Philly just won’t love you back

DEAN ROHRER
DEAN ROHRER
Posted: June 04, 2012

Fifteen years ago, with great fanfare, the best and brightest came up with this slogan to lure visitors and their wallets to our city: "Philadelphia. The Place That Loves You Back."

I hated it then and I hate it now. Why? For starters Philadelphia is not a "place." Longwood Gardens is a place. Penn’s Landing is a place. Philadelphia is a "city." Even more, it’s a shared "idea." But whether it’s called a place, city, or idea, Philadelphia does not, cannot, and will never love you back. You can love Philadelphia. But only Philadelphians can love you back. So it’s fair to ask, how’s all that unconditional love emanating from Philadelphians working for you? Can you feel it? Would you describe the vibe coming back at you from locals as "love"? I’m just sayin’.

Philadelphia comes from the Greek, for brotherly love. What tougher love is there to share than that? Some brothers live entire lifetimes without mentioning the word. Some brothers forever regret that silence, but still can’t put an end to it due to pride. And along comes this Philadelphia slogan that declares we will love you just for showing up. Ya think? That goes against type, against experience — against reality. Philadelphians can be polite and gracious to visitors as long as they’re content to be outsiders. But try to crack the inner circle. Try to become a Philadelphian.

If you are not from Philadelphia — and we know who you are! — you may have noticed that the natives share a curious characteristic with members of another Philadelphia-born institution, the U.S. Marine Corps. Both demonstrate a fierce territorial pride in their group identity. You can’t claim to be one unless you are one. Membership starts early and lasts a lifetime. Newcomers to Philadelphia (people who have lived here from three months to 20 years) find this unfair and provincial — and it is! And yet, it’s true. But once you realize that it’s not about you, that it’s about us being what we can’t help, this exaggerated turf consciousness is almost funny — endearing, even.

Rick Almeida has lived in Philadelphia for more than half of his life, tending bar in Center City bistros like Fergie’s and South Street music clubs like the late great Tritone. He chose Philadelphia. He loves it. But he’s not holding his breath waiting for Philadelphia to love him back.

"Move to New York and six months later you’re considered a New Yorker," Almeida says. "I’ve lived in Philadelphia for 26 years and I’m still considered ‘the guy from Boston’." (In fairness, his Beantown accent is undiminished. He pronounces the name of this column as "Clahhk’s Pahhk.") Almeida, who played organized ice hockey in New England, roots for Philadelphia sports teams over their Boston rivals. He concedes that the agony of defeat is less intense when Boston wins, but he’s such a hard-core Philadelphia sports fan that he can say, "I kind of miss the Vet," and mean it for all the right reasons.

Not long ago, Almeida got into an argument with a twenty-something Flyers fan who challenged his knowledge of past seasons. "How do you know?" the kid almost spits. "You’re from Boston." To which Almeida, resisting the use of the word son, replied, "I’ve been rooting for Philadelphia sports teams longer than you’ve been alive."

Which still does not qualify him for full Philadelphian status in the eyes of many natives. I know the feeling. Even after 41 years as a city resident, voter, homeowner, taxpayer, and cheerleader, I’m still suspect of not being "Philadelphia enough." Is it my fault my parents moved two miles outside the city limits when I was a baby? That I grew up with grass in the backyard rather than concrete? That grass was no greener than the grass in Mayfair. The church parking lot that served as playground at St. Margaret’s School was no softer than the cruel, gray pavement at St. Gabe’s. But to city kids, I was a tourist. I felt like a civilian wearing Bermuda shorts at a Marine reunion.

Oh, how I romanticized city kids, especially the mouthy kind from Irish neighborhoods, or the well-muscled Italian boys who stared at me with their "Whadda you gonna do abouddit?" expressions. What I didn’t understand was that their confidence, their poise, came with the real estate, not from within. Their power was their neighborhood. And their neighborhood was measured in blocks, not miles.

Growing up in Narberth prepared me for the clannish, judgmental, boundary-obsessed atmosphere of city neighborhoods. Fear of public humiliation was and is the intimate street corner engine of the city’s historic insecurity and default negativity. It’s the natives who do most of the damage to civic pride. Outsiders can’t call the city "Filtha-delphia," but from the locals it’s some weird sort of self-inoculation. You can’t hurt me; I just hurt myself.

It’s been 40 years since a billboard on the Schuylkill Expressway shocked us with a tough love, in-yo’-face message that acknowledged a simple, infuriating truth: "Philadelphia Isn’t As Bad As Philadelphians Say It Is." Mad Men’s fictional advertising genius Don Draper would not have signed off on that message. Too negative, too scary, too close to the marrow. But what does he know? He’s not from Philadelphia. He’s never been in love with a city like ours.

Clark DeLeon, who wrote "The Scene" column in The Inquirer from 1974 to 1994, will appear in Currents every two weeks and will be joined by other Philadelphia voices in the coming months. E-mail Clark DeLeon at deleonc88@aol.com.

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