Same Civic Neuroses, Different Day
I’d only been in town a month when Faheem was killed, but it struck me as deeply as it had the lifelong Philadelphians who went on that march. Granted, there is something universally tragic about a promising life taken before it ever really began, no matter whom or where. But this one hurt. It hurt me as a person, as an African American man, and as someone who lives and works, at least for now, in Philadelphia.
It was also the event that, I now recognize, christened me in the Philadelphian spirit. Feeling the murder, sitting through his wrenching funeral, trying to come to grips with the madness and nonsense of it all, pulled me into the life of the city in a manner that sightseeing and shopping never could have approximated. It made me care about what goes on here. I would have kept track of those things anyway (a freelance journalist is a freelance journalist, no matter where he/she is or what he/she is doing there in the first place), but since Faheem, I’ve felt a need to be a part of this city.
And that I’ve done. I’ve managed to find my way around a good section of the city, discovering bakeries and murals-in-progress and various other nooks and crannies that long-time residents, at best, take for granted. I’ve been to the blockbuster Manet exhibit at the art museum, and to an installation chronicling the desegregation of North Philly institution Girard College in the ‘60s. I met a woman who told me how the Stylistics, one of Philly’s beloved R&B vocal groups, emerged from two rival bands during the Vietnam war, and I encountered a Real World camera crew in Old City on a Saturday night. I’ve given foreign tourists directions to Independence Hall, and I’ve marveled at the ornate arch that announces the beginning of Chinatown. And when being in the city got to be too much, I packed up the car and headed for the beaches of the Jersey shore.
So for now at least, I have no qualms with saying that I’m a Philadelphian, and in talking about what it is that makes this city tic. The old adage about outsiders seeing things that natives don’t notice is probably true in my case, but I think there’s a bit more to it. I understand something about Philadelphia’s nature because, of all things, I’m also a Clevelander.
The idea that a Clevelander would have some sort of special insight into Philadelphia would strike most Philadelphians as downright ridiculous. How could Cleveland, a Midwestern hick town where it snows all the time, compare in any way, shape or form to mighty Philadelphia, they’d sneer. Why, the only thing Cleveland ever did for Philadelphia was not outbid the Phillies for first baseman Jim Thome when he was a free agent in 2002 by the way, thanks Cleveland, Thome’s having another great year.
On the day I’m writing this, an Inquirer sports columnist had the nerve, or lack of wit, to drag up that lamest of Cleveland cliches, the one about the burning river. A section of the Cuyahoga River, which runs through downtown Cleveland, caught on fire in 1969 (immortalized in Randy Newman’s “Burn On”; he had given a concert in Cleveland that night and saw the flames from his hotel room), but it would seem that a healthy percentage of the great unwashed outside the Buckeye State think it’s still burning.
In fact, not only has the river been rehabilitated for years, it is now a tourist attraction and weekend hotspot. The Flats has been a popular hangout for 20 years, with traffic approaching gridlock during party nights. Motorboats ride along the river and dock at their preferred watering hole to see and be seen. Both banks have been developed with housing as well as entertainment and a few small businesses. The area became so popular that a bit of a backlash ensued, with the crowds (and especially the rowdy drunks) scaring some partygoers into the Warehouse District, which is to Cleveland something like Old City is to Philly. Still, while there are a couple of nice clubs in Philly along the Delaware River, the Flats in even a diminished state is what Penn’s Landing wants to be when it grows up.
I’m hoping Philadelphia will understand that momentary venting over yet another pitiful Cleveland joke. In fact, Philadelphia should commiserate with Cleveland, for no other two cities in America have been such sturdy foils for cheap laughs. For both cities, such dubious status was not entirely earned, but bestowed upon them in the service of comedic timing (although cities with burning rivers aren’t, admittedly, prime candidates for being taken seriously). W.C. Fields was able to stretch out the cadence of “Philadelphia” so adeptly that the sound of the name triggered laughter in generations of Americans. Philadelphia became a steady stream of one-liners that Fields took to his grave, or at least his tombstone: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia”.
Philadelphia became such a punching bag that, a generation or so later, comedy writers needed some fresh material. Enter Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the revolutionary comedy TV show in the late ‘60s. One of the staff writers, so the legend goes, grew up in the Cleveland area, so he was at least familiar with the place. He’d tired of hearing everyone use Philadelphia for gags, and wanted to see if another city could handle the awesome task of being a rhythmic fit for a quick-tongued comic. He tried Cleveland in a one-liner he wrote for Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens, and the rest is history. “Philadelphia jokes” became “Cleveland jokes” almost overnight.
