One of my most frustrating days as a Philadelphian was November 4th 2020. I woke up like Han Solo the day after the Death Star blew up and was more than ready for a new day. I got my big ass on my bike and rode through South Philly. I studied the faces of people as I passed them. There was an obvious, light-hearted feeling in the atmosphere. Spirits were high.
I parked my bike at one of the many identical coffee shops, looking to buy a drink… then it happened. A newspaper headline sat on the countertop mocking me… “Jawn of Democracy,” it read. Simple one of the hardest missed marks of all time.
I never thought I would see the day that the ever-applicable ‘jawn’ would be mis-used. How do you misuse a word that can be applied to “anything?” To top it all off, there was nothing but white folks in the cover photo. The only thing that stung more was when they said it in Creed and it sounded like someone said the name “John” with a goofy British accent.
Twitter had two very different reactions to this hate crime.
I was happy when this happened, it served as a wake up call. With all the progress the city has been making, one question that gets swept under the rug is: has Philly lost its way?
Let’s take it back, not all the way to 1776 but to 1993. The movie ‘Philadelphia’ was released and was an immediate hit. It did so well, to this day the most viewed video with ‘Philadelphia’ in the title is Bruce Springstein’s single on the soundtrack. Obviously this is a pre-internet boom so up until this point, Philly was most known for crazy sports fans, Rocky, Boyz 2 Men and the Fresh Prince theme song. Over the next 10 years, Allen Iverson, Jill Scott, The Roots, Beanie Siegel and State Property would be added to that list. And then, year by year the city began making quantum leaps.
If I had to mark the start of it, I’d say it began with the Phillies winning the World Series in 2008. It was as if we realized “holy shit, we don’t just have to scrap and claw in sports, we could actually enjoy winning.” That was swiftly followed by the Sixers tanking / The Process. Then Creed reinvigorated the Rocky fans while shedding light on the new additions to the cult following. Throw in renaming the “Gallery,” a Super Bowl win and a wave of influence from people who finally realized how cheap IT WAS to live here and boom, we landed on the doorstep of 2019. But with all of that, Philly was still known most for being a “tough place.”
Anyone who’s lived here long enough knows that statement is undeniable, but not necessarily fair. It doesn’t mention all of the art, food and educational contributions we make decade in and decade out. It doesn’t mention the countless movies and shows that are shot and based here. It doesn’t mention how Philly is like Switzerland for chefs trying to find tax refuge from our neighbors DC and New York City. It doesn’t mention that a Temple student cured the simian version of HIV. Most of all, it underestimates the importance of our National Anthem ‘What We Do’ by Freeway.
We really are the City of Gems (you can’t tell me ‘Brotherly Love’ is a cool nickname) because of our hidden highlights that only people from here could show you / appreciate. So what happened? It’s simple: we sold the secret sauce for the notoriety that in all fairness, is long overdue.
Take Mare of Easttown for example. My colleague Shealyn Kilroy summed it up perfectly in critiquing the show for being too on the nose with call-outs like Wawa and “wooder.” None of this is Citizens App worthy, if you’ve been here for more than 5 years but to the rest of the world it’s incredible. Not because we’ve reinvented the wheel but because they’ve finally figured out what makes such a weird city tick.
In the ‘pro’ column, Philly has turned into a hot bed for films and shows over the past 10 years. The Goldbergs, Shazam, Concrete Cowboys, and Emmy winners ‘Queer Eye’ and ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ have all taken place here. Personally I feel worrying about ‘jawn’ being gentrified is a good problem to have. But it does make one think, was it worth it? Has letting the world know about our value apart from Cheesesteaks and being a blue collar city really play into our favor? Did trading the classic 2001 Sixers jersey for the Boathouse Row city edition pan out? I’ll answer those questions with a question: What has holding out for long really got us?