Los Angeles is an unreal city. Unreal as in “not real,” as opposed to “cool” or “rad” or “bitchin.” It’s a desert mirage, a metropolis built where no metropolis ought to live, and as such contains all the improbability of its geography: a sprawling, gridlocked playground of the absurdly rich and impossibly desperate, drenched in the near-constant haze of smog and sun. Los Angeleans are easy to spot because they carry with them—depending on their income bracket—either the trauma of riding a bicycle through six lanes of dense traffic, or the rarefied, otherworldly and profoundly unsettling glow of having lived their life among the stars.
I could continue to wax poetical on the city that gave us Disneyland and Pinkberry, but I know at least half a dozen of that city’s angelic inhabitants (among them, my two sisters) who’d immediately (and probably rightly) accuse me of narrow-minded, East-Coast superiority. Most people I’ve met who live or grew up in L.A. love their city, and will happily defend it against all snobby comers with that trump card of all trump cards, “We’ve got the beach.” And that’s what I’m trying to talk about: What makes a city great in the eyes of its citizens, what geographic or social or mystical intangibles give or deprive a place of its own ego?
I’ve lived in Philadelphia for a year now, and as a clear-eyed naive newbie to the town, I would like to offer my opinion: We are our own worst enemy. Philly, for all its big-talking, Whiz-fueled, Phils-rule bluster, has a pretty low opinion of itself. (Philly’s long-identified identity crisis, the step-child caught between NYC and D.C., is actually maybe why I, the youngest of three, feel such a deep affinity with this town. But that’s a conversation for my therapist.)
Consider the Piazza at Schmidt’s, site of a recent, well-publicized shooting. The NoLibs development was hailed by all and sundry as a bold step forward toward a bright urban future—and, I believe, is a perfect example of Philadelphians selling ourselves short. I mean, that’s it? That’s what Philly needs? Cheaply constructed, overpriced housing projects masquerading as shiny, transformative social space? Sanitized, concrete-and-AstroTurf “town squares” filled with weird plastic furniture and anchored not by green space or anything actually inviting of public, social activity and conversation, but by a giant television?
I asked a Philly Mag staffer and former resident of Liberties Walk, the Piazza’s sister development, what it was like to live in Bart Blatstein’s dream house. She told me it was less of a dream and more of a poorly constructed nightmare: The walls were so thin she could hear her neighbors pee; the blinds were nailed rather than screwed into the windows such that they fell down at the first pull of a cord; the oh-so-hip event planning company on the first floor of her building would throw shindigs through which she had to awkwardly wend her way in order to get up the stairs to her apartment. (Her lease had not provided for the possibility of bouncers appearing unannounced to guard her front door.) And the rent? Already prohibitively expensive for most if not all local residents of the neighborhood, it was jacked up significantly after just one year of her lease.
It’s very nice that Bart Blatstein chose to rehabilitate a decaying brownfield in order to build his many-million-dollar-baby. But very nice shouldn’t be enough, Philadelphia. We cannot settle for the gold-plated but essentially meager bones some canny developer throws us just because they’re the first we’ve gotten in a while. We deserve more than a glossily unreal fortress of gray brick and the solitude that comes from a hundred people all glued to one enormous TV screen. And we certainly deserve more than the ticky-tacky boxes of fake-fancy living for which the Piazza charges upwards of a thou a month.
We have so much potential for greatness! We have a vibrant burgeoning arts scene, incredible community gardening and food-access initiatives, neighborhood associations committing to greening and preening their communities from the ground up. We have affordable housing and a decent cost of living, at a time when more and more Americans are stranded in overpriced metropolises and starved for both (see this incredible and incredibly disturbing story on good-old Bloomberg’s apparent determination to drive all low-income families out of his fair city once and for all).
We should be making the most of our realities, embracing our flaws and moving past them rather than bogging ourselves down in self-loathing and self-perpetuating inferiority. We have our problems, sure. But you know what, so does L.A.; so does New York (again, cost of living anyone?). You know what Philly has? Realism: The grit and determination bred of perennial disappointment. And if we could somehow transform that determined energy into civic pride, we could build a great city—a real city, imperfect yet beautiful like the Schuylkill River or the Liberty Bell; a city imbued with our unique character, not gagging on the blank anonymity of developments like the Piazza.