Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Tom Ferrick Jr. | A real city, and loved because of that

At public forums, affection for Phila.'s neighborhoods, great buildings, and sense of place is palpable.

It has come as a revelation to me how much Philadelphians love Philadelphia.

I know that is a startling assertion, given our reputation for relentless negativity, so I want to parse this carefully.

I am not saying that Philadelphians love their civic institutions. They have plenty of gripes about the political culture, the public schools, the sports teams, the traffic . . . the list could go on.

What I am saying is that they have a deep affection for the city itself - as a physical entity, as an urban place.

They love its iconic buildings, its rowhouse neighborhoods, the parks, the drives along the Schuylkill, the public sculpture and murals . . . this list could go on, too.

This look into the Philadelphia psyche comes courtesy of a series of public forums we've been holding around the city in recent weeks as part of the paper's Great Expectations Project. (See Chris Satullo's piece on Page 7 of this section for more information about it.)

With help from our friends at the University of Pennsylvania, we've held about 20 citizen forums so far. We'll do 10 more in the coming weeks. By the time all is said and done - and there is a lot being said at these forums - we will have heard from more than 1,000 citizens.

At every session, we ask each participant to list the city's pros and cons. The lists they come up with are diverse, but this affection for the city and its neighborhoods shows up on nearly every one.

How do they love it? Let me count the ways - with words and phrases taken from the sessions.

They find the city to be "authentic."

They revel in what they call its "walkability." They appreciate its "appropriate scale."

As one participant in Point Breeze put it: "It's a city of neighborhoods. It has a human scale, and there is community spirit."

As another person at a forum in South Philly put it: "You can live in a real, old-time neighborhood."

Although it is a city of nearly 1.5 million, it doesn't feel big. Philadelphia is "intimate," probably because of its "friendly, manageable neighborhoods."

The transplants from other places are often the most enthusiastic. One woman related that when her husband was transferred here from the West Coast, she thought: Ugh, Philadelphia.

"I never realized what a wonderful city it was," she said. "We've been here for five years, and we love it."

In an America where everything built before 1950 is considered old, Philadelphia is ancient. We have a lot of "inherited assets," as one participant put it, including a grid system, first sketched out in the 1680s, that was replicated in many neighborhoods as the city grew.

Each generation, it seems, has tried to bequest at least one great building to the city. To name just a few that have come up at the forums, we have Independence Hall (1748); the Academy of Music (1857); the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1876); City Hall (1901); the Art Museum (1928). And let us not forget Fairmount Park (1855).

When asked why the urban experience here is so rich, one woman at a forum in the Far Northeast said: "Because we are old. We've had hundreds of years to build this stuff up."

Let me offer one caveat. This is not the kind of scientific sampling you get in opinion polls. Basically, these forums are self-selected focus groups. I doubt if someone who hates the city and can't wait to get out of here would expend the time and energy to go to one of them.

But, my experience as a reporter in the city tells me these are sentiments that are widely held.

Politicians tend to underestimate the importance of place. They don't do beauty. They don't do aesthetics.

They often see old buildings and old neighborhoods as impediments to progress. Mayors used to brag about how many buildings they tore down.

What they don't see - and what all candidates for public office here should learn - is that the city as a physical entity has a constituency. It's not just preservationists, whom the pols usually dismiss as "building huggers." It also includes a lot of regular folks.

The pols' focus on big projects can be an enemy of small ones that have extraordinary power.

An example: I remember when the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (another great inherited asset) started to do community gardens years ago, people in City Hall laughed because it seemed so do-goodish and trivial: Society dames in garden gloves teaching poor folks how to grow geraniums.

It turns out poor folks embraced the program, and hundreds of blocks created gardens, ranging from small to grand. After all, a garden is far better than a vacant lot. The gardens also helped alleviate the pain people felt over the deterioration of their surroundings.

They loved the greenery. They loved the flowers and the vegetables the gardens yielded. These became places that nourished them in more ways than one.

In the same way, this city nourishes its citizens. To them, it is a place that is good for the soul.


Tom Ferrick Jr. | Great Expectations

On the Commentary Page, Chris Satullo and three leading citizens of the region write about their Great Expectations for Philadelphia. C7.


Contact Tom Ferrick at tferrick@phillynews.com or 215-854-2714.

Tom Ferrick Jr. Inquirer Columnist
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