Conn examines the shifting meaning of the region's history, the utopian impulse behind its founding, the role of the region in creating the American middle class, the regional watershed, and the way art and cultural institutions have given shape to a resident identity.
2006 | 288 pages | Paper $21.95
Social Science / General / Geography / American History
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Table of Contents
Prologue: The Naked City
1. Echoes of William Penn
2. The Ghosts That Haunt Us
3. The Delaware Valley Makes the Middle Class
4. Two Rivers Run Through It
5. In the Mind's Eye: Imagining the Philadelphia Region
Epilogue: The Naked City and the Story of Decline
Prologue: The Naked City
There are a million stories in the naked city.
That line closes the 1948 classic film noir The Naked City. The film itself, drenched in shadow and filled with the grit and swelter of a hot city summer, is a crime story set in New York. The movie, innovatively filmed in the city itself, out in the open, without stage sets, also purports to be, as the narrator explains, a story about the city itself. Its closing line, uttered by that same narrator over scenes of the city at night, has always struck me as the most astute characterization of any city: a great city is, at one level, a vast accumulation of its individual stories. Some extraordinary, some quite quotidian, each different and every one undeniable.
We can imagine, if you like, that these stories exist in two directions—horizontally across the city at any given moment, and vertically through time. These two axes are equally important, for just as the city belongs to those who occupy it from day to day, their stories carry on a conversation with the stories—histories—of those who have been there before. Part of what makes any great city great is this on-going, effortless dialogue between past and present. That conversation contributes to the unique sense of place every real city has.
If there are millions of stories in the naked city, then there have been almost a million stories—and histories—written about the naked city. Historians who have turned their attention to the city have found political cities, places where great men gathered to do great deeds, and they have found cities teeming with radical women and men who came together to challenge those allegedly great men. They have found immigrant cities which functioned as beacons for millions looking for better opportunities, and cities which in many cases turned out to be squalid, oppressive, xenophobic places, places which made a mockery of American high ideals. They have found economic cities, bustling ports and thrumming factory towns, and they have found cultural cities, places where writers, painters, architects and institution builders drew their inspiration and made their mark. They have found cities on the rise in all these respects, and cities in decline. And of course, all these histories are at once right and incomplete. As the most complex and interesting thing human beings have ever created, it is probably impossible to capture the totality of the city in any single book.
As one of the older American cities, Philadelphia has a longer history than most other places. But even more than that, it has also generated an enormous literature about that history. Sam Bass Warner, writing his own book about Philadelphia, noted that Philadelphia had become "a leading center of urban history." That was in 1987, and in the subsequent years the shelves have grown even heavier with volumes about Philadelphia, making my task even more daunting. So I should be clear at the outset. This book does not even aim to be a comprehensive account, or a full history. I certainly can't claim to have read all that has been written about Philadelphia and its region. Rather, its purpose is consider Philadelphia as part of a larger metropolitan region, to examine how the region has evolved over time and to hint at what might face the city and region in the future.
Philadelphia, and all American cities for that matter, have always existed in the center of larger regions, but by and large we haven't understood them that way. When we look at regions in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, our model is usually that of center (city) and periphery (hinterland), town and country. Given the way metropolitan regions have developed since the Second World War, however, that model no longer works. Like other older American cities, Philadelphia's population and economic prowess have both decreased even as the size and economic prosperity of the region has grown. Which, then, is center and which is periphery?
As we work toward a new model to understand regional dynamics we have, generally speaking, seen our cities pitted in an antagonistic, largely racial struggle with their surrounding suburbs. In this view, white suburbs have grown since the end of World War II like parasites feeding off the shrinking, increasingly black body of deindustrializing cities. Philadelphia's story, then, is the same at Pittsburgh's, Detroit's, Chicago's and St. Louis's. George Clinton, the intergallactic funk musician, summarized this version of the state of metropolitan America in the 1970s as succinctly as anyone when he riffed about "chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs."
I am, I confess, largely sympathetic to this view. There are no end of examples illustrating how Philadelphia's suburbs have siphoned resources, population, jobs and more from the city, all the while taking advantage of the city in many ways. City schools are underfunded by the state, as is the public transit system. Since the eighteenth century, Philadelphia has led the country in medical research and training, establishing the nation's first hospital and first medical school among other things. Today, the city's medical centers groan under the burden of caring for a disproportionate number of the region's poor and uninsured. Suburbanites in great numbers from both Pennsylvania and New Jersey treat the city as their playground, using it for everything from high culture and art to drugs and prostitution, while simultaneously, often angrily disavowing any notion that they share any responsibilities for the city's considerable problems.
