“In one of the largest cities in the United States, in one of the most dense metropolitan areas on the East Coast, not far from New York and Washington, there is a sad image of a population that signals about the hardships of citizens in the world’s largest military and economic superpower.”
That is the first sentence of a piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz titled “You want to see the decline of an empire? Look at Philadelphia” that ran earlier this month. The Israeli newspaper reported on the Department of Public Health’s “Health of the City” report that showed that for the third year in a row, life expectancy is declining due to gun violence and drug overdose.
In addition, the British newspaper The Guardian published a piece about the report under the title: “Can Philadelphia ‘stop people from dying’ as drug crisis and gun violence rage on?”
For some Philadelphians, especially those who live in affluent neighborhoods, this image of Philadelphia might come us a surprise. After all, 2018 was the year that The Eagles won the Super Bowl, Philadelphia made it to the short list of Amazon for its second headquarters, and Comcast opened its massive new technology center. It was just three years ago when the same The Guardian reported that Lonely Planet named Philadelphia one of the top travel destinations in the U.S. under the headline “The grit and glory of Philadelphia: it’s time to recognize the city’s greatness.”
So what is Philadelphia — a city of grit and glory or a declining empire?
The answer is both. The story of Philadelphia in 2019 continues to be a tale of two cities.
That’s why Mayor Jim Kenney’s efforts to bring international business to Philadelphia is worth noting. According to reporting by Philadelphia Inquirer’s Claudia Vargas, Kenney and eight of his deputies have spent $87,000 on trade missions to Europe, Asia, and North America during the mayor’s first term.
We have no doubt that during those trips, Philadelphia is presented as the best place on Earth. That’s the goal of the trip — and the job of the mayor to tell that story.
But that story is complicated. In a recent construction equipment industry survey that showed people the skylines of four major cities, people mistakenly identified Philadelphia’s skyline as belonging to New York or Chicago. Only 26 percent recognized our skyline as ours. There’s a lesson in this confusion over identity: the shiny surfaces of our gleaming downtown skyline can blind us to the rest of the city, where a large portion of the population lives in despair.
This, too, is who we are: The poorest large city in America. One of the cities with the highest overdose death rates. A city in which incomes are falling while nationwide wages are increasing.
Our gun violence problem and our overdose problem are not just a reputation problem — they are a daily matter of life and death for our residents. As we celebrate advancements in our city, we shouldn’t overlook the less pleasant side of the picture — even if it takes an outsider to remind us.