What if someone, for some reason, gave Philadelphia its own television show? What scenes of the city would you show the rest of the country? The historic sites commemorating the birth of the nation? The red-brick rowhouses lining cobblestone streets? The Schuylkill winding past boathouses and the art museum?
How about an army of municipal parking cops, writing tickets, towing cars, and otherwise ruining the days of residents and tourists alike?
There's no need to choose. The Philadelphia Parking Authority has already made the choice for us.
A&E's Parking Wars stars the employees of the Parking Authority - described by the show's Web site as the "people you love to hate" - going about their generally unenviable jobs.
The result is predictable.
"I think Philadelphia is the worst city to live in," rages one resident captured in a typically miserable encounter with the agency. "They - they rob you."
One couple laments that their truck was towed during their first 24 hours in town. A paper pusher at the impound lot feels no sympathy. "Welcome to Philadelphia," he deadpans.
Another scene finds workers overwhelmed by the stench emanating from a car they're towing. They discuss whether it suggests the presence of a dead cat or a dead person. When a lump of garbage in the gutter is finally identified as the source, an observer concludes that his neighborhood needs other attentions from the government: "They should spend more time cleaning these streets!"
It hardly takes an expert to tell us how this might affect the region's nearly $300 million tourism industry. But The Inquirer contacted a few just in case. Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corp., summed it up neatly: "This show," she said, "is an assault on our city."
Levitz wasn't guessing. The corporation has received about 200 unsolicited letters and e-mails attesting to the show's impact. They tend to feature words like never in capital letters, followed closely by visit.
Granted, the Parking Authority's job is necessary, even if it's sometimes conducted with unnecessary zeal or malice. Any city with limited space and unlimited traffic will require the services of such an agency. But only one city has taken these moments of urban life at its worst and broadcasted them - hour after depressing hour - to the nation at large.
Why? Why, for the greater good of the Parking Authority, of course. A spokeswoman said the agency agreed to the past two seasons, with another one or two to come, to boost its employees' morale.
Really? What about the morale of the rest of the people of Philadelphia? All they have to show for this, besides the citations, is a modest donation to a soccer program, along with the promise of another one for swimming pools. Incredibly, the contract doesn't even require the producers to cough up that much of a pittance for the city.
Reasonable people can disagree about the authority's handling of parking enforcement. But its unilateral, inexplicable venture into entertainment and marketing has been an unmitigated flop. The agency, Mayor Nutter, and Gov. Rendell - who appoints most of the authority's board - should do what they can to get it canceled.
And if that hurts the Parking Authority's morale, well, welcome to Philadelphia.