Yet, much as this gets the big picture right, it doesn't capture the fine grain of metropolitan realities. Especially in Greater Philadelphia. More so than Greater Boston or Greater Chicago I suspect, the Greater Philadelphia region has always had pockets of racial and class diversity. It contains several small urban centers and towns of considerable age, each with its own identity, and each connected to the urban center in certain ways and independent from it in others.
In the eighteenth century, Philadelphia itself had the largest, most influential black community of any city in the nation; in the nineteenth century black communities grew elsewhere—in South Jersey and West Chester, Pennsylvania. Later, West Chester would nurture both the African American painter Horace Pippin and Bayard Rustin, the tactical genius behind the civil rights movement. Coatesville's black community included Essie Mae Washington-Williams's aunt. Washington-Williams, the daughter of savage racist Strom Thurmond and his black housekeeper, was raised by her aunt in that African American community. In the 1950s Bucks County became the site of the second Levitt Brothers development. It was all white, and when a black family tried to move in, they were greeted with racist hostility. And at the same time, five miles down the road from Levittown, Concord Park was developed to be an intentionally integrated suburban subdevelopment. By all accounts it worked wonderfully well.
Race and racism are undeniably at the root of much of the visceral hatred some suburbanites feel toward the increasingly black and brown city. When John Street, Philadelphia's second black mayor, tried to make a speech at the opening of the Philadelphia Phillies new baseball park in the spring of 2004, he was booed for nearly five minutes. The vast majority of fans who come to root for the Phils, needless to say, are from the suburbs. Here again: another example of suburbanites using the city for their own fun, while treating with contempt the mayor who helped use city funds to pay for the stadium. (Of course, Philadelphia fans would boo their own mothers if they struck out with runners in scoring position, so maybe this episode didn't have much to do with race.)
But for others the emotions are probably more complicated. According to Philadelphia Inquirer editor Chris Satullo, what many suburbanites feel toward the city is "an angry love." He explains: "People who grew up in certain city neighborhoods and moved out to the suburbs literally can't go home again. It hurts too much. When they do, they find their old neighborhood has fallen apart, their old house is derelict. They react irrationally. Whey they try to make some sort of sense of the situation, they wind up blaming the people who live there now."
I can confirm that assessment if only anecdotely. Some years ago, I wrote a newspaper essay about Levittown and about the post-war suburbs generally. In it, I argued that fear—especially the racially-based fear of blacks by whites—drove much of the flight to the suburbs, particulary in the 1950s & '60s. I got lots of hate mail about that piece, most of it confirming my premise in the first place, spewing as much of it did about niggers and spics. One letter, however, caught me by the throat. "You do not know whereof you speak," it defiantly began, and the rest is worth quoting at some length, "until you have lived with the sound of police sirens every night—until you can recite the names of the shopkeepers in your area who have been robbed, stabbed, shot, and killed—until you have received a call from the hospital that your son has been badly beaten . . . until you live through the terrible day when a friend of your son, with whom he had eaten lunch, had been robbed and killed. He was 15 years old and only a child." The writer—anonymous, so I don't know whether male or female, black or white—went on: "That is when we decided to leave—it broke my heart to leave the house where my children grew up—the neighborhood where I grew up. It still hurts to think about."
Anger and love in equal measure. Because, as Neil Young sang, only love can break your heart.
These antagonisms, and the consequences that flow from them, are real. Yet despite that hostility, it has also become increasingly clear that the cities and their regions are now linked in ways that make them dependent on each other. Cities still provide most of the institutional infrastructure for regions—everything from hospitals and universities to art museums and symphonies—while many of the patrons of those institutions reside in suburbs. Suburbanites worry about the sprawl they themselves have created—no region in the country sprawled more than Greater Philadelphia during the 1990s—while cities struggle to attract new residents to older neighborhoods. Inner ring suburbs have begun to experience decline and abandonment while downtowns—Philadelphia's Center City exemplary among them—have boomed, becoming home to a growing number of young couples and empty nesters.
Indeed, as an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer astutely put it, "blight and sprawl are intimately linked." They feed one another: "Urban blight fuels middle-class flight which fuels sprawl which chews up government resources which worsens blight which propels sprawl ever outward." In fact, Greater Philadelphia served as the case study that the Brookings Institution used to study the relationship between blight and sprawl. Their report layed out in grim detail the challenges the Philadelphia region faces as it confronts urban decay and the disappearence of farm land and open space.
