

Many of the people I met in San Francisco wouldn’t even engage me in a discussion about the problems caused by the tech boom, so focused were they on the next IPO. Maybe they didn’t see it all through the tinted windows of their Teslas or from the luxury buses their companies chartered to pick them up at their doors and drive them to their shiny Silicon Valley campuses. Many of them had the luxury of not ever having to interact with anyone less fortunate than themselves.

In Philadelphia, I’ve found, we talk about our shit. Sometimes literally. Sometimes incessantly. And while I’d rather have that then live amongst unchecked privilege, too many people I encounter here seem to have over-internalized old narratives about our city — it’s broke, it’s failing, it’s inept, it’s dirty — to the point where they seem incapable of believing anywhere else could be as bad as we are. Surely there’s a middle ground between Left Coast denial and the Philadelphia inferiority complex.

It’s been nearly 50 years since local civic boosters hung a billboard over the Schuylkill Expressway declaring, “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” You’d think we would believe it by now.

But since I moved back, I’ve repeatedly gotten a version of my neighbor’s Easter Sunday comment from folks who are flabbergasted that I would choose Philadelphia over San Francisco. In their heads, they’re imagining palm trees and pristine beaches. They plead with me to give them a reason for having fallen so far: “Did you have to move for work? For your husband’s job?” Or, with a knowing, sympathetic nod: “Did you lose your job?”

“No!” I inform them, more pointedly each time, because it’s started to really piss me off. “I moved to Philly because I love it, because it has a soul, because community here is more than a buzzword and a marketing tool, because the people are hilarious, because they love sarcasm and don’t flinch when I drop an F-bomb into a polite conversation. I love it because if you sit on your stoop with a beer, within five minutes, five other neighbors are also on your stoop and drinking your beer. I love it because no one immediately asks, ‘What do you do?’ or ‘Where do you work?,’ as if that’s the only thing that matters about you. I love it because it’s an incredibly diverse place to raise kids and there is truly excellent fried chicken and hummus and burgers and sushi. I can keep going. I just fucking love it here, okay?”

And this, my fellow Philadelphians, is yet one more reason why I love it here: In any other city, a rant like that might label me a difficult, prickly outcast. But the always-blunt Philadelphians immediately appreciate the expletive and my candor — even if they can’t quite believe the sentiment.

On the other hand, when I told my Californian friends where I was headed, they were all jealous — of Philly! Again and again, I heard them extol the virtues of our fair city, telling me that they had the best meal of their lives here, that they were inspired to write a novel here, that we have the best sports mascots in the world here. Then they admit they search our zip codes on Zillow on a weekly basis.

Philadelphians, as people with inferiority complexes tend to, have spent years feeling less-than. Now is a chance to break the cycle of doom and gloom, because despite our negativity, we aren’t keeping folks from moving here. It’s time to acknowledge that to the rest of the country, we don’t look half bad.

As Philly continues to see this influx of transplants from these other cities, it’s time to realize that they aren’t “settling” for Philly. They’re choosing it for the same reason I did: because it’s a wonderful place to live, a place with a soul. They’re choosing it because we have history and innovation. You can live downtown and walk to work or live in dozens of interesting neighborhoods that are a 15-minute commute from Center City. Because this is a place where you can still dream big. You can still make something new and interesting without having to raise a round of venture funding. This is a place where someone will do you the favor of telling you that you look fat in a dress.

Published as “California Dreaming” in the July 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.