Is Philadelphia dying?
It's an old question. Increasingly, it's also a stupid one. Philadelphia is not dying. And that fact is head-smackingly obvious both on the city's ever more vibrant streets and in the data.
And yet the notion that Philadelphia is a city on the edge of the abyss just won't go away. This week, the Daily Beast, Newsweek's website, argued that Philadelphia was a city in decline, a metropolis "struggling to get back on its feet" after the recession, a town that was "no longer that shining beacon of hope that the Founding Fathers saw as the symbolic home of a newborn republic."
Hang your head, Philadelphia, the Founding Fathers disapprove. The piece also managed to work in a cheesesteak reference. Disappointingly, the article fell just short of hitting the trifecta: no mention of Santa and the snowballs.
Befitting a premise this epically wrong, it took only a few hours after the story was published for fresh proof to emerge that the city was actually in the middle of a reasonably strong recovery. The same day the Daily Beast took its shot, the Census Bureau released new population figures estimating that Philadelphia has added 10,465 residents since the 2010 count.
And, let's remember, the 2010 figures were the first in 60 years to show that Philadelphia was growing again, not shrinking. What's more, the population of young adults - those between 20 and 34 - grew by 15 percent between 2000 and 2010, even as the nation as a whole grew grayer.
How about unemployment? The city's jobless rate is 10.5 percent, an ugly number cited prominently in the Daily Beast's article, which leans heavily on data compiled for the annual state of the city report by the Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative.
But Pew highlighted another employment indicator the Daily Beast overlooked: The city's unemployment rate is declining much more quickly than the national or state averages. Actually, most big cities have higher unemployment rates than the rest of the country, in good economic times and bad. Unemployment in Los Angeles stands at 13.3 percent, for instance, and nobody is suggesting that L.A. is dying.
Another sign of Philadelphia's alleged descent into the urban afterlife is the city's housing market, where sales have fallen off every year since 2005. But this argument is preposterous. Sales are off in almost every corner of the country. In fact, Philadelphia homes have held their value better than those in almost any big city in the country, outperforming New York, Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, and many other far more prosperous communities, according to research by Kevin Gillen, a housing expert at Econsult.
The real story - one that's not fully appreciated even locally - is that homes in Philadelphia have increased in value by 45 percent over the last 10 years, even accounting for the popping of the housing bubble. That's 2.5 times the national appreciation rate, and double the increase seen in the Philadelphia suburbs, according to Gillen.
That does not sound like a death rattle to me.
Indeed, with the population growth, the relatively stable home values, and the fast-falling city unemployment rate, Philadelphia is actually outperforming its suburban neighbors in a lot of key metrics for the first time in a long time. In other words, the data suggest Philadelphia is leading the region's recovery, not holding it back.
Yes, Philadelphia suffered in the recession (as did everywhere else). And yes, Philadelphia has huge, pressing problems. The ongoing flight of the middle class - including the African American middle class - is deeply troubling. Poverty is endemic, taxes are too high, City Hall's revenues are too low, the public schools are by and large failing, and violent crime is unacceptably commonplace.
But all of that was true 20 years ago as well.
And in spite of it all, Philadelphia endures. That's because the sum of the city's appeal can't be totaled up by subtracting the homicide rate from an index of property values. Other things matter too, and maybe they matter even more: Rittenhouse Square on those first few days when the temperature tops 70 degrees. Block party season. Food trucks, whether they're serving cuisine that is haute or just hot.
For too many longtime residents, these urban charms are outweighed by the seamier side of city life. That's unfortunate. But to dwell on the departures alone undersells the city. The fact is, Philadelphia is becoming a city of choice, a destination for people with other options, people who in years past chose the suburbs or other cities regarded as more economically dynamic. Empty nesters. Young college graduates. Immigrants.
Chumps, I guess, every last one. After all, Philadelphia is dying.