Stu Bykofsky | Exorcising the ghost of Lincoln Steffens

SOMETIMES Philadelphia seems like a big old house haunted by ghosts.

We have the friendly ghosts of William Penn making peace with the Lenni Lenape Indians, of Founding Fathers creating a New World and of early 20th-century industrialists turning the City of Brotherly Love into a workshop for the world.

But we host evil hobgoblins, too:

* Mother's Day 1985, when the

city tried to burn itself down, or so it seemed to some.

* Two decades earlier, when the

Phillies blew a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 games left to play.

* And nothing has haunted us

longer, or more caustically, than Lincoln Steffens' observation about Philadelphians and corruption, written more than 100 years ago.

I sometimes think publishers have a clause requiring anyone writing about Philadelphia to dredge up THE quote. Every local and many a non-local columnist has used THE quote like a shillelagh to bash us.

In McClure's magazine, Steffens described Philadelphia as "corrupt and contented."

Always was, it is said.

Always will be, it was believed.

Tom Knox built his mayoral campaign on the novel notion that we were tired of corruption. He lost.

End of story?

No, because another "reformer" won. Between them, they got two-thirds of the votes.

In the aftermath of Michael Nutter's impressive primary win, journalists dug up THE quote again, but now said that Nutter's victory meant (maybe) that Philadelphians are no longer "corrupt and contented" and are sick of pay-to-play, backroom deals and pinstripe patronage.


 

The background of Steffens' eternal mockery - contained in a collection of his magazine reports published as "Shame of the Cities" in 1904 - is rarely explained.

Philadelphia got more shame and blame than we deserved.

Who says so?

Steffens himself.

In his 1931 biography, Steffens admitted that he "seemed to give the impression which lasts to this day, that that beautiful old American city was the worst in the land. Not true, of course," he wrote, in italics.

Steffens believed corruption developed over time and was much more visible in older cities than in newer ones.

"If I had gone from [Philadelphia] to Boston or some other old town in New England," he wrote, he "might have shown" that Philadelphia was not the worst he had seen.

Although Steffens wanted to muckrake back East, McClure's editors sent him instead to Chicago.

He found the junior city on the plains "an example of reform, a sensible, aristocratic-democratic reform experiment."

Philly suffered by comparison.

So here's what we've got:

A dead author whose Philly one-liner has been overused and abused.


 
A mayoral nominee who is a reformer.

This is Philadelphia 2.0. Lincoln Steffens is dead. We may still be corrupt, but we're no longer content. (Maybe.)

Rats!

Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood and I will receive A-Rat-Emy Awards at the 5th Annual Fab-Rat-Festival, tomorrow at PetSmart, 2360 W. Oregon Ave. in South Philly, from 6-8 p.m.

One of us will accept in person.

The event features a kids' art competition, food, music, raffles, a rat beauty pageant, an opportunity to meet domestic pet rats and perhaps adopt.

The event is sponsored by Rat Chick Rat Rescue and Advocacy Group, which educates the public about pet rats and helps place them in homes.

Eastwood is one of many celebrities who like pet rats, according to Rat Rescue. *

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/byko.