Saturday, October 21, 2006

Walking the Mean Streets of the Sixth Boro

I just got back from fighting my way through the crowds of shoppers on Walnut Street and found this Wall Street Journal story (below) from Friday's paper in my inbox. Ooops, I should have said, I just got back from the bleak, post-industrial landscape of Rittenhouse Square.

Besides the absolute lack of truth in the writer's description of Center City, she completely fails to make a coherent argument for why Boston is more prosperous than Philadelphia. Is it just me, or do you detect a racist subtext in this piece?

A Tale of Several Cities
October 20, 2006; Page W13
Why isn't Philadelphia Boston? Why does Boston prosper, people and businesses outbidding one another to get in, while Philadelphia languishes, with acres of vacant and underused property announcing the lack of local demand? Why does much of Boston look like Hollywood's idea of a hip, fabulous place to live, while downtown Philadelphia seems to be a bleak postindustrial landscape -- the few good buildings that are still standing routinely visited by street people begging at their entrances?
The answers are not to be found in conventional 20th-century analysis, which emphasized the seemingly unsolvable urban crisis: the decline of industrial jobs, the burdens of excessive taxation, the inevitability of racial tensions and the dominance of geography. After all, in traditional urban terms, Philadelphia and Boston are nearly twins, both founded by Protestant-Anglo stock in the 17th century, both blessed with prime locations, beautiful waterfronts, good vernacular housing, historic buildings, Olmsted parks, renowned museums and fine universities. And both are high-tax cities that have lost their industrial base. Yet one now thrives while the other declines.
At least part of the answer stems from their underlying cultures. In his "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia" (1979), E. Digby Baltzell argued that Boston Brahmins, with their belief in authority and leadership, embraced a sense of responsibility for civic life, while Philadelphia Gentlemen, with their inward but judgmental Quaker ways were deeply unconcerned about their city's welfare. Over the course of the 19th century and well into the 20th, they abdicated their role in government and watched indifferently as Philadelphia became, by the 1960s, the worst run city in the nation. The Brahmins might have been intolerant and unpleasant while the Philadelphians were open and charming, but the Brahmins cared about their city -- and so, subsequently, did the Irish politicians with whom they warred and the Italians who replaced the Irish.
Such cultural analysis -- long out of fashion as too soft (as as opposed to econometrics) or too racist (who is to say that one culture is better than another?) -- is due for a comeback. It starts to explain, in a way that mere fiscal analysis does not, why Miami has become the gateway to Latin America, why Los Angeles rules the Pacific Rim and why Chicago controls the Midwest. And it helps us to understand how New York City moved in 30 years from the humiliation of near bankruptcy to being the dominant city on earth.
The old answer of urban success was deterministic: taxes and geography. Cities with superb natural harbors, for example, become the natural capitals of trade, commanding and distributing the resources of their hinterlands. They kept their own taxes low by feeding off their interiors. Yet as the historian Richard Wade has noted for years, against the tide of his field, this theory has its flaws: If the sheer excellence of a harbor truly determined a city's fate, then the greatest city in America would be Upper Sandusky, Ohio.
What flourishing cities often have in common, instead, are two crucial cultural characteristics: combativeness and cunning. New Yorkers, for example, fought back from their 1975 bankruptcy with every tool at their disposal, fair and unfair. Their rallying cry against the federal government -- the famous Daily News headline of "Ford to City: Drop Dead" -- had never actually been said by feckless President Ford. Indeed, on the merits, the Ford administration had good arguments for resisting a bail-out of the nation's financial capital.
Yet New York armed itself with brilliant leadership, cut its bloated operating and capital budgets, cajoled the federal loan guarantees from Congress, poured money into fixing up thousands of units of abandoned housing, fought crime and graffiti -- and emerged triumphant. It might have done even better: It barely reduced its onerous tax burden, regarded by many analysts as the highest in the country. Indeed, one of New York's most notorious, anti-enterprise taxes is the 4% unincorporated business tax, which was targeted at wealthy physicians but which instead hits every bodega and small business. Surely this tax has done serious harm, if not enough to force its repeal. Somehow New York's entrepreneurial spirit drives forward, scattering even the grossest of obstacles -- almost against reason.
That same energy contributes to New York's cyclical boom-and-bust nature, regularly pushing speculation beyond the limits of an exuberant boom, thereby encouraging a bust. New Yorkers have done this for centuries while, for example, more temperate Chicagoans have not. Seemingly more stolid than New Yorkers, Chicagoans have transformed Carl Sandburg's brawling city of big shoulders into what is probably the most beautiful of postindustrial cities.
Chicagoans actually think about beauty in a way that New Yorkers do not, caring for their public gardens -- which go unvandalized though they are also unpoliced -- and embracing Mayor Daley's seemingly quixotic decision, 20 years ago, to put flowers wherever he could fit them, starting with highway barriers. (At the time, New York's parks commissioner, Gordon Davis, complained that he couldn't even get his own staff to plant flowers in front of his headquarters.) Cherishing their unparalleled lakefront -- originally a gift of businessman Montgomery Ward -- Chicagoans keep it free of invasive development while encouraging towers for the wealthy to rise efficiently behind Lake Shore Drive.
When a public consensus developed, in the second Daley administration, that the southern section of the drive was too close to Lake Michigan, Mayor Daley's people simply relocated it inland -- revealing even more of their splendid lake without hurting traffic. Such a move would have been unthinkable in more contentious New York, where the congested and ugly West Side Highway still blocks the Hudson River waterfront -- and the memory of the proposed above-ground Westway, stopped in the 1970s, can still induce room-clearing arguments.
Cunning and combativeness, however, often restore cities financially without making them many new friends, except, perhaps, for the young -- who, for the past two decades, have been returning in great numbers to the old neighborhoods long ago abandoned by their parents and grandparents. So widespread yet diverse is the youth wave that it has produced well-known derisory terms like yuppies, buppies and guppies -- terms that played down the significance of their achievement. Returning youngsters played for a few years, then settled down to buying houses, raising children, fighting for better schools and reclaiming their lost urban heritage.
But what makes cities successful -- or even just lovable -- can seldom be quantified. Even Baltzell, who admired the mind and achievements of Puritan Boston, said that his heart and loyalties were rooted in Quaker Philadelphia, which he criticized so harshly. As poet Phyllis McGinley wrote, perhaps in astonishment, "Some love Paris and some Purdue."
Ms. Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I don't get is her point... Why beat up on us when you have no real answers to your own questions? Obviously we're "Purdue" to her "Paris".