And yet, Greater Philadelphia has a legacy of sensible town planning, of mass transit, mixed income housing and a front-porch, stoop-sitting culture that could make "smart growth" work perhaps better than anywhere else in the country. No accident surely that Tom Hylton, one of the nation's leading crusaders for smart growth has done much of his work and is based in Pottstown. If blight and sprawl have been born of the same causes, and if they create many of the frictions in the region, then the solutions to those problems will lie in regional cooperation. Even politicians, whose political livelihoods depend on cultivating intense localism, are waking up to this. The Brookings report prompted the creation of the Philadelphia Regional Network of the National Environmental Leadership Program.
Few metropolitan regions have genuinely effective regional cooperation. But the need for it is even more true and more urgent for Greater Philadelphia than for almost any other metropolitan region. While the city of Philadelphia has suffered a great deal in the last fifty years, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has not fared much better. The industies that made it an economic power—coal, steel, railroads—have disappeared almost entirely. Its population is now the second oldest in the nation, and during the 1990s its economy did not boom the way it did in other states. Greater Philadelphia was the only area in the state with any real economic dynamism, but Greater Philadelphia added jobs and population at a much slower rate than most other metropolitan regions. During the period 1989-1999 employment grew 20% nationally, but only 7% in the Delaware Valley. Greater Pittsburgh, on the other hand, didn't really grow at all during the 1990s, and that city finds itself teetering on the brink of financial collapse. Coming out of the second Bush recession, and as I write it isn't clear that it is proving much of a recovery, Greater Philadelphia saw a very slight rise in employment figures while the state as a whole continued to lose jobs.
Put more simply, Philadelphia needs a healthy region in order to survive and those suburbs need a healthy city in order to prosper. And as Greater Philadelphia goes, so goes the entire state of Pennsylvania. The stakes for thinking regionally are high indeed.
* * * * * *
Having said that, however, I have only raised an additional set of questions. The city at least has a fixed line drawn around its boundary, but when we consider the region it isn't clear where those boundaries are. The problem begins with the very name of the area itself, or rather the lack thereof: Greater Philadelphia, as in the title of this book? The Delaware Valley, though strictly speaking it isn't much of a valley, and this name ignores the region's other major river? The Tri-State area? None of these seems quite satisfactory, and I shall probably use them all in the course of this book.
Looked at demographically, Philadelphia is, as I write, vying with the urban agglomeration known as Phoenix to be the nation's fifth largest city, and it is the fourth largest metropolitan region. It is generally considered to include the five counties of Southeastern Pennsylvania—Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester, (though the latter until recently would probably not have been thought of as part of the region)—Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties in South Jersey, and New Castle County, Delaware, the top, rounded part of which includes the city of Wilmington.
In the world of vernacular architecture, however, the region is, or was once, much larger. Vernacular architecture refers to building done without formal planning, or trained architects—folk architecture, reflecting people's particular cultural heritage. (We talk of vernacular architecture generally in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the twentieth century the architecture of houses, shopping areas, farms, etc. has largely been homogenized and turned into a mass produced phenomenon). As pioneering folklorist Henry Glassie has documented and demonstrated, in the eighteenth century the Delaware Valley generated a unique vernacular which combined English and German building traditions. This Germano-Georgian style spread, by Glassie's reckoning, north and west and can be found throughout fully two-thirds of the state of Pennsylvania and into northern Maryland as well.
If we map the region by its transportation routes then we notice that the vestiges of the colonial-era road system remain, their very names a reminder of how the region was once connected: Lancaster Avenue still links the center of Philadelphia with the small city of Lancaster and Chester Avenue still gets you to Chester. You will make it to Baltimore from Philadelphia, eventually, by following the route of Baltimore Avenue meandering south and west out of the city.
Thanks to the railroad development of the nineteenth century, one can take a commuter train run by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) from Center City Philadelphia as far north as Doylestown in central Bucks County, and Trenton, New Jersey, as far south as Newark, Delaware, and as far west as Downington. By this measure, Trenton is part of Greater Philadelphia, but Princeton is not. Located halfway between Philadelphia and New York, that leafy, affluent university town has commuter service north to New York, but not south to Philadelphia.
