A Field Trip for the Creative Class
I currently live in a furnished, one-bedroom apartment located one block from City Hall, just about at the center of Center City, Philadelphia’s downtown nexus of commerce and culture. My neighbors are students at the nearby Art Institute of Philadelphia, fellow corporate warriors on temporary relocation, and dog owners, since this is one of the few pet-friendly buildings in the neighborhood. The view from my window is of the office building across the street, but to see the grand parade, all I need do is step outside.
Stepping out the door and turning right, I will soon pass the Prince Music Theater, a renovated former movie house that now presents specialty films and a musical theater series. The next corner is South Broad Street, the Avenue of the Arts. Anchoring the various theaters along the street is the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, a relatively new jewel of a venue that is home to the Philadelphia Orchestra, a season of high-profile jazz concerts, and an annual summer solstice celebration.
But exiting my building and turning left, that’s where the fun really begins. In the next several blocks, I can buy just about anything I might want or need for day-to-day living, and so can the rest of Philadelphia, it seems. Fashion chasers with money can stop at Kenneth Cole or Benetton or some of the other posh boutiques along Walnut Street, while round-the-way girls can get their ghetto fab on at H&M, and kitsch lovers can indulge their hipster tastes at Urban Outfitters. Readers can visit the Borders on Broad Street, or the Barnes & Noble on Walnut, or various indie bookstores tucked between some of the multiple coffeehouses and specialty shops. My immediate dining options range from the Wendy’s across the street to every manner and price point of international cuisine, although I might trade one of the two Thai restaurants for a barbecue joint. One of the churches in the neighborhood likes to rotate posters of decidedly non-Biblical wisdom, such as “An idea is a curious thing. It will not work unless you do.” It also hosts the occasional rap concert. Whether I’m jonesing for jewelry, athletic gear, or a piano, all I need do is put some shoes on and if I actually need shoes, there’s a Johnston and Murphy on the next block.
Across from the Barnes & Noble is Rittenhouse Square, an oasis of green amidst the concrete storefronts and high-rises. Why people would want to grab an outdoor table at the trendy spot across the street sorta escapes me: that place gets pretty crowded from all the pedestrian traffic, while the park is amazingly lush and quiet despite the constant ebb and flow that surrounds it. The combination of nature, people, and architecture draws many landscape painters, while the Wi-Fi hotspot draw lots of laptops. Each of the benches bears a dedication from a benefactor, a symbol of the park’s rejuvenation after, I surmise, a period of neglect. On the other side of the park are streets with names like Delancey Street, comprised of classic rowhouse architecture made pristine with modern flourishes.
There are people everywhere, all the time. I hear people speaking foreign languages into their cell phones constantly. I wouldn’t characterize the people as friendly in that classic Middle American way, but they aren’t brusque or agitated in that classic New York City way, either. A man who’s probably in his 60s and is always nattily attired has staked out a spot in front of the former Today’s Man storefront, and plays his trumpet, horn bent skyward a la Dizzy Gillespie, for the passing throngs. I find the homeless people far less irritating than the man with the bullhorn on his head, a sandwich sign jammed with magic market scribblings of some prophecy or another, given to making irritating comments about traffic, other pedestrians, and the general state of the world at the height of the afternoon rush hour.
And all that doesn’t include the other half of Center City, east of South Broad Street. It’s a bit more downscale than the section where I live, but the diversity of shops, restaurants and humanity, including one of the city’s main “gayborhoods”, is no less mind-boggling. And then there’s the South Street shopping and entertainment district, site of the infamous 2002 Mardi Gras riots (when the bars closed before the drinkers were finished), the regentrified Northern Liberties and Fishtown neighborhoods, and the art galleries and nightspots of Old City, where those Real World kids are tramping around as I write this.
