Philadelphia reinvented

From W.C. Fields to

It should come as no surprise that assorted Philadelphians have mobilized to tick off all the reasons why should locate its proposed second North American headquarters in Philadelphia.

Reading Terminal Market: 'A splendid food culture,' says Bloomberg. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
  • Inga Saffron, in Friday’s Inquirer, advises Amazon that in order to grow over the long term, the company needs a city with a strong sense of place, a rich cultural life, great transit connections, and lots of infrastructure-ready land that is close to both the business center and to universities.” Guess which city she has in mind?
  • Business columnist Joseph DiStefano, in Monday’s Inquirer, notes that Amazon needs 8 million square feet — and “the Navy Yard, the railroad land next to Drexel and Amtrak, the former factory districts of North Philadelphia, and sites in Montgomery, New Castle, and Camden Counties could fit that, with room to spare.”
  • John Fry, president of Drexel University, writes: “Philadelphia has what Amazon wants. This is not the time to be bashful.”

Now, Bloomberg and Forbes

Not since the late 1940s, when Philadelphia staged an ambitious campaign to locate the United Nations headquarters here, has so much civic firepower been mustered toward a single goal. As I said, this in itself is not surprising. (Fry, as chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, is the city’s designated head cheerleader.) No, what is surprising is that commentators elsewhere are touting Philadelphia as the best site for Amazon. For example:

  • Forbes last week published an article headlined, “Why Amazon Should Put Its Next Headquarters in Philadelphia.” Writer Adam Ozimek cited Philadelphia’s relatively low cost of living, its amount of commercial real estate under construction, the number of universities in close proximity, and its major airport only 15 minutes from downtown.
  • Bloomberg last week ran an article headlined, “DC Needs Amazon, but Amazon Can Do Better.” Philadelphia, suggested writer Megan McArdle, has “relatively cheap real estate, relatively good infrastructure, and an easy commute to Washington or New York. It also has a splendid food culture with lots of walkable amenities to keep your employees happy.”

Three reasons

Now, suppose you (like me) first arrived in Philadelphia in the 1960s, when a civic group called Action Philadelphia sought to rally local citizens behind the slogan, “Philadelphia Isn’t as Bad as Philadelphians Say It Is.” And suppose you dropped out of the sky into Center City today. You might well wonder: What on Earth is going on here?

Until perhaps 20 years ago, whenever I asked a new arrival what brought him or her to Philadelphia, the question elicited three answers, and only three answers:

  • I went to college here, and I liked it and I stayed.
  • I married a Philadelphian, and I liked it and I stayed.
  • My company transferred me here, and I liked it and I stayed.

(The first two responses applied to me.)

That is, hardly anybody said, “Gee, I’d like to live in Philadelphia,” the way they might choose to live in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. My own daughters, both raised in downtown Philadelphia, moved to New York as soon as they graduated from college — not for a job or a husband (they had neither at the time) but for the sheer excitement of being at the center of the universe — an excitement that a slower, more provincial city like Philadelphia seemed unable to provide.

Compared to Brooklyn…

But lately, I increasingly encounter newcomers who say they’ve moved here for Philadelphia’s arts scene, or they’ve heard that actors can make a living here, or that it’s more affordable and more stimulating for retirees than, say, Lake Havasu City in Arizona.

BSR contributor Naomi Orwin is a case in point: She’s a teacher, writer, and inveterate city dweller who has lived and worked in Chicago, Manhattan, Los Angeles, London, Tel Aviv, the south of France, and Rochester, New York. Five years ago Naomi moved to Philadelphia with hardly any local connection. It just seemed like an ideal fit for her, she says.

To be sure, my daughters have no intention of moving back to Philly. On the other hand, my younger daughter, now a TV writer blissfully domiciled in Brooklyn, recently threw a birthday party attended by many of her New York writer colleagues. One such friend, upon hearing that I'm from Philadelphia, told me he’s moving here. When I asked why, he replied, “I can’t afford to live in New York. I can work anywhere — all I need is a laptop. I can serve my needs in Philadelphia for half the price. And if I need to see an editor in New York now and then, Amtrak will take me there in an hour and a quarter.”

The comedian W.C. Fields, a Philadelphia fugitive who often spiced his acts with digs at his native city, once joked that his epitaph would read: “Here lies W.C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia.” (His actual epitaph reads simply: “W.C. Fields 1880–1946.”) Today, actual living people in Seattle are contemplating investing $5 billion in Philadelphia.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” In a world of constant change, not necessarily.










Our readers respond

Richard da Silva

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on September 19, 2017

Another knowledgeable contribution from Mr. Rottenberg, experienced observer.

As for people's attractions to Philly, I came, for one, in 1980, with a young man's impulse for adventure in the nearest metropolis, after withdrawing from the University of Chicago and briefly living with my parents who had moved form New England to West Chester County. To me then, Philadelphia seemed to move too fast to notice itself. Here was a place where Whirl was King, having driven out William Penn. (Although compared to Manhattan, Center City felt like a small town.)

As Dan limns, our city, known in the early national period (1790-1840) as the Athens of America, now seems continually to be up and coming and a good place to live (or expand a monopolistic business). As you imply, the legendarylocal tendency for self-deprecation seems out of date.

Personally, I've put down psychic roots and enjoy seclusion when needed amid the cultural liveliness. Still, there are times when I can't help admiring Ogden Nash's lament, "Progress was all right once, but it went on too long." As for the apercu of T. S. Eliot with which you close the piece, is literary modernism's first poet even still taught at the University of Pennsylvania? Anyone who lives long enough is likely to experience some or a great deal of cultural dislocation, as well as Eliots's comforting clear and nostalgic memories.

Mike Hazard

of Minneapolis, MN on September 20, 2017

Dan, the Philly riff is buff fluff.

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on September 20, 2017

Modern and Contemporary America Poetry is taught at the University of Pennsylvania. An online course taught by Al Filreis has become one of the standards for all MOOC courses. Whether T.S. Eiiot is discussed— well, you should check with Mr. Filreis. Here's the course link. And here's an article about the course which appeared in the last issues of the Pennsylvania Gazette. The Kelly Writer's House at Penn, where the live version took place, has many wonderful events that are wonderful to explore.

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