Pope Francis and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia

The pope is coming! The pope is coming!

Have you heard? The pope is coming to Philadelphia!

Or, as Mayor Nutter would put it — Oh no! The pope is coming to Philadelphia!

Our last big party: the Bicentennial. (Photo by David King via Creative Commons/Flickr)

If you saw the Mayor’s press conference last month and have followed the stream of gloomy forecasts issued by City Hall, you know that this administration looks on a visit by the pope as if a distant uncle suddenly invited himself to their Wildwood retreat for a month. The bathroom schedule will be issued shortly.

The bulletins about conditions in the city during the Papal visit have been issued almost daily: Don’t expect to drive into the city; don’t expect to take your normal train or bus into the city; don’t expect to find a cab; don’t expect to go to work; don’t expect to walk unless you can handle a marathon. . . .In short: Don’t come! 

Oh, you want to come anyway? Okay, we’ll throw in an eight-foot-tall fence and 5,000 extra buses on streets that already resemble a war zone, with so many sidewalk-less construction sites that a rat would have a hard time cutting through the maze of Center City.

Three cheers for Philly

While the mayor wants to tell you that this event is unlike anything that ever happened before, in fact, there was a similar event in Philadelphia a few years ago. Well, 40 years ago. It was called the Bicentennial. The whole world was going to come to Philly to celebrate America’s 200th birthday.

The folks running the city at that time, under the stern gaze of Mayor Frank Rizzo, decided to issue their own daily bulletins. Rizzo made it clear that no one was going to have any fun in his town! He requested that 15,000 National Guardsmen be called out to quell any demonstrations. They were never needed. Though 100 million visitors were expected in 1976, about one-tenth of that number showed up. The only long-term benefit that came out of the bicentennial bash was that it spruced up the once-decaying area around Independence Hall and Washington Square. Then again, it also gave us the Chestnut Street Walkway. If you don’t remember that particular innovation — Chestnut Street east of Broad was the premier shopping district of the city before they turned it into the Chestnut Street Walkway.

A lukewarm welcome

Could it be déjà vu all over again? Are we going to embarrass ourselves before the entire world again? Can somebody in charge please step up to a news camera and look happy that the pope is coming here?

Philadelphia is a world-class city, and it is about time that the people running it started to act that way and prove that they are capable of planning a world event, such as the pope’s visit. So far, all they have done is complain, spread fear, and warn us that we had better take them seriously.

Has there been any planning to take advantage of the fact that a lot of people are going to be coming to Philadelphia for the first time and this is our chance to shine? Not much. Yes, there have been news articles on the impact of the expected mob on the city’s cultural institutions. It appears that they will all have to shut down because no one will be able to get to them. If anyone gave it a thought, that would also be true for the city’s theaters. Of course, some imagination might have been used to take advantage of this opportunity by enticing all these new visitors to check out the city’s great cultural institutions and see its incredible theater, but maybe that kind of vision requires a modicum of real excitement at the possibilities of using the publicity of this Papal visit to promote the city.

Desperately seeking souvenirs

And if you really want to get depressed, go to the website that pops up first when you google “the pope in Philadelphia.” It’s the site for the World Meeting of Families, the event that is bringing the pope to Philly. I thought the “shop” section would be promoting some of the great stores in Philadelphia, but no, instead, it is selling Pope Francis bobbleheads for $25 (the plush Pope Francis is only $20).

On second thought, bobbleheads and stuffed toys are the perfect symbols for how the Philly powers-that-be have handled this opportunity.

Our readers respond

Tom Blair

of Perkiomemville, PA on July 15, 2015

The problem here is that Philadelphians are actually quite hostile to the pope and a World Meeting of Families. But there's a lot of money to be made from visitors who aren't hostile. All we have to do is hide whatever crime and violence might be directed at the naive visitors, also please hide any profane demonstrations from the LGBT community; hide any union problems. You cannot prevent this stuff, but you can hide it. It's good for business to pretend that outsiders are welcome here. That's not asking too much from our media, is it?

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