Recreationally, the dimensions of Greater Philadelphia region grow larger. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Philadelphians journeyed, thanks to new railroad lines, to the Jersey Shore where they escaped the muggy heat of Philadelphia summer. In so doing, they built resort towns from the spectacular boardwalk in Atlantic City to the Victorian gingerbread in Cape May. For summer vacationers, Long Beach Island, north of Atlantic City, marks the boundary between Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Those who wanted mountain air instead of sea breezes filled resorts in the Pocono Mountains to the north of the city. Wealthy Philadelphians went even further afield for their summer retreat, establishing outposts of Philadelphia in Maine.
In the geography of baseball, the Philadelphia region extends west to Reading and north to Scranton/Wilkes Barre, where the Phillies have farm teams, and as far south as Clearwater, Florida which becomes a Philadelphia satellite for the months of spring training. For those who love classical music there is a reciprocal geography. While the Phils play baseball in South Philly during the summer, the Philadelphia Orchestra moves to Saratoga Springs, New York and plays there. Meanwhile, music gets made more intimately at the Marlborough Music Festival in Vermont, an annual event founded by Philadelphians and still with many Philadelphia connections.
Looked at culturally, however, the region is shaped differently. Most people who live in Greater Philadelphia think of themselves, I suspect, as living in the center of the Northeast Corridor, the polite name given to what used to be called by some "Megalopolis," the largest urban concentration in the nation. In this sense, our axis of cultural orientation is north-south. Philadelphians share more in common with New Yorkers, Bostonians, and Washingtonians than they do with people who live just west of the metropolitan area. Many Philadelphians believe the midwest starts somewhere in Lancaster County, and in some ways they aren't wrong.
Regardless of where one draws an exact boundary around Greater Philadelphia, it is a remarkably varied area. Ecologically it takes in the Pocono Mountains and the Jersey Shore, running from deciduous forests to Pine Barrens, from brackish salt water marshes to clear trout streams. Its human creations include not only the major city of Philadelphia, but several smaller cities—Camden, Chester, Reading, Downington, Wilmington—that are, or were, vibrant urban centers in their own right, with their own sense of identity. It stretches from the Amish farms of Lancaster County, reminders of Philadelphia's role as a magnet for European religious dissenters, to the blueberry bushes and tomato fields of South Jersey, though both now are disappearing under the ever-spreading asphalt of suburban sprawl. It includes the bastions of Main Line blue bloods and working class towns in Delaware County. It includes pockets of extraordinary wealth and some of the most crushing, desperate poverty in the nation.
At the birth of the republic, Philadelphia was the center of the nation's economy and of its politics. Two hundred years later it finds itself equidistant from both. And while there are certainly advantages to this location in between Washington and New York, it has also meant living increasingly in their growing shadows. Philadelphia lost its supremacy in banking as a result of the fight President Andrew Jackson had with the Second Bank of the United States in the 1830s. Today, after over a generation of mergers, acquisitions, and the like, most of the region's banking is done through institutions headquartered elsewhere. Commerce Bank, the largest bank headquartered in the area, has its home offices not in the city but in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, among the first postwar suburbs. As the city and region struggle to fashion a new postindustrial economy from the rubble of the industrial one, Philadelphia's boosters have taken to calling the region "the buckle of the Money Belt," though it isn't clear how much staying power that catchy phrase will ultimately have.
In fact, Greater Philadelphia has never had a single economic identity in the way that New York became synonymous with Wall Street, that Chicago was the hog-butcher to the world, or that Detroit was the Motor City. In the eighteenth century Philadelphia was the home of the finest craftsmen in the colonies, and its hinterland was their richest, most productive agricultural area. Early in the nineteenth century, the Philadelphia region led the nation in industrial development, from the anthracite coal fields north of the city, to the glass manufacturers in South Jersey, to the iron forges of Hopewell and other places to the west. Throughout the nineteenth century, the city was a leader in developing and applying industrial technologies. By the 1920s Philadelphia had become known as the "Workshop of the World," a moniker which both captured the "workshop" scale of Philadelphia's production, and the fact that no single industry dominated the economic scene. Indeed, by the 1920s Philadelphia and surroundings probably had a diversity of industrial production greater than any city in the world—from railroad locomotives to lace to processed goat leather to hand rolled cigars to refined sugar. Virtually anything made in a factory in the early twentieth century was probably made somewhere in Philadelphia.
