Philly has an image problem and no group of people is more aware of that than Philadelphians. Year after year, Philly pops up on listicles published by blogs with a national scope that paint our city as violent and dirty and uncultured and, ultimately, inferior to other major American cities.
They knock us for our sweatpants and for our attitudes and for the chips on our shoulders. And, occasionally, it's easy to see why. Philly is a city with an obesity problem. We can be a bit crass at times. The city has had a few violent years, of late. And, just when things look like they can't get any tougher (looking at you Philadelphia public school system), Sugar's closes and the Phillies offer Marlon Byrd $16 million guaranteed and suddenly the sky is falling.
I'm here to tell you that things aren't as bad as you might think. In fact, 2013 was an incredible year to have spent in Philadelphia (so long as you weren't paying attention to the city's professional sports franchises or arguing at SRC meetings). More than that, though, the outlook for 2014 is even better. City life is improving and the composition of Philly's population is reflecting that. People are coming to Philadelphia and they're not having a hard time convincing themselves to stay.
In case you need to be persuaded a bit, though, here are some examples that demonstrate how great Philly's 2013 was (and why 2014 should shape up to top it):
1. The city is safer
Murders are down. Like, way down. Through December 13th, Philadelphia had seen 235 murders, putting the city on pace for 248 by the end of 2013. That's a 25-percent drop over last year, but, more than that, it's a 67-year low for Philly. Just six years ago, there were 377 murders in Philly with a prosecution problem, to boot. (In 2009, a Philadelphia Inquirer investigative report showed that Philly had the lowest violent crime conviction rate among America's largest cities.)
Things have turned around, though. Drastically. One of the contributing factors to the drop in violent crime is Philly's GunStat initiative, which reallocated resources to disrupt the city's most violent offenders more effectively. Think of it like Moneyball:
Now imagine that that conversation took place between Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Mayor Nutter, but they're talking about violent criminals and bad neighborhoods instead of mediocre baseball players. Basically, the city can make fewer arrests and have a greater impact on violent crime simply by targeting the right criminals and neighborhoods.
Using statistical analysis, Philadelphia Police are better able to identify when, where, and why upticks in violent crime occur. Essentially, they're working smarter—not harder—and it's working. The program is still in its relative infancy here in Philadelphia and the city is already reaping the benefits. It's hard not to see how this type of success could be extrapolated to mean big things for the future of the city's crime-fighting efforts.
A recent report from the Inquirer details some of the differences in the new approach adopted by the city and the District Attorney's office in terms of preventing violent crime and keeping criminals with a serious history of offenses off the streets, as opposed to responding in the event of a shooting.
Under the program, defendants facing gun charges in the city have been given dramatically higher bail - in many cases tenfold higher.
A year ago, a typical defendant charged with possession of an illegal handgun - not with shooting it - would have had to post $1,500 to get out of jail. For those charges now, defendants can expect to pay $5,000 to $25,000, according to statistics from the District Attorney's Office
And it's not just murders that are down... it's everything. Violent crime is down. Non-violent crime is down. Shootings, in particular, are way down. And that's with the city's population increasing for the sixth consecutive year. On top of that, violent criminals either had worse aim in 2013, or Philly's doctors stepped up their game because that same report from the Inquirer states that 28 percent of shooting victims taken to hospitals in 2012 died as a result of their wounds. Only 20 percent of the victims have died in 2013.
There were 391 murders in Philadelphia in 2007. Here we are, six years later, looking at a figure that's going to be damn near 150 fewer deaths coupled with an overall drop in crime in the city. Philly was significantly safer than it was in 2012 and the years prior. And, there's every reason to believe that 2014 could be a continuation of that trend.
2. Traversing the city has never been easier (but it's about to be)
Sure, that horrible accident on the Schuylkill Westbound a few weeks ago and the PPA did run SideCar out of town, reinforcing the idea that Philadelphia doesn't deserve to have nice things. But, realistically, it's never been easier to get from Point A to late-night food on South Street.
