BOY, I SURE know how to pick 'em - cities, not men.

Although if those cities were men, they'd apparently be a couple of big ol' hairy losers.

Both Hartford, Conn., whence I came, and Philly made a recent top-10 list of the worst places to live, in part because of their "general malaise that seems to infect the entire population."

Did I not tell you that the Philly Shrug was going to bite us on the . . . well, you know. (Hartford was No. 2, Philly was No. 6. Detroit was No. 3.)

Here's a summary of the losers ranked by, a website that ranks livability across the country: "There are many excellent places around the United States to raise a family, get a job, or have a fantastic life, but there are also a number of cities worth avoiding due to problems like rampant crime, economic instability, and general malaise . . ."

Yo, back up, son. I've never given much credence to drive-by lists like these - even if they're based on fancy algorithms that never accurately portray the people who live there. Give haters too much credibility, and you're bound to never get out of bed.

But I've noticed Philly likes its lists, especially when it's named one of the most All-American cities or most bikeable, so it's only fair that if we take the praise, we at least consider the criticism. And they weren't totally wrong to give us an F for crime, even if homicides are down this year, and a D+ for education. Although, I thought saying "many students head into a life of crime" was somewhere between piling on and BS.

The folks over at Visit Philadelphia, the city's official tourism agency, said there was probably a time when a negative ranking like this would ruffle their feathers. But they choose to concentrate on accolades - and there are a lot, even if some of them seem at odds with other lists and surveys.

Depending on the survey and the day, we suck, but we don't suck. We're losers, but we're winners. We're hot, but we're not. OK, we've made Travel & Leisure's list of ugliest cities one too many times, but that's because we're often voting against ourselves. Whatever.

"They can say what they want, but visitation is still up," said Cara Schneider, media-relations director for Visit Philadelphia. (I believe the nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah is implied here.)

Still, I couldn't shake that I had gone from one "worst" city to another. Is it me? Short answer: Yes.

Here's the thing about Hartford and Philadelphia: They both have a bit of an inferiority complex. It's understandable. There's Hartford, sandwiched between New York and Boston. Philadelphia, between Washington and New York. Both have a tendency to steel themselves against being the overlooked, underestimated middle child by putting themselves down before anyone else does. It hurts less, I get it.

That also makes them an easy target. I lost count of the times big paper or magazine reporters would parachute into Hartford for one reason or another and end up calling the city built on insurance everything from "America's file cabinet" to "Chernobyl-by-the-Connecticut."

So witty, those haters. In Philly, probably the worst, most overused insult is calling us the sixth borough, which as far as I could tell came from a 2005 New York Times story whose author later admitted was a PR gimmick. Eh, I've heard worse.

I almost hate to say it, but as different as Hartford and Philadelphia are, they both are full of the dreaded p-word: potential. There's nothing more intoxicating - at least to me.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot that's already very right with Philadelphia (and Hartford), but there's also a lot of room for improvement. That's simultaneously exhausting and exciting. It's a reason to keep rooting for a place that underneath its hard exterior is filled with promise and optimism. It's a reason to stay while others get on that highway bound for New York City, or the plane to Plano, Texas, which AreaVibes ranked the best place to live. I could take some snotty jab at Plano, the "Hot Air Balloon Capital of Texas." But I won't. Go on with your bad hot-air-ballooning self, Plano. I'll stay in Philly.

I think there's probably a reason I keep ending up in places that get kicked around, even if often we're the ones doing the kicking.

Underdogs are interesting. Just when you think they're out, they surprise you. Hartford used to surprise me every day, with people who refused to give up on the 18 square miles of a city they were convinced was too small to fail. I'd get frustrated and fed up and be ready to write it off, and then I'd dig right back in again.

I've been fighting it - unrealized potential can break your heart - but the same thing is happening to me in Philadelphia. So be it.

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