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused by Inga and the WSJ editorial. Inga questions whether there's racism in the article presumably because of its stereotyping of Quakers but has her own negative comments about a stereotypical attitude of Philadelphia Quakers in her next blog entry. Make up your mind Inga. Is the rule here that it's okay for you to make broad generalizations but not others. The article confuses me because I'm not sure what we are to conclude. Is the the theory being put forth that urban vitality is dependent on conflict and argumentation? Maybe the author should spend a day at a City Council session to see peaceful Philadelphians at work. I looked into the author. She's a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. (Maybe she knows someone on the board.) If you'd like to contact Julia Vitullo Martin her email address is You might want to ask her if she ever actually left NY and visited Philadelphia.

1:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I read that column and wondered if the writer had actually ever been to Philadelphia. Her description of the city as "a few bleak remaining buildings" made me really question exactly what was the point of her article. I've visited three or four times over the past few years and have found Center City to be vibrant, walkable, interesting and safe. Should she ever visit Tampa, she would most likely condemn it to death, and yet this town has an economy and population growth that Boston would have a hard time beating.

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Technically the writer erred in her description of downtown Philadelphia as being a post industrial landscape.

Parts of downtown are fabulous, other parts not so fabulous and fit her condemning description very accurately. Center City west of Broad is tremendous. That being said Center City east of Broad is still a basketcase(Market East? unmitigated disaster) and the area on the NE quadrant of Broad + Market(Loft district) looks exactly like a post industrial diaster area.

Her reasoning aside Boston's downtown is much healthier than Philadlephia's. The only fault I found with the article is that she didn't give proper respect to Walnut Street and University City.

The Writer's condemnation of Philadelphia was dead-on correct describing Market East, and Philadlephia's national reputation is never going to be a good one when you have the calamity of Market East sitting right in the tourist and convention area.

I defy someone to call her a liar when King of Prussia has 435 high end retail store in a 1 sq. mile area but the area east of Broad St. is made up of nothing but filthy video stores, dollar stores,tacky jewelry establishments,electronic stores blaring hip-hop that can be heard 3 blocks away. The hustlers, hucksters, beggars add fuel to the fire.

Wake up call:
This city has alot of work ahead of it to be compared with Boston.

12:48 PM  
Blogger David said...

I'm not too sure about tip's comment that "the area east of Broad St. is made up of nothing but filthy video stores, dollar stores,tacky jewelry establishments,electronic stores blaring hip-hop that can be heard 3 blocks away." The Reading Terminal Market certainly defies such categorization. And the Loew's Hotel at the PSFS doesn't appear to me to be a filthy video store. And while there are some lower-end establishments, especially across from the Gallery, there are also nicer stores, such as West Elm and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. And, as pointed out in this Inky article from less than a year ago,, Center City is the third largest downtown population in the country. If you're going to call something a post-industrial wasteland, consider Detroit or certain parts of North Philly, but definitely not Center City.

4:54 PM  
Blogger ryan said...

Ms. Vitullo-Martin's article was just gross. Any analysis that relies almost exclusively on "cultural characteristics" to describe complex urban conditions is incurious and glib. The different situations of cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston are all deeply rooted in the history of their respective economic advantages and disadvantages.

This editorial helped me understand nothing about cities, but was great lesson in identifiying a New Yorker with a superiority complex.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. I did learn that Philly's problems are probably because we're not all that cunning as citizens. We're certainly combatative enough.

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Vitullo-Martin should really visit Philadelphia some day.

"the few good buildings that are still standing routinely visited by street people begging at their entrances?"

We only have a few good buildings still standing? Are we Baghdad?