That diversity has proved a mixed blessing to the region. When the industrial economy began its decline in after the Second World War, it was not spectacular like the collapse of the steel industry in and around Pittsburgh, but the decline was no less inexorable. Philadelphia held on to its well-paying industrial jobs longer than many places; they disappeared one small plant at a time. One consequence of this death of a thousand cuts was that Philadelphia's business and political leadership has only recently felt the need to plan and build for a postindustrial future. The process of deindustrialization resulted from a whole variety of national and international causes, almost all of which were beyond Philadelphia's ability to control. Or any city's. Philadelphia has weathered this economic storm better than some other places, like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Still, at the dawn of the 21st century, Greater Philadelphia has not yet entirely succeeded in replacing that older economy with something new. Only 19 Fortune 500 companies have their headquarters in this area.
Pennsylvania's largest manufacturing sector is now pharmaceuticals, and that is centered in Greater Philadelphia. This a legacy, in fact, of some of Philadelphia's pioneering nineteenth century chemists—even on the cutting edge of the new biomedical economy, Philadelphia is feels the hand of its history. Combined with the pharmaceutical corridor across the Delaware and New Jersey, the region has grown to be the center of the nation's pharmaceutical industry—from the Juniata Park neighborhood in Philadelphia where the small Mutual Pharmaceuticals makes two billion capsules of generic drugs to Merck's 415 acre campus in Montgomery County known as "vaccine row," to Lititz, Lancaster County where Pfizer produces eleven million gallons of Listerine every year. As I write this, British pharmaceutical company Shire has announced that it will consolidate its North American operations into a new headquarters in Chester County.
Recently the region has begun to market itself aggressively as a destination for tourists and conventions, those staples of the postindustrial economy. Persuading tourists to visit has proved more successful than convincing conventioneers. While the Philadelphia region saw increases in the number of tourists, even after September 11, conventioneers using Philadelphia's convention facility have found themselves confronted—in many cases ripped off—by a set of hostile, thuggish unions who control all the work that goes on inside the building. Eventually the mayor and even the governor had to intervene to create some sort of labor detente. Whether or not this truce holds, the damage may already have been done. Fewer convention groups return to the Pennsylvania Convention Center than to any other major convention center in the nation. For Chris Satullo, the labor fight at the Convention Center was a morality play for the entire region. "If we can't get this right," he said to me, "we won't be able to get anything right."
Yet, the Battle of the Convention Center strikes me as something less significant than some have made it. While the Convention Center surely contributes to the economic health of the city, it seems largely irrelevant to the amazing renaissance that has taken place in Center City. The thousands of new residents who have moved into the area have not been drawn by the Convention Center, nor does the city's lively cultural scene depend on conventioneers. Many city leaders see the Convention Center as the cornerstone of the city's postindustrial economy, and yet all sorts of good things are happening quite independent of it. Indeed, many state and regional leaders hope to expand the center even further, quite oblivious, apparently, to the fact that the area just north of City Hall and just east of Broad Street, recently underutilized and shabby, is already springing back to life all on its own.
Jobs have followed people—or is it the other way around?—in a centrifugal move away from the city. The city itself continues to lose jobs, the result both of certain economic trends and of a political leadership uninterested in addressing structural problems that hinder economic growth, and its share of jobs in the region as a whole is shrinking even more dramatically. More city residents now commute to jobs in Montgomery County than the other way round, leading some planners to rethink the entire definition of the "reverse commute." Service sector jobs—a vast, grab-bag category of employment which includes everything from hotel workers to computer professionals, grew at a healthy rate, but still probably not fast enough to make the region economically competitive with other areas.
Demographic data from the go-go 1990s reveal the relatively weak attractive power of the Philadelphia region's economy. During the height of that economic boom a smaller percentage of people left the area than they did New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and Dallas. Out-migration from the Delaware Valley between 1995-2000 amounted to 8.6% of the total population, as compared to nearly 14% in San Francisco. But a smaller percentage of new residents arrived than in any of those places meaning that Greater Philadelphia's population grew by only 3.6% during those years while the city by the bay saw a nearly 12% jump. As David Thornburgh of the Pennsylvania Economy League put it: "We really don't have an out-migration problem. We're lagging in population not because too many people are leaving, but because not enough people are coming." These figures are mirrored in recent statistics on college graduates, one of the major "products" of the region. According to a study done by the Knowledge Industry Partnership, 86% of college graduates who grew up in Greater Philadelphia stay after they graduate from college. But only 29% of those who come from outside the Delaware Valley and graduate from Philadelpha-area colleges choose to stay. Even in these statistics we find a two edged sword, however. The region may not be the first place new graduates and others want to move, but for those who do live in it, Philadelphia is a place where people sink deep roots.
