W.C. Fields once remarked, “I once spent a year in Philadelphia. I think it was on a Sunday.” Based solely on the six years I lived there, it’s a comment that held far more truth than those born and raised in Philadelphia would ever admit.
But now, having spent the better part of the past week in the City of Brotherly Love, I’m faced with the reality that the Philadelphia I once knew, the same one that was so easy to dismiss with frivolous disrespect, is a distant memory.
Besides Philadelphia I’ve lived in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Edinburgh (Scotland) while spending a good deal of time in most every major American city as well as a handful of ones in Europe. Prior to this trip, I can say without hesitation that outside of Detroit I had never experienced a grittier, more weathered, dirtier city than Philadelphia. And that’s just the architecture and overall cityscape.
The people of Philadelphia have always been in a league of their own. A psychologist friend of mine once told me Philadelphians were at the head of the line when it came to “personal space issues.” I asked her to explain what she meant. She clarified by calling it the “meeting eyes syndrome.” Her thought was that Philadelphians are prolific in taking issue with you if you dare glance at them for more than a few seconds.
In all of the above, upon further review…
The Philadelphia of 2008 is nothing like the one I knew on my last visit in 2001, and certainly not like the one I knew in high school when I first arrived there in 1972.
I brought my wife and two daughters east to visit family and a few friends. My overriding gameplan was to spend as little time as possible actually in the city limits of Philadelphia. We’d take our daughters to the historic sites, do a driving sweep around the outskirts of Center City (downtown) and be done with it.
You see, I know Philly. Dirty streets, rude people, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, cheesesteaks and hoagies… that pretty much covers it. Or that’s what I thought, anyway.
What I found was a beautiful, vibrant city alive with families, tourists and locals turning cobblestone streets and clean sidewalks into their own urban block party. My wife kept asking me “is everything ok with you?” What she was seeing on my face was a look of disbelief.
I actually saw people… smiling. And, dare I say, being friendly. Everywhere. Can the apocalypse be far behind?
My four-year-old daughter said to me “Daddy, I want to move here. Everyone is so nice.” I had to pull over and run into the nearest bar.
This is now a city that “gets it.” It’s a city that demands your attention for a variety of reasons and deserves your respect as a big-time destination. I was as much a cynic and critic of Philadelphia as anyone you’ll ever meet. I’ve been turned around.
The Philadelphia I had known was a town devoid of major hotel chains. Hyatt, Hilton, Four Seasons? Forget it. The restaurant scene? Non-existent. Striking architecture? You’re kidding, right?
High atop the 548-foot City Hall stands a statue of William Penn. Until sometime in the 1980′s, there was a law in Philadelphia stating no building could be built higher than the brim of Penn’s hat. I honestly believe once that ridiculous law was moved aside and a real skyline began to take shape in Center City, the rest of the city seemed to raise its collective shoulders, clear their throats and say “it’s time we join the majors.”
And let’s face it, life in The Show is a lot better than bus trips in the minors.
Gorgeous skyscrapers – real buildings like the ones you see in faraway lands like New York City and Chicago – have sprung up all over town. Now, when you drive in from any direction you see and feel an exciting city that leaps out at you. Major hotels have finally found the route to Philly. Restaurants, with renowned chefs attached to them, have now become commonplace rather than the exception. It use to be Bookbinders and little else. Those days are over.
The arts scene – starting with the stunning Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts right down to the tiniest, out-of-the-way art gallery, Philadelphia can stand toe-to-toe with any city in the world when the discussion turns to music, theatre, dance and art.
And then there’s the sports complex. Citizens Bank Ballpark (Phillies), Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles) and the Wachovia Center (Flyers and Sixers), all standing right next to each other (along with the former home of the Flyers and Sixers, the Wachovia Spectrum), rival any sports complex anywhere in the world.
So with all this in mind, why does Philadelphia continue to have an image problem around the country? Talk to most any person and they’ll tell you Philly is… well, pick any description I used earlier. I honestly believe Philadelphia’s image problem stems from one simple thing: Its sports fans.
Philly sports fans are some of the loudest, most passionate and incredibly loyal fans you’ll find anywhere on the planet. They live and die with their Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and Sixers. They are also, at times, some of the most obnoxious, boorish and unruly fans this side of a Florida Gators football game in Gainesville. And I believe it’s the latter that paints Philadelphia into a corner.
It’s not a lot different than when you hear someone speak about New York City. I know people who have gotten no closer to Manhattan than CSI: NY yet believe that’s all the city has to offer. Crime, crime and more crime, welcome to The Big Apple. Obviously, it’s a gross generalization but images we see and hear on television tend to resonate in profound ways.
It’s the same with sports and its fans. And these sports fans are constantly derided by the national media. Granted, much of that is deserved but when you begin connecting the dots, the image of Philadelphia is one that screams provincial, paranoid and bitter thanks in large part to their fans. However, in the bigger picture, where the entire city is on display both literally and figuratively, it’s an unfair depiction.
England is far more than hooligan soccer fans, there aren’t earthquakes in San Francisco every 10 minutes and Philadelphia simply isn’t what you imagine it to be.
Philadelphia use to be considered a pass-through city to New York or Washington. Now, it truly is a destination worthy of the title World Class.
photo credit: dennis
About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.