One would think that all this eclectic ambiance would make Richard Florida salivate. Florida is, by trade, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. But he is better known as the guru of the creative class, a concept he and his students developed to explain how cities are prospering, or not, in the post-industrial economy. Those cities at the top of his Creative Class Index, like Boston, Massachusettes and San Francisco, California have a high preponderance of young, educated people working in knowledge industries such as technology, the sciences, and the arts. Corporations and cities large and small heavily court these folks, because they represent the taxpayers and job creators of the future. Florida’s research discovered that those people are attracted to areas that offer diversity of cultural attractions, opportunities for people to network and socialize, and tolerance of diverse lifestyles. In short, his research asserted, the people most in demand gravitated to places where life was “cool”. (You can find out how “cool” your burg is at creativeclass.org.)
Florida spelled his theory out in The Rise of the Creative Class (Preseus Books, 2002), one of the most influential books on the life of cities in the last 25 years. His theory became that rarest of policy wonk happenstances: a cultural touchstone. It had all the trappings: a catchy name, an easy-to-explain concept, and a soundbite-ready pitchman. In short order, Florida went from earnest college professor to academic star, and then to one-man cottage industry, finding himself courted by cities from Denver, Colorado, to Antwerp, Ohio, to Lafayette, Louisianna, to explain to CEOs, politicians, and other civic leaders how they, too, can transform their towns from Old Economy dinosaurs to New Economy “cool” spots. And city after city bought into the hype, sprouting up efforts like the civic groups CreateDetroit and Cool Michigan (it’s a wonder Florida hasn’t yet trademarked “cool”). Critics have denounced his work as simplistic and missing a lot of key points about how cities and their economies actually function, but Florida brushes them off as naysayers who need to get with the program.
So here we have Philly, which, on the surface I just described, seemed to be about as “cool” as “cool” can get. In addition to the aforementioned range of amenities, there are five universities in the city, including the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, which would seem to offer a ready-made pipeline of the best and brightest to make a go of it here after graduation. And at this writing, Philadelphia ranks a respectable #17 on Florida’s US index way better than important cities like Miami, Florida, Charlotte, North Carolina, and St. Louis, Missouri.
But all is not well here in the City of Brotherly Love (and, as some are given to add, Sisterly Affection). Philadelphia may enjoy a nice ranking on Florida’s list, but it’s well behind not only San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Austin, but also other places you might not lump in that “cool” tier, like Houston, Texas and Portland, Oregon; Hartford, Connecticut is nipping at Philly’s heels. Many locals who care about such matters will tell you that Philadelphia may look like a fabulous place for young professionals on the surface, but there are factors eating away at the veneer that could cut this teeming metropolis, the birthplace of David Boreanaz and Noam Chomsky, to the core. Philadelphia is a city in decline, the headlines scream, and something needs to be done about it right away.
Jobs have fled the city, and not enough are being created quickly enough to fix things. What has driven the jobs away? The wage tax, that’s what. Essentially, anyone who works or does business within the City of Philadelphia pays an additional tax that isn’t imposed on suburbanites. That extra financial burden is enough to drive people looking to save some money elsewhere, especially those in the prime of their careers. Those with families also consider the fact that for many years, the public school system was in chaos, and while there have been some improvements, even the system’s CEO admits there’s a long way to go. This flight has extended as close as the other side of the city line and as far as the South.
Groups such as the Tax Reform Commission and Philadelphia Forward have been trying to do something about it for years, and they almost had their moment this year, after years of trying to be heard, during the budget negotiations between Mayor John Street and City Council. Tax reform advocates fought fiercely to get something passed to start making the city a bit more tax-friendly, but with a huge deficit staring him in the face, Mayor Street argued that changing the tax code for the future couldn’t come at the expense of providing essential city services in the present. Several weeks of political brinkmanship ensued, with Council passing both a budget and a package of tax changes that the mayor had opposed, and doing so with a timing that left him few palatable responses, short of heading into the 2005 fiscal year with no authorized way to pay city employees.
