Philadelphia: Its Own Borough

by

03/16/2006

33rd St. & Market St., West Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA 19104

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

“Philadelphia is nobody’s sixth borough,” proclaimed the heading of a column in one of Philly’s daily newspapers. “Especially not New York’s,” the column went on to say. The writer was responding to a New York Times article chronicling the migration of New Yorkers to Philadelphia. It noted that Philadelphians themselves occasionally referred to their city as New York’s sixth borough. The columnist countered that Philadelphians did not even like New Yorkers. “New Yorkers are know-it-alls,” he quotes a Philadelphian as saying.

I can understand the sentiment. Filled with my own sense of self-importance I boasted, “I’ll be a big fish in a small pond,” when telling people about my plans to move to Philadelphia. It was a rude awakening to learn that being from New York does not earn you brownie points. In fact, it could even be held against you.

My response to the New York Times article was one of angst. My fear was that it would now become common knowledge that Philadelphia was a city of “liberty and affordable rents for all,” as the Times article quipped. The 20- and 30-something year-old artist types, described as being the first wave of New Yorkers who packed up U-hauls and headed for the turnpike, caught on to this about four year ago. Having first been priced out of Manhattan, and then Brooklyn, they are attributed with initiating the Brooklynization of Philadelphia. Following on their heels, as noted by real estate brokers, is an “influx of prospective buyers and renters from the city.” Likely found within this group are empty nesters, couples raising children and young professionals. They, along with real estate speculators and developers, are scurrying to partake of the spoils of gentrification. And thus goes affordable rents.

I believe I’m still ahead in the game, though. “Philadelphia is one of those best-kept-secrets,” I told those who pooh-poohed my city of choice. I had been priced out of Fort Greene and then Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But it was more than the lower cost of living, which, according to the Times article, is 37% lower than New York’s, which drew me to Philly. I fell in love with Philadelphia the very first time I visited with a college friend in the seventies. The neighborhood where my friend grew up with its brick row houses and awning wooden porches reminded me of my southern roots. It brought to mind childhood memories of summers spent in South Carolina, when I would sit barefoot with my mosquito-bitten legs dangling off the edge of my grandparents’ porch drinking a soda pop. Sometimes my grandmother joined me, and we would shell peas or snap string beans into a large basin on top of her lap. On that and subsequent visits to Philadelphia, I found Philadelphians to be hospitable, friendly, and easy going.

Philly’s slower pace is a further attraction for me. The chaotic ambiance of New York is absent. I read in a travel guide that “Philadelphians think of their home as a ‘livable city’ – not too hectic, not too crowded, manageable.” The air itself seems to have a tranquilizing effect on me. This is probably what Philadelphia’s founder William Penn was eluding to when he wrote back to England: “The soil is good, air serene and sweet from the cedar, pine and sassafras, with wild myrtle of great fragrance.” Philadelphia is a quaint city with beautiful colonial architecture and a low population density. One day while walking through my new neighborhood of West Philadelphia, I realized that, for several blocks, I could be the only person on a block. Wow, a whole block to myself, I remember thinking. Speaking of blocks, Philadelphia blocks are looong. A block here could be equivalent to about two of New York City’s.

And walking is what I got to do a lot of during the SEPTA (transit) strike. Philadelphians took the strike in stride, while I whined and complained every single one of the eight days that it lasted. “New Yorkers would not tolerate this,” I’d say to anyone lending me an ear. (New York’s transit strike was to last three days.) Philadelphians walked, rode bikes, drove, carpooled and went about their business seemingly unfazed. “What about the traffic?” I’d ask, trying to stir up resentment. One person responded that traffic flowed even better without the buses and trollies in the way.

All is not completely rosy in this city of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia went down on record in 2005 with the most homicide deaths in the city’s history. There are blighted neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia where drug dealing, violence and crime are wreaking havoc. The Mayor, Police Commissioner and concerned citizens have joined forces in tackling the problem, but the task is a daunting one. The Governor said he would provide state troopers and even national guards if asked to. The Police Commissioner turned down the offer saying that more stringent gun laws are what is needed, not more manpower. Despite this blip on my beloved city, I feel safer here than I did in my old Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where I witnessed a shooting in the middle of the day just prior to my leaving New York.

With the passage of time, I remain enamored with Philadelphia. This past summer I beheld a beautiful sight while sitting on the porch of the house where I live. Children were playing outdoors without adult supervision. This was something I almost never saw in my Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. What I saw instead were anxious parents who kept their children within their line of vision at all times. It was a joy to watch children lost in their own merriment as they ran around, jumped rope, rode bikes, or traipsed back and forth to the corner store. When fall came and school started, I was in for another pleasing sight. High school students were wearing school uniforms. Yes, the khaki pants were baggy, and the polo-shirts with the school emblem were oversized, but the teens seemed to be okay with the ensemble. You could sense their relief in not having the pressure of meeting fashion standards. And what can I say about my first winter in Philadelphia? I believe it snowed at most three times, and the public schools were closed each time. Even with a record 27 inches of snow, New York City schools remained open. That alone should tell you that Philadelphia could not be New York’s sixth borough, even if it wanted to.

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