A true confession: as a transplanted New Yorker, I had never set foot in Philadelphia until I was invited to interview for the job of head of the Department of History and Politics. After a long professional detour in Miami, however, the idea of a Northeastern city was irresistibly attractive to me. I could wear a sweater; I could attend a professional concert; I could visit an actual museum. Philadelphia offered these opportunities, plus a relative proximity to my hometown.
I knew certain things about the city: it was the site of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention; it had a very good orchestra; it was the home of cheesesteaks. I found other attractions, too, once I arrived, as well as certain drawbacks. Philadelphia had recently become the first city in American history to bomb its own citizens, and then to imprison not the perpetrators but the sole adult survivor of the attack. It had attractive commercial and residential areas, but also vast tracts of poverty and abandonment that reminded one of a bombed-out city. This, though, pretty much comes with the territory with any American city. It was Europe that got half-destroyed in World War II—Leningrad, Warsaw, London and Berlin. But it’s America, these days, that looks it.
Philadelphia’s most insidious problem, however, has always been its inferiority complex. It was once the first city in America, its first national capital and, at the time of the American Revolution, the largest English-speaking city in the world outside London. New York shot past it in the nineteenth century, partly because of its growth as a financial and commercial hub, and partly from its location as the destination site of Old World immigration. Philadelphia’s economic base was more in manufacturing and in its proximity to the coal and oil fields of Pennsylvania. But it is no longer a great workshop, and its prosperity and population both waned in the latter twentieth century. It was a city in economic decline when I reached it, and this trend, while partly arrested, has not been reversed. The old wealth settled in the suburbs, and to a certain extent Philadelphia was irrelevant to it. This, too, was a fairly familiar urban story. American cities, especially since the great African-American migration from the South after the Civil War, have become warehouses for the poor.
You could say much the same of Boston or Washington that you could of Philadelphia. But Washington is the national capital, and its cachet rests with that, while Boston is the capital of New England, still a region (not to say a religion) unto itself. Philadelphia is a stop on the Northeast Corridor line. It took last May’s horrific train derailment to remind a lot of people that it was still there.
As a result, the city fathers are always talking up making Philadelphia a “world-class city,” a “destination city” and the like. A few years ago, they tried to sell the poor town as an American Paris. Sorry, but I’ve been to Paris. No sale.
Nowhere was the Great Inferiority Complex more palpably on display than in the late struggle over the Barnes Foundation. Nestled just over the city line in suburban Merion, the Foundation, the brainchild of a self-made millionaire, Albert C. Barnes, and America’s foremost philosopher, John Dewey, was home to one of the world’s largest private collections of art, and assuredly its best. The Barnes and its educational program had functioned for seventy years when a consortium of Philadelphia business, “charitable,” and political interests, having milked its endowment dry, succeeded in moving the collection downtown into a museum as ugly in design as in purpose: to commercialize what had been designed as a purely philanthropic venture, free of tuition or other charge to the public in perpetuity. City fathers crowed over their coup, for the Barnes, now situated on the Ben Franklin Parkway instead of the wilds of Merion five miles away, would surely make Philadelphia world-class. What it demonstrated, certainly to me, was the ingrained provinciality of a city that thinks the way to deck itself out is with the stolen goods of its neighbor. (The world took notice, too; I received letters from as far away as Australia, vowing never to set foot in Philly because of the Barnes heist.)
Now, it seems, the city is on the verge of becoming world-class yet again because of the visit of Pope Francis. If a papal blessing could do the trick, we’d be in luck this time, because Francis dispenses his blessings in bunches. Alas—or, depending on your point of view, thankfully—he’ll only be here for a couple of days, so Philadelphia won’t become Rome any more than it did Paris. It’s been enough, though, to provide nonstop news, most of it about how to cope with the virtual lockdown of center city while His Holiness graces us. Our paper of record, the Inquirer, seems to have turned itself into an English-language version of L’Osservatore Romano for the duration, including tips on how to train for a five-mile hike to see the Pope celebrate Mass. But then, it’s not every day you get a chance to become world-class—even if it’s only for a day.
Philadelphia really does have a history as the birthplace of the world’s first modern democracy, and as a place with a rich and diverse life. It just might be that it sells itself short by trying to sell itself too hard. Its elites have certainly failed it of late, not to say embarrassed it. It’s not too late, though, to shed delusions of grandeur it will never sustain. It could make a beginning by coming to terms with its vexed racial history, especially the MOVE bombing. And it could return the Barnes where it belongs, back in Merion. Dial me when it does.