Aside from the tax debate, the biggest noise made during the budget negotiations came from the city’s arts community. Philadelphia is probably best known throughout the rest of America as a cradle of liberty, and most of the tourists (but few of the locals) make it a point to see Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center, and the various other icons of America’s birth while they’re here. But there has been a huge push to emphasize Philadelphia as a mecca for the arts. The world-class symphony orchestra plays in a sparkling facility, and those not too tired from their own version of the Rocky run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art will discover several substantial collections inside. There’s also a Rodin Museum, perhaps a museum for the mobiles of Alexander Calder someday. There are art galleries all over the place, authors large and small are always in town giving readings, the annual film festival takes place at several venues, and there’s a big street festival somewhere in town most summer weekends. Even the bleakest neighborhoods are adorned with larger-than-life murals, saluting the community’s life, heroes, and aspirations. The arts are a potentially major draw for tourists, its advocates stress, and the additional money to be made would help drive the flagging economic engine.
But the mayor’s proposed budget would have sharply reduced the city’s support of the arts, and that prospect left people howling. Although the mayor argued that large institutions like the art museum could have found the money elsewhere, arts advocates feared for the impact cuts would have on smaller entities, already reeling from the post-September 11 downturn in philanthropic support. One such institution, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, was in such disarray that the city advanced it money so that staff could be paid through the end of the fiscal year.
Before the budget process was formally concluded, Mayor Street announced the closure of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, a cabinet-level department that served as the liaison between the arts community and the politicians. No one would actually be laid off, and other departments would assume the functions of the office, but arts supporters immediately felt the symbolic pain. Many cities don’t have public funding of the arts, and many others are struggling with whether or how to approach the issue, so for Philadelphia to shutter a department would send the totally wrong message about civic priorities, wailed the arts community remember, places with a healthy arts scene attract “cool” people.
Also, “cool” people like the fact that places have skateparks, and here came another schism this spring between the creative class and the political class. Philly skaters claimed as their own LOVE Park, so known for Robert Indiana’s block-letter “LOVE” sculpture. Its circular design and multiple levels were nirvana for skaters, and helped Philadelphia land one of the first X Games competitions. But the pounding the concrete slabs took from flying skaters left many sections loosened, and the city banned all such activity. Again, the lament: this is why people like Philly, and you’re standing in the way. A skating gear company even offered the city $1 million to renovate and maintain LOVE Park, but City Hall stuck to its fiscally strapped guns.
All these things gnawed at Philadelphia’s tender psyche. The tourism folks may have coined the phrase “Philadelphia: The Place That Loves You Back,” but a more apt moniker might be “Philadelphia: The Place That Refuses to Love Itself.” Seemingly at every turn, Philadelphia finds a reason to break into another chorus of woe-is-me. Completely unscientific rankings by magazines needing to fill pages rank Philadelphia as one of the fattest, ugliest and most fashion-challenged cities in the country. Philadelphia in turn takes those results, usually not much more than water cooler conversation, to heart, as yet another indication that this city of 1.5 million is on its way to oblivion.
Following Philly sports teams is a useful way to understand this phenomenon. My plane landed here during the January 2004 playoff game between the Eagles and the Green Bay Packers, which the Eagles won thanks to a game-saving 4th-down-and-26 play. For a whole week, the city was gripped with Eagles Fever, secure in the knowledge that a win in the conference championship game was forthcoming, sending them off to the Super Bowl. The Eagles lost that game, and the city was left bitching through a funk at the coach and several under-performing players.
Soon after, the hockey team was eliminated from the playoffs by the team which had acquired a key player from Philly during the season, and basketball fans watched the coach who abandoned them last year win the championship in Detroit, Michigan. The baseball team was supposed to do great things in its new ballpark, but has been limping around the break-even mark so far this season. Saint Joseph’s University made a gallant run during the men’s college basketball season, but fell just short of the Final Four.
But none of those human disappointments measure up to that which came from a horse. Smarty Jones, bred at Philadelphia Park, won the Kentucky Derby and, at a record pace, the Preakness. Everyone in Philadelphia instantly became a racing buff, secure in the knowledge that the city was about to have a winner at last (apparently, Philly fans think they’re entitled to regular sports excellence, and get righteously indignant when it doesn’t happen). There were Smarty Jones hats, Smarty Jones T-shirts, Smarty Jones songs. Smarty Jones was getting fan mail by the sackload. Smarty Jones, not the mess in Iraq, led the local news. Smarty Jones was going to take the Belmont Stakes, become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, and repair Philadelphia’s bruised ego, all in the course of a mile-and-a-half. Philadelphians called him Smarty, proud to be on a first-name basis with a three-year-old horse.
