I recently worked up the temerity to visit one of my favorite cities on the Eastern soon-to-be undersea-board: Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Boxing. I rather enjoy a jaunt through this charming mixture of old-republic brick piles and rust-stained cairn arrangements, but I must express a slight nervousness upon entering the local milieu. Despite a typically welcoming ardor from its cheese-soaked denizens, I find myself perpetually afraid of unintentionally setting one off.
I once favorably compared some of Philadelphia’s modest architectural achievements (the Cira Center—I was trying to be nice, but one struggles to relate to the man on the street corner with whom you are waiting for the walk signal) to one of the lesser monoliths built by the Chicago giants, and got an astonishingly creative screed about the soulless nature of New York and the superior community of local eagle fanatics. I confessed myself perplexed until I spied a four-story placard promoting an angry rugby player decorated with warlike feathers and the universal color of envy (green). In other words, everyone seems rather sensitive here.
Spending time in Philadelphia will quickly you acquaint you with this phenomenon and its roots in the city’s long history of epic failure. Founded by peace-loving Quakers and, from the beginning, open to all faiths and nationalities, Philadelphia soon abandoned this stupid tradition and became a hotbed of revolutionary fever and anti-government plotting, prompted primarily by Benjamin Franklin’s morally upsetting Poor Richard’s Almanac, which encourages astonishing notions of thrift, industry, and philanthropy. While the British government was unable to suppress such inflammatory rhetoric or prevent the establishment of a new nation headquartered in Philadelphia and then quickly re-headquartered to a more desirable location (first, seedy Dutch dockyards; then a swamp), our country fortunately abandoned such unwise advice many generations ago, and now recognizes New York as the paragon of capitalist achievement.
Such promising beginnings and crippling setbacks have formed the core of Philadelphian identity over the centuries. The city birthed the Declaration of Independence (written by a Virginian), the Articles of Confederation (drafted by a Philadelphian), and the Constitution (fathered by a Virginian). Two of these are revered to this day. The city proudly celebrates such heritage with a government-owned Independence Hall, a broken bell of freedom, and real statue of a fake Hollywood character based on an actual Italian-American boxer from Boston. Philadelphia, in short, strives to be the living embodiment of self-contradiction.
While nervously picking my way through these sad sights (see also: Philadelphia Zoo; Eastern State Penitentiary; “cheese” “steaks”), I conspicuously maintained my distance from the inhabitants and their bellicose mannerisms. I particularly enjoyed avoiding the Please Touch Museum (bad idea, it seemed to me) and the Franklin Institute, a science museum where Benjamin Franklin impersonators are trained to dispense syphilis. Feeling somewhat constrained by the millions of people trapped here, I hopped on the closest train (the conductor affirmed that it was headed “away”) and was immediately whisked to more auspicious pastures to the west—the famous “Main Line” of even more touchy and insecure wealthy people. Being wealthy and completely at ease with myself, I was treated like a king. Evidently, the charms of Philadelphia immediately improve upon leaving the city limits.
It was among the proper society of Devon horse matriarchs and mutual fund wealth masseurs that I discovered the crown jewel of Philadelphia: the King of Prussia Mall, named after a duke from Poland, probably. It’s near Valley Forge, where Washington’s army preferred to spend the winter instead of in Philadelphia, and set amidst lovely rolling hills and tony stone farm-manors. It is, of course, only the second-largest mall in America.
I spent some time discussing with local society the upcoming New York theater season in front of Macy’s, but soon realized that these gentry only wanted to learn which were the proper opinions to express. Apparently, they were determined to demonstrate their cultural superiority to the rubes in Delaware, who do not have a Nordstrom’s and, indeed, are simply happy to have credit cards. I could only surmise that these semi-Philadelphii were worried that, without pretending to be as sophisticated as their bigger brothers in New York, the nation may decide to build a new, better, functional Liberty Bell in Wilmington’s more hospitable swamps.
So I left the conversation there—one-sided, vaguely threatening, and somehow endearing. I feel for the residents of Philadelphia and their middle-aged Mummers lilting through New Year’s Day parades and scaring children at birthday parties. I understand their anguish over being smaller than New York; less important than Washington; and not having actual architecture like Chicago. Even Baltimore and the entire state of New Jersey can lay claim to superlatives (deadliness and ugliness, respectively) of which Philadelphia seems intent on being jealous.
But if there’s one message I could communicate to Philadelphians, it would be this: don’t worry about being like your neighbors; don’t strive to be something you’re not. Just be the best Philadelphia you can be. Because you and the rest of the East Coast are never going to be a match for San Francisco—now that’s a world-class city!