When Michael Nutter gave one of his first speeches as mayor-elect last month, it was titled "The Identity of the New Philadelphia," and it took place at the Franklin Institute in honor of the "Identity" exhibit. The first key component of the "New Philadelphia," Nutter says, is optimism. He explained that a city requires a certain confidence in itself to achieve its objectives - and that Philadelphia requires this to join the ranks among America's great cities. He challenged the people of Philadelphia to shock the first person they pass the next morning and "just say hello."
This would be quite a shock. Perhaps Philadelphians have a chip on their shoulders because the city is often described as a smaller version of New York City. Or maybe it's the curse of Billy Penn, the lack of a sports championship since the Sixers in 1983. The fact that the people of Philadelphia were recently voted "least attractive" in the entire country by Travel and Leisure magazine doesn't improve matters, and the Rocky "nobody believes in me" attitude isn't helpful either. Whatever the reason, Philadelphia is a teeming mess of pessimists. They honk, they swear, they're ready to throw McNabb under a bus. This bad-itude is the only respect in which Philadelphians mirror their New York neighbors.
I moved here a year ago from a Midwestern town where saying hello to a perfect stranger is a way of life. Nutter spoke of the 300,000-some college graduates Philadelphia produces each year and his concern that they will leave the region in search of work. I have quite the opposite experience - I relocated shortly after graduation, knowing little about the city and not a single Philadelphian. One of the first things you learn about Philadelphia is that the people are jerks - this is what they'd like to have you believe.
In discussing the "new identity" of Philadelphia, Nutter criticized the media for focusing on the negatives of life in Philly. He encouraged the people to befriend their city-mates and embrace a more optimistic attitude about the city's future. Shock them.
The attendees all laughed and nodded, congratulating themselves on how rude they are to neighbors and people they meet on the street. For reasons completely beyond me, the citizens of Philadelphia delight in discussing the crime, poverty and violence as a testament to how tough and angry they are. These elements of life are frustrating, heartbreaking and terrifying, but Nutter is right to charge his soon-to-be citizens to focus on the positive attributes of life as a Philadelphian.
Oh, I've been chased down the street by a man in my neighborhood, but it was to return my check card, which I had just left in an ATM. I've had to deal with my share of crazy taxi drivers, including the one who drove to my apartment to return the cell phone I left in his back seat the day before. Not to mention the girl who stopped on the sidewalk to help my mom and me carry in a couch when I was moving in. Or that I was asked to have Thanksgiving dinner with my next-door neighbors who invited me to join an annual tradition with friends. The list of terrible Philadelphians continues: the one-sided carpool buddy who drives me to work every morning; the boss who understands when I miss days of work for a funeral; even the co-workers who call me at night to ensure that I arrived home safely. If I didn't know any better, I'd think I never left home.
"It is a fact," Nutter said, "that every visitor to this city falls completely in love with it." Did I fall in love with the City of Philadelphia? Well, yes, and I'm optimistic about the future of Philadelphia - just as Nutter asked us to be. Did I fall in love with the people of Philadelphia? Completely. Just don't tell them I said that.