That was me jumping up and down, screaming “Go! Go!” in the Turf Club, Philly’s largest off-track betting site, during the Belmont not to Smarty Jones but to Birdstone as he passed Smarty in the final furlongs to, once again, strike a dagger in Philly’s heart. I’d never seen a crowded place empty so fast after the race was over. There was no joy in Mudville, mighty Philly had struck out yet again.
But if you really want to get the locals riled, start with the numbers. Population numbers, to be precise. It’s not enough that they’re shrinking, because even at that, Philadelphia has ranked in the top 5 most populous American cities throughout its entire history. But that will change by the 2010 census, according to most projections. Philadelphia will be overtaken by you’d better sit down for this Phoenix, Arizona. Yes, a former prairie outpost whose main attractions are weather without snow and room to grow is about to urban-sprawl its way past Philadelphia as America’s fifth largest town.
Philadelphians tried their best not to interpret this as a sign of the apocalypse. The change won’t happen as early as projected, so the spin went, and it’s the level of federal funding we receive that matters more than where we fall on a list. But why, then, would you splash it all over the front page of the April 25th Inquirer? Is it another case of gloom and doom selling newspapers? Or could it be that the proud residents of this fine city, the place where Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Tell Tale Heart and Julius Erving won his only NBA championship, love to hear the worst about themselves?
As near as I can figure, or as sensibly as anyone has yet to explain to me, there are two roots of Philadelphia’s massive insecurity. One is its recent history. The city’s reputation hit rock-bottom in the 1980s in the wake of then-mayor Frank Rizzo’s controversial tenure and the 1985 bombing of a street of rowhouses in efforts to silence the radical African American conclave Project MOVE. There was no real reason besides the historical stuff for anyone to come here back then, and the sense following MOVE and other scandals was that Philadelphia was anything but a city worth being in. Major conventions avoided Philadelphia, the decline of the schools took hold, and the downtown grocer’s mall, Reading Terminal Market, was literally rat-infested.
Philly turned it around in the ‘90s, building a new convention center, renovating the market, and working hard to bolster its national rep. The arts scene took off, and triggered the regentrifcation of older neighborhoods and accompanying boom in property values (a pattern that has shown up all over America, as Florida duly notes in his book). But even then, Philadelphians found a way to temper their own progress. After the new convention center opened in 1993, union rules were established to strictly regulate who could load shows in and out of the facility. Such rules didn’t exist elsewhere, and it took years of truce building between the city and the unions to arrive at a workable but uneasy détente (echoes of the bad old days surfaced in the Real World soap opera).
But perhaps the larger reason why Philadelphia needs a shrink lies two hours to its north. New York City, which any New Yorker will tell you is the greatest city in the world, has been a magnet for the young, the talented and the hopeful since day one. It’s strong, vibrant, cultural, historic and a vital hub of American life. So too is Philadelphia, but not to the extent that New York is. This is obviously not Philadelphia’s fault, but Philadelphia looks northward and is stricken with a case of civic penis envy. Philadelphia may be home to rock wizard/true star Todd Rundgren and enigmatic film director M. Night Shyamalan, but it fears it cannot keep its most talented aspiring artists from hitting the New Jersey Turnpike sooner or later. Likewise, Philadelphia is also two hours away from Washington, DC, another mecca for the young and ambitious.
Of all the great cities along the northeast corridor, Philly is far and away the most blue-collar. It’s a working person’s town, even with all the arts and society stuff. People party hard on the weekends, and spend Sunday getting ready for another week of toil. There is nothing wrong with this, and Philadelphia embraced the Rocky myth of the underdog not just because the film was shot here, but because it spoke to an essential part of the city’s nature. Philadelphia may have lost more charms and assets than the Phoenixes of the world can ever hope to claim, but it remains hopelessly fixated on the loss, and is only now learning to get over it and hold its head high. If only Smarty Jones had held on down the stretch.