It has become a truism widely accepted that immigrants play a vital role in the economies of metropolitan regions. During the 1990s, for example, much of New York and Chicago's revitalization came because of an enormous influx of foreigners—over a quarter million Chinese to New York City alone, according to one estimate. Historically, Philadelphia has always been a more "native" city than either New York or Chicago, and that has not changed significantly in more recent times. While it is true that virtually all immigrants groups are represented in the region, from Russian Jews to West Africans to Southeast Asians to Albanians, Greater Philadelphia continues to be a secondary immigrant destination. One hundred years ago with the region's factories humming, Philadelphia's provincialism didn't matter much. Today, the price for provincialism is economic stagnation.
The region's sense of economic insularity has been underscored recently by the regional competition over jobs. Part of Camden's revitalization plans involve the aggressive poaching of jobs from Philadelphia, offering generous—one might say ludicrous—tax breaks to lure employers across the river. Wilmington has done the same thing. Rather than imagining that the region might grow by adding to the total number of jobs, many political and economic leaders seem to see jobs as a zero-sum proposition. The best that can be hoped for, from their point of view, is to steal from another part of the region.
Regionalism faces political obstacles on several levels. Most obviously, the region encompasses three different states, which means dealing with three governors, three different state legislatures, and three different congressional delegations. Just as importantly, however, county level government has been traditionally weak and ineffective (some of Philadelphia's problems are compounded because the city and its county are coterminus. The city thus has to pay for all municipal functions and for county-level functions as well.) Political life on the local level in the Delaware Valley thus tends to be organized around the township. While there is a certain quaintness to this, it has the effect of making larger scale planning—about anything from transportation to land use to economic development—very difficult indeed.
All of which paints a bleak portrait of Greater Philadelphia. And yet, to make another literary allusion, it is also the best of times as well as the worst. Several recent developments suggest that, economically and demographically, the nearly half-century postindustrial decline, and the problems that swirled in its wake, probably bottomed out during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The population has stabilized at roughly 1.5 million, crime has been reduced and the schools are now embarked on their most promising era of reform. The pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction.
The region has an educational, medical and cultural infrastructure that is the envy of most other regions. Indeed, by one count, Philadelphia has the largest per capita concentration of colleges and universities in the country, and the second largest concentration of health resources. One out of every six doctors in the nation spends some part of her or his training in Philadelphia, for example. Insofar as the new, "information" economy requires those kinds of institutions, Greater Philadelphia is poised to do well in the next century. In particular, the concentration of medical centers, pharmaceutical companies and colleges is putting Philadelphia at the center of the biotech economy which many have predicted will be the next boom.
By the 1990s the bond market had lost confidence in Philadelphia's political leadership, and for better or worse, as the bond market goes, so goes the political future of any big city. That confidence was restored under the leadership of Mayor Ed Rendell, the most visible, dynamic big city mayor during the decade, and dubbed "America's Mayor" by Vice President Al Gore. The budget is balanced, albeit precariously and people no longer perceive the city to be on the verge of financial collapse. This is good news because a stable, revitalized city will be central to a newly vibrant region.
In fact, Rendell made fewer structural changes in the way the city does business than he is credited with. He did not restructure city contracts or finances significantly, he did not reign in the municipal unions, nor did he wrestle with the problems of city schools. He did have an almost perfect understanding of the poetics of governing, and more than anything else he made people, both inside and outside the region, feel good about the city again. That is no small claim. Whatever else they may be, cities are acts of faith, and Rendell restored that faith for a great many Philadelphians.
During the 1990s downtown Philadelphia experienced a stunning renaissance, which generated dozens of new restaurants and cultural venues. Unlike many downtown redevelopments, however, which simply turned downtown space into themed Romper Rooms for suburbanites (think St. Louis, Columbus, or Cleveland), the most significant piece of Philadelphia's rebirth was the number of people who live downtown. In a ten year span over 12,000 residential unit were added to the housing stock in Center City, and now nearly 100,000 people now reside in the 4.5 square mile center of the city, making it the third largest residential downtown in the country. Central Philadelphia is now a more exciting, lively, vibrant place than at any time since Jefferson and Franklin were walking the streets.
The city also has the highest concentration of people who walk to work, something that seems exactly right if you've ever walked around this most walkable of American cities. For those who don't, however, the region has a public transit infrastructure unequalled in all but a few places. Though SEPTA has been badly managed and under-appreciated for years, public transit will prove indispensable as the era of cheap gas comes to a close.
