This city is in ruins. Emotional ruins. But this city is my city. The city where I was born. And the city where I’ll likely breathe my last breath. Philadelphia. You’re hurting and this son feels your pain. There are other places that are hurting more. I know that. So maybe we should be feeling lucky. But lucky isn’t what I’m feeling at the moment.
Every time I write something unflattering about you, I feel like Judas. Like I’m beating down on you. Like I’m beating down on my own folks or my kids whom I love so much. As if I’m disloyal. But while my love is unconditional, it’s not blind. I can’t write what I know to be untrue. I’m not one of the habitual naysayers. Don’t want to kick you while you’re down. But can’t ignore your failures if I’m to praise your successes. And right now there are too many stumbles and not enough victories.
Part of the problem is structural and not your fault. American big cities have all the responsibility for the problems, but little power to fix them. Philadelphia is in that same situation. The mayor righteously took back responsibility for our public schools from an indifferent state. But with that responsibility came many of the problems causing the separation in the first place. But solving our problems involves going hat-in-hand to the state. Rural areas dominate the state’s politics. Have done so for as long as I can remember. The western part of Pennsylvania looks upon us and our needs with an unsympathetic eye. Views us as a bad investment. Like a wayward child. A money pit. Sees us as evil. Like some Babylon they’d like to get rid of. Sometimes they’re right. From their vantage point, we’re Sin City. The repository of everything they despise. Often, they hate what they can’t understand. Rural folks believe we look down our noses at them. And sometimes we do. But while we’re overwhelmed with a whole bunch of typical “city” problems, many of them fled the city to get away from them. The rural folks want nothing to do with the city’s problems. But our problems are becoming their problems. Problems like unemployment, the COVID pandemic and crime that doesn’t respect city limits.
This city — our city — is worth saving. It’s a national shrine where the pulse of democracy beats faster. It’s not just soot and crime. This city is more than just a bunch of historical buildings and museums, too. On a quiet Sunday in Old City, you can almost hear the ghosts whispering about old King George. Can almost see Ben Franklin carrying loaves of bread down Market Street. The revolutionary spirit lives in the crowds who visit here.
Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods and parks. Some neighborhoods are almost like killing fields where the battle for survival goes on every day. The ethnic neighborhoods can be like little towns — either suspicious or welcoming. Where pride and hostility walk hand in hand.
There’s Center City. Rittenhouse Square, a lovely park that people actually use. Where the elite sit a bench apart from those poor lost souls who stare aimlessly into space. Amidst the boutiques and cafes, diminished crowds of shoppers in masks find some escape from the dreaded virus.
Our city has changed over the years. Yet in so many ways it hasn’t changed at all. Like a child, Philadelphia is all grown up. No longer do we take a back seat to New York. We’ve become sophisticated, even glamorous. The restaurants are a wonderful mix of European-style cafes and large glitzy eateries in town. Small neighborhood enclaves of ethnic dining where the food can be equally delicious and mysterious. The pandemic has killed off too many small businesses. But some have expanded into outdoor chalets and changed the face of neighborhoods around the park.
The nightclubs where my parents romanced are all gone. The Latin. The Click. The Celebrity Room. Mitchell’s Supper Club. Big Bill’s SINATRAMA Room. Even the places of my young adulthood in the ‘60s have disappeared. The coffee shops where Joni Mitchell sang her first wistful melodies. The Tin Angel. The original Electric Factory where the Chambers Brothers performed. Gone. Replaced in the ‘70s by venues such as the Spectrum, where Billy Joel sang as the self-styled Piano Man. Where Springsteen shouted at the streets of fire. Time again moved on. Other venues have sprung up as once again the city changed to accommodate them.
The theaters are dark at the moment as we wait for COVID to move on. But as the sign out front of the grand façade of the Academy Music reads — It’s only intermission. Unfortunately, though, the thrill of the big city’s cultural life is not the entire story.
The forgotten neighborhoods are still forgotten. Philadelphia’s revitalization has not extended to the parts of the city we still try to sweep under the rug. Crime, if anything, is more deadly. But unseen to many of us are neighbors trapped in these places. Brave people who fight to take back their streets from drug dealers and hustlers. Folks who don’t want to escape so much as to make better the areas where they live. Flowers that bloom among the weeds of vacant lots and boarded-up houses.
It is these challenged places where hope lives, but must be nourished. Where tomorrow’s poets are playing jump rope or shooting baskets in tired old schoolyards. They hold the secret of whether our city ultimately survives.
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