Stu Bykofsky: Philly is rosy through foreigners' glasses

Though this billboard was put up in the 1970s along the Expressway, its message still rings true today. In fact, foreigners who were brought here through a State Department-affiliated program lauded Philly's cleanliness, safety and friendliness.
Though this billboard was put up in the 1970s along the Expressway, its message still rings true today. In fact, foreigners who were brought here through a State Department-affiliated program lauded Philly's cleanliness, safety and friendliness.
Posted: December 19, 2012

PHILADELPHIA is beautiful, clean, safe and tolerant.

Stop laughing!

I'm not saying it and probably neither are you. Philadelphians often are the burr under their own saddles.

In the '70s, adman Elliott Curson crafted the following words for a sardonic billboard overlooking the Schuylkill Expressway near Conshohocken: "Philadelphia Isn't As Bad As Philadelphians Say It Is." It was paid for by a group called Action Philadelphia (RIP).

The billboard reflected a commonly held addytude among Philadelphians, who divide their time between bragging about Philly and trashing it.

Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote of the gift "to see ourselves as others see us," to get a truer view of who and what we are. Philadelphians see ourselves through a filter of our experience. Outsiders often see things very differently.

The 59-year-old International Visitors Council of Philadelphia collects those viewpoints. During the year, the private nonprofit hosts visitors from abroad identified by the State Department as people important to their communities, having valuable skills and abilities. Some of them, such as journalists, are not necessarily friendly to the United States, I'm told by IVC President Nancy Gilboy. When they can come here and see for themselves, their views may soften. At least that's our government's hope.

The foreign guests attend formal programs and other dog and pony shows, but are also allowed to roam free in the home of the free.

Before going home, they are asked to fill out a questionnaire about what they saw and how they felt, things that surprised them. IVB shared these with Your Favorite Columnist and they may surprise dour Philadelphians because (to paraphrase Sally Field), many like us, they really like us.

The No. 1 Most Common Comments Specific to Philadelphia: The city's cleanliness and walkability.

The No. 1 Most Common Comment Specific to America: Americans are friendlier than expected.

Comment No. 2: "I didn't see any guns."

Yes, we have a gun culture, also a celebrity culture, but we rarely see gunfire personally, even with the horror of Newtown fresh in mind. Nor do we personally see celebrities.

Because foreigners' impressions are formed by popular American action movies, the result is often erroneous.

Our guests find us orderly and willing to wait in line for our turn, which means they never had to leave the stadium area after a game and a concert. "People follow the laws here and stop at stop signs," said one visitor (clearly not referring to bicyclists). Foreigners also commented on the large number of women in leadership roles and the vitality of senior citizens.

A frequent comment that made me feel good was along the lines of "Americans really do get along," in respect to differences in race and religion. One visitor from Timor-Lesta (in Southeast Asia) commented that in his country people throw stones at those who don't share the same ethnicity.

"I didn't expect it has different cultures working together," said an Egyptian. A Middle Eastern religious leader was surprised no one asked him his religion, also that a hospice did not inquire about the religion of clients. This was new, and unusual, to him.

A visitor from Uruguay expected diversity, but "the variety I've found everywhere exceeded my expectations."

Another foreigner praised Americans for helping each other without regard for reward.

A Bolivian found that we are tolerant and kind, and that "immigrants develop a sense of belonging."

When our better angels sing, we feel the same way. Or, Philly, do you have a problem with that?


Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Columns: philly.com/Byko

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