If life in downtown has never been better, then life in the neighborhoods is getting there. Many city neighborhoods are improving—from Manayunk to Fishtown, from University City to Queen Village—and in others the sense of inevitable decline is fading. Lots have been cleaned and cleared, new school buildings are going up and real estate is hot all over, including places in North Philadelphia, once considered utterly hopeless, like the Girard Avenue. Measured against the bad old days of the 1970s, life is generally better for most Philadelphians, regardless of race or class. This is not to play Pollyanna about the city's very real problems, but it is to say that people throughout the region feel differently about the city than they did just a few decades ago. The importance of that emerging sense of confidence is hard to over estimate.
Indeed, one way to take the measure of this reversal of fortune is to listen to the growing anxiety expressed publicly by the region's suburban residents. Increasingly they are worried about environmental degradation, congestion, and social alienation. While real estate investment pours into former industrial neighborhoods in the city, news stories about "urban decay" are now generated from inner ring suburbs and abandoned shopping centers.
Though much divides the city from its surrounding Pennsylvania suburbs, race and class most bitterly, the region did demonstrate the political potential it holds during the last three presidential elections. Traditionally, the city voted heavily Democratic, while the suburbs were a bastion of what political scientist Patricia Craig, herself a product of the area, calls "Episcopalian Republicanism." As the national and state Republican party have careened further and further toward the radical right, however, those fiscally conservative, socially moderate Main Line Republicans have been persuaded to vote for Democrats. In 1992, and again in 1996, the city and the surrounding suburbs gave Bill Clinton such an overwhelming majority that it made the votes of the rest of the state largely irrelevant. The state narrowly went for Al Gore in 2000, again entirely because of the support he got in the five counties of Southeastern Pennsylvania. This city-suburb coalition came together once more to elect Ed Rendell—the former mayor of Philadelphia and Jewish to boot!—to the governorship in 2002. And in 2004, the same ad hoc political coalition gave Pennsylvania to John Kerry. At least at certain electoral moments, the city and surrounding counties have more in common than they used to.
To capitalize on all this, to put these pieces together will require not simply greater political cooperation, more active and visionary leadership from the private sector, which has traditionally conducted itself very privately, and a broader willingness to share prosperity and burdens more equitably throughout the region, it will require a fundamental change of ethos. Satullo asks this rhetorical question: "What big economic development of the twentieth century has been good for the Philadelphia region?" Indeed, each new economic wave, from aerospace to computers, to the globalization of manufacturing has largely been bad for Greater Philadelphia. This has contributed to an overriding conservatism in the region. Philadelphians are Olympic-class cynics, and demonstrate a greater willingness to complain about the region than people almost anywhere else. Philadelphians seem to have learned this lesson in the latter half of the twentieth century: the status quo may not be great, but change will almost certainly be worse. The result of this, Satullo thinks, is that "Philadelphians just don't believe. Everything is in place here to make this region work," he continues, "but we have to break old rules and think in new ways."
That is surely right. But at the same time, such a statement does not give enough credit to the history of the Delaware Valley and its people. Philadelphia has sat at the heart of its region for over three hundred years now, and it has weathered an extraordinary number of social, political, and economic changes. Over those three hundred years, it has handled some of those changes well, others not so well, but one way or the other, it has survived them, adapted and reinvented itself while holding on to its sense of place and identity. There has been a great deal of water under its bridges in the last three hundred years.
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In this book I will try to trace the contours of Greater Philadelphia by looking at just a few themes. These themes are my own estimation of what explains this region, what holds it together, and what makes it different from any other place. If I've made wise choices then this book will both touch on familiar things, and, I hope, help to think about this place in some new ways.
What follows are five thematic essays, each of which I hope stands on its own but which taken together capture what this region means. We begin at the beginning. Chapter One looks at the utopian impulse that founded the city. William Penn brought both ideas about religious tolerance and a vision of city planning to his Philadelphia that made the city perhaps the most daring and remarkable of any of the utopian experiments Europeans founded in the New World. The Quakers may now be a tiny minority in the region, but I believe their utopian legacy lingers in a variety of ways. Chapter two examines what we mean when we call Philadelphia "The Quaker City."
In Chapter Two I look at the region's collective historical consciousness, the use it makes of its own past. Plenty of places express pride in their own history, but Greater Philadelphia's relationship with history is both longer and more complicated than that of any other place in the nation. Philadelphia's history—especially its connection to the founding of the nation—is, to borrow from the writer Nathaniel Popkin, both its trump card and the albatross around its neck, and this chapter tries to illuminate the way people in the region live with the ghosts of the past.