SideCar left Philadelphia for greener, more app-friendly cities in early 2013, but not before the Google-backed, crowdsourced taxi app and its fleet of drivers helped cart Philadelphians all over the place. Think about it: Philadelphians basically had free rides anywhere in the city or the surrounding area (I even had one driver recount a tale of trekking to Atlantic City for a SideCar customer) for a quarter of 2013.
Hill workouts in Manayunk. Brunch in Northern Liberties. Karaoke on Passyunk. Concerts across the river. Walks of shame back from Fairmount. Beers in West Philly. SideCar helped Philadelphians stay dry in the rain, explore corners of the city typically too far away to be considered a part of this plane of existence, and turned bar hopping into a sport, all while being incalculably friendlier and more efficient than actual cabs. Hell, driver Adam helped my buddy jump his car underneath an overpass in South Philly. How often does your cabbie do that for you?
And, while its local extinction already has Philly's more social residents lamenting the "good ol' days," the sheer fact that SideCar chose Philadelphia to be its flagship city on the East Coast is a big feather in the city's cap. It feels like many tech startups flee toward their peers in Silicon Valley or try to find the frontier somewhere in Manhattan. It's not out of the realm of possibility that someone, anyone, will rise from SideCar's ashes, ready to take on the PPA and help usher Philly in the 21st century.
Speaking of which, SEPTA's finally going to ditch the tokens they've been using since the dawn of time. For decades, it seems, the biggest knock on getting around Philly has been complaints about SEPTA's irregularity and/or complicated bartering system. After a recent fare hike (ugh), it costs $2.25 to ride the city's subways and buses.
Just a few weeks ago my group of friends divided when leaving a Flyers game because those of us with the foresight to purchase two tokens on the way to South Philly weren't about to stand in the blistering cold with the idiots who had to wait in the massive line forming so they could buy their single token for the ride back North. Seriously, if you're going to demand exact change in 2013, you might as well ask for a goat and two bags of feed because it's an incredible inconvenience.
Luckily, SEPTA's New Payment Technologies initiative is all set for a 2014 rollout. According to the timeline published on their site, you can expect to start seeing tap-to-pay capability pop up in subways and on buses any day, now. The regional rail and parking lots will follow, so that the entire NPT plan is integrated into the system by the end of the coming year. Welcome to the future, you guys.
As the first phase continues to roll out to SEPTA buses, subways and trolleys, pilot tests for Regional Rail are scheduled to begin in the first Quarter. Regional Rail customers will see the payment technology systems starting in early summer. SEPTA's specialized customer services teams will be onsite to help rail riders purchase fares. CCT and parking payment stations will be rolled out during 2014 as well.
And SEPTA's about to get nicer, too. Sure, there are probably still going to be shirtless guys recording rap albums on their cell phones at the sinks in the men's bathroom at Suburban Station (true story, I watched it happen), but the facilities that house the citie's public transportation hubs are about to get a face-lift thanks to a new lease agreement between the city and SEPTA. The new agreement—currently working its way through City Council—would have SEPTA take over maintenance of the underground concourses between 8th and 18th streets. You know, the one's that smell like urine? The first order of business once the lease is settled would be for SEPTA to replace some crappy escalators and improve lighting and security.
It's also important to note that, in Philadelphia, you don't even really need SEPTA to get to where you're going. According to WalkScore.com, the city touts the fourth best walkability score among major U.S. cities. With a total score of 77, Philly falls behind only New York, San Francisco, and Boston. Of the 67 Philly neighborhoods listed on WalkScore, 11 pull a score of 90 or higher, including Center City East and Center City West, each of which earned a 98.
