The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s a Philly thing: Why the city’s fans over-celebrate

A Philadelphia Eagles fan holds a sign during the NFL divisional round playoff football game against the New York Giants on Jan. 21 in Philadelphia. (Chris Szagola/AP)
4 min

Michael Sokolove is an author and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

Every city loves its professional sports teams, especially when they win, but Philadelphians love theirs in ways that much of the rest of the nation finds puzzling, if not downright bonkers.

After the Philadelphia Eagles demolished the San Francisco 49ers 10 days ago to qualify for Sunday’s Super Bowl, the local citizenry, per usual, took to the streets with full civic fervor. They were ecstatic, inebriated and weirdly drawn to scaling utility poles — an urge that authorities try to frustrate by smearing them with grease. (The poles, that is, not the people.)

These behaviors — and the city’s passionate relationship to its teams — have recently earned the slogan “It’s a Philly Thing.” The team’s star quarterback, Jalen Hurts, has been saying it. The Philly-bred actor Kevin Bacon, who sings with his brother, Michael, as the Bacon Brothers, put out a single titled “Philly Thing.” People are wearing “It’s a Philly Thing” T-shirts.

But what is this Philly thing, and where does it come from?

“One part heaven, one part hell,” the Bacons sing, and as a native Philadelphian, I’d say that lyric sums up the streetwise sentiment of a people under no illusions they’re living in a paradise.

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The Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts does polling on its home turf for periodic “state of the city” reports that amount to check-ins on the psychological well-being of the nation’s sixth-largest city. Back in 2015, one of the questions Pew asked Philly residents was whether they’d like to move out of the city someday. Sixty-one percent said yes. But only half of those who gave that answer could foresee it actually happening.

We Philadelphians keep expectations low. No one needs to tell us the city reached its peak of importance more than two centuries ago. When something momentous does occur, it is experienced as a miracle. It’s overwhelming. To some, it might appear that we do not handle it well.

For the better part of a century, Philadelphia literally put a cap on its own ambitions by prohibiting any building to rise above the bronze sculpture of founder William Penn atop City Hall. While other cities soared, Philadelphia’s skyline, where everything peaked below 548 feet, stayed quaint, stubby and boring.

It was not even a law, but a “gentlemen’s agreement” enforced by, among others, Edmund Bacon, the city’s powerful planning director from 1949 to 1970 and the father of the Bacon brothers. (He was said to ask developers who wanted to build higher, “Are you a gentleman?”)

The limit was a vestige of the city’s genteel Quaker disposition. The Philadelphia sports fan — full-throated and so pugilistic that it can be dangerous for fans of the opposing teams to attend games in the city — is the opposite of that. He or she might even be a reaction to it.

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The height limit was finally breached in 1987, and the city now has a more vibrant feel. So many newly hipsterized enclaves have sprung up that it feels as though every few years, I spot a story suggesting that Philly might be “the new Brooklyn.”

In reality, it is still the poorest of America’s 25 largest cities, with nearly 23 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. Like many other urban areas, it is battling an epidemic of gun violence, carjackings and homicides.

The city’s teams serve as a welcome distraction, and they have occasionally been good, but mostly not, and that makes Philadelphians love them even more.

Our local sports heroes are pluggers, just like us. They toil honestly but only rarely achieve greatness.

The spontaneous celebrations after the NFC championship game rout looked like the city — people of all ages and races in the streets turning their music up loud and dancing. These glimpses of togetherness and harmony do not exist on a daily basis, but they do show Philadelphia at its bighearted best.

I am part of the Eagles diaspora. We surprised ourselves and moved away after my wife was offered a job she had not been seeking. But we’re going back for the Super Bowl because it doesn’t feel right to be anywhere else. We’ll watch with our daughter and her family at their house just outside the city in Delaware County — that’s Delco, made indelible in “Mare of Easttown” — the same place we watched the Eagles win the 2018 Super Bowl. Our other daughter is coming in from Brooklyn, our son from D.C.

We’ll be drinking, of course. In the event of a win, we might go out to see the action on the streets, but if either of my grandsons wants to climb a utility pole, I’m going to tell them to leave that to the professionals.