Philadelphia is often thought of popularly as a blue collar town, a lunch pail place where life is lived in tightly knit working class enclaves. I argue in Chapter Three that this isn't quite right. Rather, Greater Philadelphia was central to forming what we mean when we talk about the middle class in the United States. From the single family home, to the middle brow summer recreation at the Jersey Shore and in the Poconos, Greater Philadelphia contributed to the emergence of an American middle class identity. It is also the place where the working class—artisans and factory workers—could first aspire to a middle class life, and in this sense Greater Philadelphia has shaped our sense of ourselves as a middle class nation.
Chapter Four takes us back to the original lifelines of the region: the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Here we trace the way the rivers have shaped the human activity of the region, how the rivers then largely disappeared from our daily awareness and daily lives, and how, in a postindustrial age, we are on the verge of rediscovering the two most significant natural features of the region. The rivers, which are not bothered by political, racial, or economic divisions could well play bigger role in tying us all together.
The last chapter attempts to weave many of these themes together under the umbrella of culture. Philadelphia has been at the center of the nation's cultural life since the 18th century and in this chapter I want to examine certain institutions and certain artists to look at the way their vision of the region has been shaped by the connection to utopian impulses, to the area's history, and to a middle-class, middlebrow sensibility. Artists, after all, give us the images we carry in our heads of places and I want to conclude this book by considering the images bequeathed to us by Philadelphia's artists.
A few questions, or issues recur throughout these chapters. I am interested in the particular way in people in the Delaware Valley interact and live with the past; how they have interacted with the landscape; and how they have interact with that set of principles and circumstances upon which the whole region was founded in the first place. If these essays are heavy with history, then forgive this historian's parochial interests. Still, I do believe that the Philadelphia region lives with a sense of its own past in a way few other places do, and it is that sense of history which contributes to its sense of place.
The themes I have chosen to examine in this book are not usually of the sort that urban historians and urban studies scholars study. Much of their work continues to center on quantifiable questions—things that can be counted and analyzed numerically. Jobs, housing, demographics, economics. Important as these issues are, they don't capture the totality of the lived experience of people in any metropolitan area. Life is more than the sum of its countable parts. I offer the chapters in this book as my attempt and a more cultural analysis of the region, with the assertion that the realm of culture, fuzzy and hard to pin down as it may be, is just as important for us to understand as the world of "hard" data.
I have been acutely aware writing this book that I have been shooting at a moving target. The dance I have tried to orchestrate between past and present is made that much more complicated by the fact that in a big, dynamic area like Greater Philadelphia, the present is changing all the time. Historians have a hard enough time getting the past right. I can only hope that the issues and themes on which I have chosen to focus will prove to be more enduring than much of what marches fleetingly across the stage of current events. My problem has been, to paraphrase a nineteenth century writer, that, despite its age, Philadelphia did not sit still for this portrait.
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There is a final to conceive of the contours of Greater Philadelphia. At the level of how people conceive of themselves and their identity, the boundaries of Greater Philadelphia prove almost unmappable. Large quantities of Tastykake, the local snack cake, are shipped regularly to lost and homesick Philadelphians around the country, particularly in Florida, Texas and California. Several of those Philadelphians have established eateries specializing in Philadelphia foods: a meal at one of these places might start with scrapple, proceed to a main course of soft pretzels (with mustard) and cheesesteak sandwiches, and conclude with a Tastykake (and perhaps a coronary episode). According to a recent report, one far-flung Philadelphian has set up a restaurant serving Philly cheesesteaks in Thailand.
And so a final caveat: in this book I shall call people in the region generally and generically "Philadelphians." In the end, perhaps the most important contribution the city makes to the region, and thus the biggest debt owed by the region to the city, is the most ineffable and unmeasurable. To say, "I'm from Philadelphia" gives people a sense of themselves. It means something, and whatever that something is, it is different from what it means to say I'm from Chicago, or I'm from Phoenix. I suspect that most people in the region, when they are asked by someone outside the Delaware Valley, where they come from identify themselves as Philadelphians. After all, whatever it may mean to say "I'm from Philadelphia," responding "I'm from Horsham," or "I'm from Upper Dublin," doesn't really mean anything at all. For better or worse, in both anger and love, we are Philadelphians.
There are indeed a million stories in the naked city, and just as many about it too. This one is simply mine.