As I Turn 30, I Wish Philly the Same Confidence It Gave Me

After spending my early adulthood here, I can see that this town is struggling with the same imposter syndrome I once had to overcome. If the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection bet on itself, it would be unstoppable.

The author, Ernest Owens, makes a birthday wish at one of his favorite restaurants, Vernick Fish.

As my fellow millennials would put it, “This is 30.”

On October 12, 1991, in the midst of the the controversial Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings, my mother gave birth to me in Chicago, Illinois. According to her, I came out of the womb wide-eyed and super-inquisitive. Such traits have defined my lifelong hunger to see everything up close and to know more about things than others think I should.

Eighteen years later, after spending most of my childhood in Houston, Texas, I moved to Philadelphia — and stayed. This was never the plan. As a freshman at Penn, I initially thought Philly would be my launchpad to a post-grad life in New York City or D.C. But after I’d spent four years as a Black face in a white space, the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection gave me a purpose that I didn’t anticipate. Philadelphia became the town where I’d explore my sexuality and come out three times. The place where I would later confront the very Gayborhood that liberated my queerness while suppressing my Blackness. It would also be where I called out our impressive restaurant scene for lacking the diversity that could take it to the next level.

It was in the birthplace of the Constitution that I became a journalist, winning awards, breaking barriers, and also earning the wrath of my critics. I met the love of my life in this town, and together we developed a circle of friends who encouraged me to become an entrepreneur, a nonprofit board leader, and an overall overachiever. These experiences would turn me into a serial networker, one who’d later learn during a global pandemic to rethink such a wild lifestyle.

In a nutshell, my 20s were a Philadelphia story. Now that I’m 30, I can see a future for me in this city — and a future for what the city can become. This town’s constant ups and downs create what feels like an inescapable inferiority complex, one that’s kept us from recognizing our true badass selves.

And it was when I began to reflect on my personal growth in my 20s that a solution for Philly emerged: This city needs to get out of its own damn way.

As I enter a new chapter of my life, I’ve learned that self-improvement came a lot faster once I stopped holding myself back from new opportunities. Earlier in my career, I fell into the trap of thinking that the only way to be a respected journalist was to work full-time at some top-tier national newspaper and cover serious topics. I drank the Kool-Aid of the predominantly white, straight media culture that often tries to dictate what is — and what is not — real journalism. My tastes and interests were much more than that. I realized I loved working for myself and incorporating freelance journalism as a part of my brand while expanding other avenues of writing and media. Today, I’m not only the editor-at-large for Philly Mag; I’m a local media mogul who has a chart-climbing podcast and an upcoming book in the works, and I’m featured in several forthcoming documentaries.

Translation: When I bet on myself, things got better. I need Philly to do the same.

Rather than feel like we should be in an endless loop of comparing ourselves to the Big Apple, D.C., L.A. or Austin — how about we recognize how dope we already are? We seriously have the best damn restaurant scene in America and an emerging diverse arts and entertainment scene. We’ve cemented a scrappy identity and grit that’s already legendary. Philly already has what it needs to make itself better — and that doesn’t include the invasion of an Amazon HQ or us trying to convince the rest of the world how great we are.

We’re a city that must get over our imposter syndrome and trust in the people and institutions we have. That looks like actually investing in and supporting local diverse businesses and public spaces — rather than pouring so much money into a police department whose function is to patrol us. Philly betting on itself means listening to what residents actually want (such as safer neighborhoods, better public schools, and tackling poverty) rather than implementing policies that make matters worse (such as tear-gassing activists, taxing soda, and not properly vetting health-care contractors). Overall, this is about the city as a whole changing its entire attitude — about trusting one another when it comes to advancing our growth and future.

Nobody saw the pandemic coming, and it was our essential workers, health-care experts, service people and faithful patrons who kept this town alive — not tourists and outside political interests. Rather than continue to outsource  jobs, the city should do more to connect big businesses with locals onesespecially when it comes to our eds and meds. This city must focus on supporting all kinds of diverse small businesses that are already here — instead of just working to make it easier for others to start or relocate here.

In other words, it’s time for Philly to put itself first — just like I’ve decided to as I embrace 30. Let’s hope one of my birthday wishes comes true.