PHILADELPHIA — This city is more complicated, more beautiful and verdant, more interesting, more more than outsiders believe it is. Philadelphia — where the Democratic National Convention is about to convene — is a secret of a big city, one that often acts like a small one. It’s perpetually underrated.
It is Washington’s opposite: friendly, passionate, muscular, a bit rough, huge of heart and frequently thin on ambition. If you melded my home town of Washington, with its drive and smarts, with my adopted town of Philadelphia, with all its character and texture and zeal, you would have the nation’s best city. But it would never happen.
Philadelphia is a city of stoops and row homes and civic squares. Rittenhouse Square is our sumptuous shared living room and Washington Square our front garden. We’re all about the neighborhoods, fiercely championed, some of them very nice, indeed, and others so busted by poverty they will break your heart.
You will be called hon, sometimes endearingly. Your name with be minced to a diminutive, even by the mayor and former governor. You will see grown men at work dressed like their children, sporting the Full Philly — shorts (even in winter), sneaks, possibly shower shoes with socks, swag showing allegiance to a team, possibly two, simultaneously (though not the dismal, expletive-inducing Sixers).
This is a wonderful place to walk and not to drive, with many of the historic streets designed for horses rather than cars. In parts of the city, parking is a birthright and prerogative, including smack dab in the middle of South Broad, a major artery.
We tend to move slower — what’s the hurry? — and without the need to yammer constantly on our phones to show the world how important we are. Things don’t happen fast here, especially with a City Council whose members tend to think small, taking care of their own — as in getting reelected — before taking care of the city.
There is no “downtown.” It is Center City, always. (Why? No idea.) Lots of people live there, more than 183,000, not all of them rich.
In Philadelphia, jawn is a thing. Specifically, it means a thing — a place, an object, any jawn you want it to be. We don’t do smug. That’s a New York jawn.
Don’t put down our sports teams. That’s our job.
Despite the absence of automated fare cards (that ambition issue), our regional rail system works. Or rather it worked until early this month, when significant structural defects caused the system to go full Metro just in time for the Democratic convention. However, the squalid, smelly subway system, the Broad Street Line, which serves the Wells Fargo Center, home of the convention (and the aforementioned Sixers), operates just fine.
“Philadelphia suffers because it’s smack dab in the middle of New York and Washington,” says former Gov. Ed Rendell, chairman of the Democratic National Convention host committee. “Generally, we have a little bit of an inferiority complex.”
Outsiders tend to reduce the city to a cliche, invariably “Rocky” — seven sweaty variations on a single theme that makes Philadelphia appear relentlessly dark, dated and monosyllabic.
“I’m over ‘Rocky,’ ” says Mayor Jim Kenney, who took office in January but not before dressing up as Buddy the Elf for a Christmas event. “I love it, but we’re so much more than that. It’s got a younger feel. The rising immigration levels have given it a different tone.”
People think the city is all about the “Yo” — plenty of us never say it — and the working man, but meds and eds dominate. The University of Pennsylvania is the city’s largest employer. Its hospital and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are on a building tear. Cranes dominate along the banks of the Schuylkill River.
This is the city that had a contentious protracted legal battle over moving an art museum, the storied Barnes Foundation, from the Main Line to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In some quarters, you can still launch a fight just by mentioning the move near the Philadelphia Museum of Art that Albert Barnes loathed as fervently as he adored Renoir, acquiring a record 181 of the artist’s paintings. The Barnes is one of Philadelphia’s most elegant new buildings, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, whom President Obama recently tapped to create his presidential library in Chicago.
After years of fretting about the “brain drain” — legions of college students leaving after graduation — the city has attracted a vital new core of young adults. In recent years, it has become — there is really no other word for it — hip, not through any government initiative and certainly not reduced taxes (hah!), but because Philadelphia is absurdly affordable, sandwiched between cities like Washington and New York that are so woefully not. Says Kenney, “You can rent a three-bedroom house with a basement for what a bathroom rents for in New York.”
In Philadelphia, this constitutes bragging.
Bike lanes, pop-up beer gardens and — I’m sorry to report this — man buns flourish throughout the city. This is a tremendous beer city. Because of the state’s antediluvian liquor laws, established four days before Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, it is a less-bilious wine city. Then Gov. Gifford Pinchot founded the control board to “discourage the purchase of alcoholic beverages by making it as inconvenient and expensive as possible,” a promise it has made good on to this day.
The birthplace of cheesesteaks has become acclaimed for vegan cuisine. Philadelphia is a great food city, sophisticated and street. As Rendell notes, “We have great junk food. We have fun junk food.”
True Philadelphia story: John Bucci Jr. owns the venerable John’s Roast Pork, deep in South Philly and heartburn close to the convention site. It’s a wooden shack, opened in 1930, that was later upgraded to brick. Fancy. Yes, they serve acclaimed cheesesteaks (no Cheez Whiz — Bucci understands it is not cheese), but only a fool would pass on the superior ambrosia of the best Philadelphia sandwich: roast pork with sharp (provolone) and greens (spinach).
Ten years ago, Bucci got the call that he had won a coveted James Beard Award.
“I’m sorry,” he says he informed the official, “but I don’t know what that is.”
The city has racial parity among African Americans and whites — the Hispanic population is 14 percent, Asians constitute 7 percent — but poverty is the problem that Philadelphia owns: a quarter of its residents mired below the poverty line, the largest percentage of any major U.S. city, many of them in neighborhoods that resemble bombed war zones. The drug bazaar at Kensington and Allegheny under the Market-Frankford Elevated features some of the strongest heroin to be found anywhere.
“Almost all of our problems are related to poverty, our educational system is really challenged and our prison population is way too high,” says Sister Mary Scullion, one of the city’s most beloved residents and co-founder of Project HOME, which serves the homeless. “But we’re not a silo city. There are plenty of places where people can work together, play together with all these public spaces that people share.”
In Philadelphia, Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1. To be Republican here is to feel like a political eunuch, an escapee from the GOP-controlled legislature in Harrisburg, which has no love for the state’s largest city or funding the distressed public school system.
Kenney, summing up the relationship, says: “We provide the lion’s share of the money, and we’re treated as if we’re a burden.” Even though the legislature is overwhelmingly Republican, Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992.
This is no Cleveland. Philadelphia is not getting wiggy about the convention the way it did about the papal visit in September, which was preceded by a full year of Lexapro-popping coverage that life would end as we know it, the city would shut down entirely and nothing else would get done.
Which is sort of what happened. And then we got over it. Quickly — in a way that we’re still not over the 2004 Super Bowl. Please don’t bring this up, either.
This is not Philadelphia’s first time to the political prom. Republicans convened in 2000 at the same soulless arena. That was several bank names ago, when it was known as the First Union Center — or, more fittingly, by its first two initials.
“We fought hard in 2000 to get a convention to show the world what had happened in Philadelphia,” says Rendell, who was mayor at the time. “Since then, the city has continued to explode up and up.”
Sure, they put up some banners, but we always do banners. Donkey sculptures graze around town. But the roads are as shredded as ever. The parkway, usually the city’s showcase, resembles a Parris Island obstacle course — a pity because it’s the gateway to one of our crown jewels: Boathouse Row. Plenty of folks are staying put and not high-tailing it down to the Shore. (It is always “the Shore” — never the beach, as in Jersey, specifically South Jersey.)
“I think visitors are going to be surprised by the energy, the vitality and the creativity that is throughout our city,” Scullion says. “Philadelphia is a city that doesn’t give up.”