Of course, in the ‘70s, it was easy to laugh at Cleveland. You think Philly has population issues? In 1950, Cleveland ranked seventh with 914,000 residents, as it was a hub of Big Steel and corporate activity. By the 1970 census it had plummeted to 750,000 citizens and 10th place, as Big Oil in Texas began to supplant the northern industrial juggernaut (Detroit lost nearly 300,000 people over the same span), and downtown Cleveland was deserted after dark. Today, the city of Cleveland numbers less than 500,000, and isn’t even the biggest city in Ohio. Not surprisingly, Cleveland is a bit distressed by this turn. They’ve done a good job of moving past the era of Big Steel (not that there was much of a choice), but no economic driver has emerged to replace it. Thus, Cleveland was one of the early adapters to Richard Florida and his creative class ideas. They’ve been trying to develop a climate that would encourage young risk-takers to come, visit and stay, possibly in fields related to bio-technology (taking advantage of the world-class Cleveland Clinic Hospital and Case Western Reserve University).
But such efforts are hampered by a school system that, like Philadelphia’s, has turned to radical approaches to education reform (several Philly schools are run by for-profit companies like Edison, while Cleveland was one of the first systems nationwide to embrace a voucher program). The population that’s leaving the city these days isn’t going far it’s moving to the outlying suburbs, creating quaint little sprawl towns along the corridor between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio.
One development that has taken root has been the arts community’s realization that it had clout. This sea change happened along a couple of tracks. First, the arts community realized that they had to unite and work together as a matter of economic survival. The Community Partnership for Arts and Culture was formed to help make the case for public funding of the arts, an utterly foreign concept in the home of the best orchestra in the country (sorry, Philly) and Karamu House, a landmark theater for African American playwrights and performers.
As those efforts amassed, along came Florida proclaiming that a vibrant arts scene would help make Cleveland “cool”/ Once Florida’s concepts took hold in Cleveland, the arts crowd seized the day, and strove mightily to get funding for the arts on a ballot. Unfortunately, this being Cleveland, there were still some old ideas and entrenched power blocs with their own sense of civic priorities in the way. A confusing and watered-down proposal was voted down in March 2004, but not by a landslide, and arts advocates expect to make the case before the electorate in the future (at least, after a school levy in the fall, possible funding for a new convention center once people can agree on where it should be, and whatever other emergencies crop up).
There’s a difference between Philadelphia trying to maintain public funding for the arts, and Cleveland trying to start it. The idea that some cities don’t fund the arts would leave people in Philadelphia (rightly) wondering how that could be. The instructive thing is that although the Philadelphia and Cleveland situations are opposite sides of the same coin, it’s the same coin: how do these cities, each of which have built new stadiums for their pro sports teams within the last decade, choose to value arts and culture? What is the real priority? One would think that the birthplace of Mario Lanza would have a lot of wisdom to offer the childhood home of Bob Hope, and vice versa.
But that’s assuming that Philadelphia can stop wearing its pain on its sleeve for a moment. It’s not like Philly is the only city with a school system that was taken over by the state government. It’s not like Philly is the only city that has been far too busy burying its young. It’s not like Philly is the only city that has to negotiate the chasm between Old Economy stodginess (and entrenched power) and New Economy restlessness (and emerging power). It’s not like Philly is the only great American city that sent a delegation to Phoenix, or some other newly minted Sun Belt metropolis, to get a new perspective on things. (And just for the record, Philly sports fans: so it’s been 21 years and counting since you had a world champion team so what? It’s been 40 years and counting in Cleveland, so stop whining over a damned horse.)
Perhaps, then, that’s the answer to the riddle I used to ask myself: how was it that I took to this city so naturally? It was because I understood the rhythms, the emotions, the fits and starts of cities trying to remake themselves because some list or guru or economic indicator said they had to. Cleveland’s years-long march towards civic self-esteem prepared me for Philadelphia’s similar odyssey. Clevelanders will tell you that Cleveland is a big small town. I’ve had Philadelphians tell me that Philadelphia is a big small town. There is no Philadelphia storyline that I hadn’t seen in a parallel version in Cleveland. All I did, essentially, was relocate from the birthplace of Halle Berry to the birthplace of Grace Kelly. So when Philadelphia agonizes over the issues of the day as though it’s the only city in the world that has issues, I can honestly say that I’ve seen this movie before, and step out for some popcorn.