Philly's the fifth biggest city in America, but you wouldn't be able to tell when you reach for your wallet. And it's not just the citywide special at Bob & Barbara's or the $10 buckets of pounders at Nick's Roast Beef in Old City that have people migrating in from Brooklyn and wherever the hell else. The overall price of living in Philadelphia makes it an ideal destination for recent college graduates. Millennials are flocking into the city, altering Philly's demographic build-up for the better and helping to increase the city's population. Census estimates indicate that the portion of Philly's population comprised of 20-34-year-olds grew from 20 to 26 percent between 2006 and 2012. And it looks like that shift continued through 2013. A large motivating factor for the generational shift is Philly's affordability compared to the surrounding area and other Mid-Atlantic cities.
According to CNN Money's Cost of Living Calculator, a $50,000 annual salary in Philadelphia is equivalent to a $71, 658 salary in Brooklyn. When examining how far your salary will get you in Philly as compared to Manhattan, the same site says that New Yorkers will pay 218% more in rent. Folks in DC, Boston, San Francisco and San Diego all have to make more to afford the same lifestyle.
Cruise the housing section of Craigslist for all of five minutes and you'll quickly realize that $1,500 gets you just about anything you're looking for in Philly. A classic, two-bedroom rowhome in Queen Village? Done. A hip, open loft in Fishtown? Done. A cozy, one-bedroom in Center City? It's tight, but you can find it without much difficulty. In some major cities, $1,500 gets you a modified closet and a hot plate.
Getting around is cheaper, too. An "Anywhere Pass" from SEPTA gets you access to all of the city's buses, subways, trolleys and regional rail lines for $191/month. A similar pass for DC's Metro will run you $230. In New York, monthly access to public transportation in the city alone costs $112. Also, GasBuddy.com's tables show that the average price for a gallon of gas in Philly is $3.48. That's cheaper than a gallon in Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Long Island, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, Providence, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and 28 other American cities.
On top of that, the United States Department of Labor released data for October showing that unemployment in the Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metropolitan area was down 0.8 percent over the previous year.
Though recovery in Philly's housing market seemed to stall after a good spring (and Philly typically lags behind national housing trends, including the current recovery from the 2007 bust), the fact remains that the region has regained nine percent of the housing value it lost when the bubble burst.
According to a piece published by The Atlantic Cities earlier this year, Philadelphians spend a smaller portion of their income on rent than residents of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, DC, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, and a handful of other places. Additionally, the portion of a resident's income dedicated to rent rose more year-over-year in four of those less affordable cities than it did in Philly. Houston—which fell immediately behind Philadelphia on that affordability table (meaning it was slightly more affordable)—the year-over-year increase in the percentage of a resident's income dedicated to rent rose more than twice as much as in Philly this year. Essentially, this doesn't merely indicate that Philly is affordable. It suggests that it appears to sustaining its affordability in comparison to other cities, even as the migration of Millennnials to the city increases monthly rent.
It would be foolish to insinuate that things are drastically improving for everyone. The city's housing market is slower to recover than in many other major cities, there are plenty of places where unemployment is dropping faster than it is in Philly, and there's still an affordable housing problem plaguing many of the city's poorest families. But, things are improving. And, with an influx of new housing units—like the baseball factory in Fishtown and the 75-townhome project in Queen Village and apartment buildings in Center City and lofts in South Philly—living in Philly should remain affordable longer than in other cities experiencing a similar boost from Millennials moving out of their parents' basements.
Listen, it's easy to get down about stuff in Philly, mostly because the only thing Philadephians love more than hating stuff is reminding people which celebrities came from Philly or went to college here or went shopping on Walnut Street that one time. But the fact remains that people are able to get more for their money in Philadelphia, put more of the city to use, and feel safer doing it, than they would in many of America's other major metropolitan areas. Sure, the Eagles have never won a Super Bowl and we (mostly) lost Questlove to New York. And, things definitely aren't perfect in the city. But, really, if you look back at 2013 and talk to nervous friends living in Chicago or young professionals sleeping on ironing boards in New York, it's easy to see that Philly is a wonderful place to live, work, absorb culture, and get incredibly drunk for a reasonable price.
Here's to hoping that 2014 is equally as enjoyable.