9.29.2015

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

Philadelphia at night
I came to Penn and to Philadelphia in the early 1990's.  I was not from around here.  Far from it; I grew up in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood in San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and attended a public high school that consistently ranks among the best in the country.

The Philadelphia I arrived in as a fresh-faced 18-year-old freshman in 1991 was on the brink of bankruptcy.  There was no Pennsylvania Convention Center, no tourism strategy, no live/work/play buzz.  No major commercial or residential developments loomed on the horizon.

University City was similarly grim.  It was essentially a formal part of Penn freshman orientation to not go west of 40th Street.  On the corner of 40th and Walnut were two fast food restaurants that everyone nicknamed "McDeath" and "Murder King."  University City District did not yet exist, and while I was an undergrad a popular professor who lived just west of campus was stabbed to death on the sidewalk not far from his home.

I feel old saying this, but my freshman year in college was almost a quarter-century ago.  And the Philadelphia of 2015 is markedly different.  Coming off the glow of hosting Pope Francis, and in anticipation of hosting the Democratic National Convention, Philly is feeling swaggy about its ability to play host to the world.  A recent LA Times article gushes, "Why Now is the Best Time to Visit Philadelphia (and It's Not Just Because of Pope Francis)," and recounts all of the wonderful amenities now available to residents and visitors alike.

I have a lot of Penn classmates who shared the Philly of the early 1990's with me but didn't stick around after, going back to where they grew up (which was all over the world) or heading for familiar landing places for Penn grads (Manhattan, London, Silicon Valley).  Invariably, some will act curious or even patronizing when they learn that I never left University City let alone Philly, puzzled as to why someone who has choices would choose the West Philly they remember from their undergraduate days.

And, invariably, they return to Philly - for a convention or a wedding, or for a Penn function - and they see what the LA Times article reported, and what I enjoy every day, which is a Philly that is packed with the kinds of things that delight both residents and visitors.  Incredible public spaces? Check.  New retail and entertainment choices?  Check.  Food, culture, urbanist grit?  Check, check, and check.

As for me, I bet long on Philly as a 22-year-old newly minted graduate, and I'm glad I did.  My mortgage is affordable, my kids can walk to a great public school, and our daily routine involves a lot more flavor and a lot less driving than that of many of my peers.  I'm feeling very full and very grateful.

But all is not utopia.  Part of what I was betting long on in 1995 was a Philly that was broken and needed healing.  Though not all of my faith persuasion believe or live this, I think the Bible speaks of the importance of cities to God's heart and to humanity's redemptive story.  I have decided that there is more good to do and more gain to be had in participating in city life - in all its textured highs and crushing lows - than to be walled off from human pain and community dysfunction in leafy, homogenous suburbs or bucolic rural settings.

Philly may be 180 degrees today from its early 1990's version.  But it still contains crushing poverty, wrenching hurt, and systemic injustice.  Our nation's generations-long shift to a knowledge economy has widened the gap between the have's and the have-not's, and cities like Philadelphia are really becoming tales of two cities, one of grim existence and the other of glamorous cosmopolitanism.  Hence, flashpoints of urban gentrification and cultural insensitivity abound.

A recent Philadelphia Magazine blog post wondered about "The Death of Gentrification," which is to say this generation's gentrifiers are no longer guilty about this juxtaposition between affluence and indigence.  I am torn.  It is good, at a macro and micro level, for people with means to come into a city and enjoy it, invest resources in it, and want more out of it.  Without their activity, there is not enough tax base to solve the problem of municipal services and public education.  We ought not vilify people for this. 

However, even at a very shallow level it is disrespectful to insensitively frolic amidst the graveyard of wrongs and ills that weigh down the vast majority of our citizens.  Inequality in all its forms is a huge issue of our time, and one man's actions cannot possibly solve it; but nor should we be numb to the role we play in either solving or aggravating it.

Twenty plus years after a much younger version of me made big life choices to stay in Philly, I am glad for all the progress the city has made, but I am also alerted to all of the pain that remains.  Both are part of Philly's story past and present, and mine as well.  What will become of our future? 
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