15 January 07: Opportunity

That potential — doesn't it still drive us crazy?

We possess, after all, the prototype American urban form, that is the brick row (commercial or residential) built at moderate scale strung along workaday streets, copied ad naseum in every city besides New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, in every small town from Gettysburg to Richmond, from St. Louis to every two-block-long main street clear across the continent. Let us not forget: these are our squares (and not those of New York), our street names, our grid, our brick patterns, our mullions and tie-backs, our finials and eaves, our cornices and flat roofs and factories (not to mention the actual products of the mills and shops: the iron-work, trolley cars, furniture, etc.) in nearly every inch of the frontier.

Now one can say it's Los Angeles that since 1950 has taken this claim away from us (and Chicago due to its earlier influence on the upper Midwest). It's Los Angeles that Las Vegas and Charlotte and Atlanta and Houston happily emulate and indeed have together forged the empty American corporate vernacular and all the associated forms of the freeway.

Which leaves us to our deeply flawed, unjust, ugly, impoverished city, and the vague instinct despite all that to think of it as somehow less American than those other, newer places, and therefore as a representation of our own kind of European dream. This way of thinking, I suspect, is a product of thirty years of GOP marketing and fifty years of suburb-building, which has institutionalized the psychological bias against civic life and a true disdain for things cultured. While nowadays we might have more Vespas running our narrow streets than any place west of Bordeaux, we aren't and never will be as singularly urbane as a European capital. Our streets are and always have been (painfully) self-governing, efficient, practical, and dressed for optimum practical benefit. Our only parade ground came as an afterthought and was built in miniature.

Yet when I ponder the dimensions of our potential I am drawn to ideas with vaguely European — or international — heritage, the things which build upon our scale and density and intimacy; things which emulate the physical amenities of Paris or Stockholm or Istanbul; things designed to allow us to reflect on and celebrate our urbanism — and to consume it, as a particular flavor on a menu of charming and engaging places. This is the case, in part, because in so many of those cities the production of culture has so thoroughly replaced past industry, the streets themselves cleaned and rearranged to allow for the best and most authentic, and now, too, most fun experience. Witness the new Parisian "beaches" along the banks of the Seine. Philadelphia must — mustn't it? — join this whoring. Mustn't it?

It's too late too late to ask the question. Many, but no where near all (of even the most important) of our monuments are lit at night, which gives the effect, when one is out at night playing, of living in endless time. Our quay is open, popular, expanding. Kayakers, for goodness sake, paddle the Schuylkill; and there's the right bank tourist clipper, the city toilet, the designs for the Parkway, the sidewalk cafes (1,040 tables in Center City alone), the new landscape of Independence Mall, the expansion of several cultural institutions, the plan for PMA, Penn's eastward plan . . . all of these things make Philadelphia a lovelier and more engaging commodity. Some of them, too, reflect institutional choices to marry survival to an almost religious belief in the urban way.

But what really is our potential here? We are a deeply impoverished city without the support of European (or Asian) tax and government structures, nor the EU's bias (and huge budget for) cultural economic development. Last week, the recently-lauded PHA (I'm holding my tongue) laid off 350 workers and slashed maintenance and security at its sites because the Bush administration slashed HUD's funding (to 75% of its allocation); Septa, so crucial to the urban way, is borrowing from its capital budget to operate the system; guns are passed (as sticks and crow bars had been) among the kids who run our streets and so more than one of us dies as a result every day of the year. In this context it seems laughable to hooray million-dollar condos while pondering the philosophical implications of the Barnes' move to the Parkway. And yet we must. It's what we have to build on, what, in the best of all possible worlds, gives us power to overcome the inertia of the last fifty years. Our iconoclastic, utilitarian American urbanism — melded to 400 years of vital human ambition — which so successfully ascribes that particular national demand for a single home for each family to a true urban density demands us to keep finding new life for it — lest red state proclivities come to dominate the urban spirit of the 21st century; lest Philadelphia earn a seat next to Detroit and New Orleans.

Now we must — before more irreversible mistakes are made in the name of political pragmatism, inertia, corruption, and fear; before another opportunity is missed (there have been an infinite stream of these little mistakes, some of which preclude certain streets and neighborhoods from ever becoming interesting places).

Might we lose our soul? Our native son Adam Gopnik recently posited that this process had already taken place in Manhattan, a place, he says, now without an edgy frontier. I'd say it would take an economic or political explosion to cause such a change in Philadelphia; we ought to fear more a timid and tired response to inertia. We ought to fear more our own proclivity to accept the barely tolerable.

In that mindset, I would remind us all of Spain, a country strangled for forty years by Franco, stifled politically, economically, and culturally. Only in the 1990s did its cities begin to show signs of life. Even then the villages languished. Now Spain in all of Europe exhibits the most progressive and interesting urbanism, a daring contemporary vernacular architecture which seems to support, not detract from, the traditional form and patterns of life, most notably in marketplaces in Seville and Barcelona. The most conservative place on the continent has taught itself to embrace the daring and the daring, it turns out, is transforming how a people think about themselves and the world.

My intention, then, is to help Philadelphia be daring — in big and little ways — to support the expansion of the center (as an idea, as a place), connections among places and neighborhoods, as a place of possibility. We, the readers of Philly Skyline, clearly the best informed, with the most insight, aspire for our city something that right now it isn't quite. But we see the potential, maybe now more clearly than ever.

–Nathaniel Popkin


• 6 October 06: On 13xx South Street
• 26 July 06: Walk on Washington

See also:
The Possible City