In December, I will celebrate my fourth anniversary as a Philadelphian. And—please forgive the schmaltz—it’s a title I wear with some amount of pride. (That’s maybe the first sign that I’m not native-born—as someone who actively chose to live here, I possess none of that Philly-deprecating underdog thing that colors the self-identity of so many local-borns. I mean, I know underdog cities. I’ve lived in underdog cities. And you, Philly, are no underdog city.)
I love Philadelphia. Furthermore, I pay its taxes; I follow its news; I support its economy; I worry over its homeless citizens; I fret over its money problems; and I have essentially chosen a career path that requires my constant attention to what is happening in it. I even just married a lifelong Philadelphian. I’d say I’m pretty invested.
So here’s my question: When exactly will Philadelphia see me as a Philadelphian?
I’ve noticed a trend in my conversations, and in comments on certain blog posts, and it goes like this: I write that Philadelphia could be a truly progressive cycling city; someone inevitably comments that I must not be from here, I obviously don’t get the culture here at all. Or I suggest that Philadelphians might rise to the difficult challenge of demanding a better government; someone comments that I must be new, because I obviously don’t understand this city at all. I get into a conversation about how our city might possibly benefit from a little less nepotism/patronage/cronyism in government, and am told that Philadelphia has always been just like how it is now. It’s fine. I clearly just don’t get it—and that perhaps I should simply find another city to call home.
So … not having lived a lifetime here simply precludes me from forming cogent opinions about my city?
Hate my opinion, sure, but dinging it with the claim that I couldn’t possibly contribute as a non-native? Well that’s a bizarrely provincial stance, isn’t it? It sounds like something that would be better suited to a small town in Texas or New England (“We don’t take kindly to outsiders ’round here, see…”) than to the fifth largest city in the nation.
And aside from hurt feelings, there’s also some real danger in this weird form of regional elitism: We want new brains and new blood into this city, do we not? I’m not talking about me anymore: I’m talking about the big picture, about the loads of smart, dedicated people who come from other cities with great ideas and energy, and who have the power to see things with fresh eyes and who are unbound from the chains of the conventional wisdom and status quo. I’m talking about Yael Lehmann, the head of the Food Trust—an organization that’s improving nutrition and obesity rates in our young people, a program that garnered attention from the Obamas last year as a model for programs all over the country. She’s a transplant. Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the new conductor and great hope of our beleaguered orchestra is a transplant. Meryl Levitz, the dynamo behind the GPTMC is a transplant; Drew Becher at the PHS is a transplant. Charlie Manuel is a transplant. So is Amy Gutmann.
There are people who move here, who love it here, and who want to help the city—and who will help the city—if they are given the elbow room to do so. In general, I think we have to be careful to not dismiss new ideas (or old ideas, presented again), ever—but especially on the lame grounds that said ideas happen to come from someone who didn’t go to high school here.
I’ll admit that there are some things (like Mummers, or the word “jawn”) that I really don’t get about my new city. But let’s be real. Philly’s complex, but it isn’t Middle Earth or a mystical puzzle or anything that it takes a lifetime and some special secret map to really understand. We get it, guys.
And here’s something else I get: People who move here and adopt this place and make it their home, with all that that implies? They should be welcomed, with open arms, no matter what opinions or ideas or even (dear Lord!) lessons from their former homes they might bring with them. “New” people are in large part the people who will help renew our city, and keep it growing—they are the people who will make sure Philadelphia gets the bright future it deserves. If the Philadelphians allow it, that is.