Imagine. It is a deadly summer in Philadelphia. Mosquitoes are biting everything. Neighbors are coughing up black vomit. They are dying in the streets. They are dying in their beds. The streets are clogged with carts of bodies and belongings. Those who can are leaving. You know who can’t. Church bells toll with each burial. For weeks, the bells toll constantly. Canons are being fired in the streets and muskets in homes. Some folks believe the gun smoke will drive away the infectious air. Down at Dock Creek, rotting animal carcasses are filling the basin as tanneries dump what remains after stripping off the skins. Some folks want to head down to the port and murder the newly arriving French who have escaped a slave revolt in the Caribbean. President George Washington, once a daily fixture on the streets, is long gone, as are all the so-called greats, the founders and leaders of a six-year-old nation. Tom Jefferson has been overheard saying he saw this coming. The rot, the corruption, the disease—all natural outgrowths of cities like London, like Philadelphia. Best they be abandoned in favor of the virtuous life of the farm and the frontier.
In this most Democratic of cities, people love the idea of a competitive political landscape while shunning it in reality. While there was a lot of interesting stuff happening in the recent Republican Party primary (a tight mayoral race, an interesting council-at-large fight and a possible shift in city commissioner), at the end of the day, little of that will matter. The Republican for mayor will get swamped, two Republican council-at-large candidates will get elected (they will have new names), and perhaps a new commissioner will result. Major impact on the Philadelphia political landscape? I think not.
Yesterday was historic in the scheme of Philadelphia political history. Of course, there is the obligatory nod to the apathy that a long forecasted low turnout produces. Let’s stipulate: The turnout was microscopic. But in a year in which the stakes of the election were actually quite high, the attention (from the media and the public) to articulating those stakes was quite low. It is hard to motivate a city of already stressed-out voters with lawn signs. Since there was no mayoral media campaign, there was no noise about the big issues. District Council candidates tend to stick to District knitting and are not focused on city-wide matters.
The raw emotion of September 11, 2001 overpowered most of us. We watched the second plane drive into the Twin Towers, the smoke unfurling heavenward, the slow and methodical meltdown of the buildings as they were incinerated. The collapse. The people running. It shocked us. We knew we had enemies. That day, we learned they were capable of anything and we seemed powerless to stop them.
This town has developed a bad habit of blotting our collective memory. Philadelphia’s an aging railroad and industrial city struggling to evolve into the place we’re going to be—a creative city. But how can we know where we’re going when we’ve lost track of where we’ve been?
It’s like the child who cried “wolf.” We’ve heard about it for so long that we’ve become immune. The “it” I reference is infrastructure—bridges, transit assets, public buildings, water systems and parks, you know ... stuff. The decaying infrastructure of America, particularly of her cities, correlates to the decaying economy. Our failure to reverse this decline is equally emblematic.
Tonight's a Philadelphia Orchestra night. I sit in the front row. Over the past 10 years, I’ve become acquainted with many violinists and cellists. Truthfully, I am a orchie groupie. I like watching the whole team watching each other. I can catch their mistakes (very few) and their wry exchanges with each other. I can tell when they like what their playing or when they’re just going through the motions. When the team is connecting, it is sublime. It is heavenly. It lifts the spirits.
Okay. I admit it. I have become a Facebook freak. My son confirmed it to me last night with a high five. It started harmlessly enough, just like every stage of my digital life. I just wanted to know what this computer stuff was all about.
World Class. The words just roll off your tongue. Beautiful words. Aspirational. Inspirational. Probably perspirational. When I hear about Philadelphia’s potential, I’ve always thought, world class. That would be something.