The Illadelph State of Mind

Philadelphia has been described as a grid surrounded by industrial clutter.

Philadelphia, PA – I had never stepped foot in Philadelphia prior to moving here in 2008. Had been to the east coast just once, in the 6th grade for a school trip to Washington D.C. But at 31, I was itching to get out of Madison and my girlfriend billed Philly as a place where opportunity flowed like beer from a tap. A crack survey of Craigslist and some local blogs all but confirmed that Philly was indeed a happening place. A few months later we loaded up the Penske and set out to catch some of that brotherly love.

I’m not sure what I expected exactly, but not long after crossing the city line did I realize the reality I entered was not it. Entire blocks of vacant buildings. Trash-strewn streets. Brothers – lots of brothers – in white t-shirts and denim shants making commotions on what seemed like every street. Except for a pair of cops in a cruiser keeping watch through their aviator shades, there wasn’t a white guy to be seen. Then there was me, navigating a big-ass truck down the narrow city streets, feeling as though I’d stumbled upon the set of The Wire – only this wasn’t television, dawg.

A vacant building at 47th and Chester in West Philadelphia.

The city shocked my Midwestern senses. Everything about it – from the freestyle driving and unkempt yards to the broken sidewalks and burnt-out traffic lights – signified chaos and disorder. Philly seemed lawless, unsafe, and the newspapers reinforced this perception with sensational stories of crime, racial strife, police brutality and political corruption. The city, it appeared to me, was rotting from within.

So it was more than a little surprising when the people I met talked about how much better Philly was than a few years previous. Police beat fewer people, rapes and murders were down, abandoned cars were being towed off the streets and the city was aiming to raze thousands of vacant buildings blighting almost every neighborhood.

Still, people were cautious. Upon learning I had come from Wisconsin, some were quick to offer tips for surviving in Killadelphia.  Don’t wear headphones when out at night. Stay below 50th Street. Stay out of the northern sections. Try to avoid the subway late at night. Flipping off other drivers is akin to playing Russian Roulette. So casual everyone was about the violence that when I discovered a mile-long blood trail outside of my apartment it intrigued no one but me. “Feel fortunate it wasn’t your blood,” I was told with amused indifference.

And those opportunities? Well, whatever tap they flowed from had run dry long before I arrived. Moving to Philly was like to diving head first into a stew of simmering social woes that were more accepted than addressed. It’s hard enough moving to any new city, but Philly was on a different plane entirely. The decay. The destitution. The danger. I was captivated by all of it.

This car just randomly appeared on my street one morning.

Unlike cities such as Cleveland, Boston and Atlanta, which have over the last decade undergone highly successful urban renewal projects, Philadelphia remains on the brink of prosperity or collapse, depending on how you look at it. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ annual State of the City report, the city has made great strides in some areas since 1999, including significant reductions in crime, implementing modern police practices, beautifying neighborhoods and weeding out corruption, issues residents rank among their top concerns. The report credits a new generation of civic and political leadership for much of this turnaround, which has boosted residents’ morale and optimism about the future.

But beneath these quality of life issues, deeper  problems persist. With poverty at 25 percent, climbing unemployment, rising rates of smoking and obesity, a full generation of sustained job and population loss, public schools that have been described as “wastelands of human potential,” drug use and alcoholism, increasing homelessness due to the housing crisis, it’s difficult for a newbie like me to understand the optimism, especially given that the city’s projected $500 million budget deficit over the next five years could easily wipe away the decade’s modest gains.

In short, the urban renaissance will be postponed.

“Nothing good comes easy in Philadelphia, but Philadelphians seem to accept that,” noted the authors of the Pew report, which draws on information culled from government and non-profit agencies. “Their attitude towards the city mirrors their attitude towards its sports teams – a mixture of exasperation and deep affection rooted in an understanding that the lean years make the good times feel that much better.”

Of course, these problems aren’t unusual for cities like Philly – America’s sixth largest – but unlike most urban areas, which have clearly demarcated rich, middle-class and poor sections, Philly has only pockets of affluence scattered about the city. The city everywhere looks and feels poor and tired. Good thing, I guess, that it’s always sunny, otherwise things might really get depressing.

Street vendors in Chinatown.

When people back home ask how I like living here, I’m usually at a loss for the right words. In the beginning, my instinct was to get the hell out of here, fast. Needless to say, the stories and warnings put me on edge. “Living in Philly you can expect to be mugged at least once,” a temp agency recruiter informed after sharing how she’d been whacked on the head with a chain early one morning while walking to the gym. Being white in a racially-tense city that is almost 50 percent black and 10 percent other minority was an awkward head trip. Finding an affordable apartment, in decent shape, with an honest landlord in a neighborhood that wasn’t too dicey was also challenging. Landing a job was a four month exercise in humility and rejection. Some days I cursed myself for ever leaving Madison, where things were easy, safe and familiar.

Nothing good comes easy in Philly, indeed.

Residing here now for two years I can say my love-hate relationship with the city errs on the love side. Time has brought clarity to the city’s confounding contradictions. Trepidation has given way to reverence. I don’t think all that much anymore about being a white guy in a black  city. I’m no longer honked at for driving slowly. I have friends and favorite beer, grinder and coffee spots. I have a job where I have summers off. And if today I happened upon a blood trail outside of my apartment, it probably wouldn’t seem any more extraordinary than sunshine. Philly is a true underdog city, befitting of the grit and grime, guts and glory of place that seldom makes national headlines for good news. The crime, the violence, the poverty, it just takes some getting used to.

Ill State of Mind, Philly rapper Neeko’s answer to Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind.

3 Comments

  1. Charles says:

    Well written.  It makes me wonder why bother when there are a great many wonderful cities without the problems and if you are going to brave those dangers why not in a city with more opportunity?  What is it about Philly? Does history play a part? proximity to the east? Or is it tolerable now because we adjust to adversity?Is there something to leaving the political mindstate of madison?  I found leaving to be liberating in the sense of not having to pay lip service to some political posturing. It is such a social town, where no one is very far in degrees of separation while a larger city demands a much more self directed identity where at the end of the day the only person you have to answer to is yourself. 

  2. Nathan says:

    Hi Charles! Being in a relationship and not having the funds to relocate has been a big part of why I’m still there. I have adjusted to the adversity, but there’s also something about the swagger and attitude of the place. The rawness. The stories. And yes, the history. What grated on me about Madison was not just the political posturing, but the repetition. I thought if I had to read another story about the Mifflin Street Block Party, Halloween, Taste of Madison, I would puke. Other cities are nice, but lack that edge Philly has. It’s a hard city, but I like the challenge of it. It’s hard to explain. 

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