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

war rabbit get over the "Market Street East is ghetto, not white or touristy enough to be world class" thing. It's ANNOYING and TIRED!!! Center city has tons of streets, gentrification takes time and screww 'em if they judge a whole area by one street! Get over it!!!

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So tip==War Rabbit? LOL What an annoying person.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The WSJ article is confusing - really just a string of anecdotes. And honestly, the Philadelphia vs. Boston thing is really old. I thought Philadelphians got over that one 10 years ago!

It is important to remember that Baltzell's book is nearly 30 years old, and in fact, if you read it well, you discover he was emphasizing the experiences of historical Philadelphia and Boston, not necessarily the present. I think both cities have read far too much into the book, Boston to pat itself on the back, and Philadelphia to have another reason to feel depressed.

If Philadelphians want a reason to feel good about their city in light of another - consider the place that has been my home for the past 4 years: Berkeley, CA, and the larger Bay Area.

Berkeley has in the past decade lost 10 percent of its population, a large number of businesses (and tax base), and boasts both a downtown and university area (the famous, or infamous, Telegraph Ave.) filled with homelessness, graffiti, empty storefronts, and a general feeling of a place in a downward spiral. In the brief time I've been here, we've lost bookstores, movie theaters, even the Gap! This is a town of 100,000, with a large student population. And with neighboring communities that are expanding rapidly - at Berkeley's expense.

Generally, the political process is frozen. Development and business are demonized. The University is seen as an enemy, not an asset. And while there is plenty of chatter about community activism, there is little evidence of "let's roll up our sleeves and get something done." That's something I saw and participated in when living in Philly, and I miss it.

In the local media Philadelphia gets a surprising amount of attention as a model to follow - whether its the Center City District, or the South Street District, or Penn's work in University City. Indeed, even the San Francisco Chronicle had a large front-page story a few months back asking why Philadelphia could tackle homelessness in a humane and generally successful way, while in SF any kind of success remains elusive (and please note that the current SF mayor ran on a platform of "I'll solve the homeless problem.")

No place is perfect. ButS, as someone now living in a place that is demonstrably stuck in the past - for many Berkeleyans it will always be 1967 - I can say that Philly is keeping past-present-future in reasonably healthy balance.

So, forget Ms. Whoever at the WSJ. Get out there and keep making your community better.

2:56 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

The kindest thing you can say about this article is that it is silly. Ryan's critique of the use of "cultural characteristics" is very apt: you can't sum up a city as "Quaker Philadelphia" or "Puritan Boston" without leaving a whole lot out of account. I never found these two categorizations very helpful anyway, in part because they are so obviously oversimplified.

My daughter lives in the Boston area, so my wife and I visit Boston once or twice a year. We love it, and we love Philadelphia also. Comparing the two makes less sense than either Julia Vitullo or Digby Baltzell, originator of the Quaker/Puritan theory, realizes. The differences between them don't boil down to puritan vs. quaker; they are far more complex than that.

For one thing, Boston proper is a lot smaller than Philadelphia, not just in population but in area. It is possible to walk or drive ten miles or more, starting in Center City Philadelphia, and still remain within the city limits. That is not possible in Boston. We walked from the waterfront, through central Boston, and out toward Cambridge, and we left Boston proper within four miles of our starting point. One shouldn't underestimate the difference that sheer geographic size makes to a city—larger areas are more difficult to administer, require higher investment to develop, and present a more complex problem than smaller areas in many other ways.

This is not to excuse Philadelphia's poor planning or government. But Vitullo is so eager to compare Philadelphia unfavorably to Boston that she downplays some of the problems that Boston has recently had, such as the mess over the Big Dig. And I'm not sure where she gets the notion that Boston is lacking in terrible buildings. The ugliest, most depressing building I have ever seen outside of a combat zone photo is a state mental health building on the edge of central Boston: pure, intimidating reinforced concrete whose geometry could only be described by H.P. Lovecraft. Guaranteed to depress clients who weren't depressed when they got off the bus for their appointments.

The point here is not that Boston is ugly (it is not) and Philadelphia beautiful (it is, but with a lot of depressing places of its own). It is that articles full of generalizations like this one are likely to end up making no point and seeming silly in the process. Boston and Philadelphia are both exciting places to live or visit. And they both have problems. Comparing them in order to trash one or the other is pointless.

3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was going to pen a comment but then my inner Wm. Penn quieted such wanton egoism.

All of this intellectualism I see displayed on this page! -- the disputations of the haughty learned -- you all must not be Philadelphians.

Why don't we all just quiet down and put on something brown and drab and wide-brimmed and regular -- like our insufferably boring red brick blocks.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chris, walk Spruce from the Delaware to the Schukyll and tell us, again, about "boring red-brick blocks."

5:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I see that Thee get my point compleatly!

6:41 PM  
Blogger Mark Waldo said...


Sitting in SF last year looking for a better city to live in, my wife and I looked at Boston... and NYC ....and Philadelphia.

And after visits and some pondering (and after 20 years in SF) we chose Philadelphia....

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Interesting.

I just moved from Boston a year ago and now i'm in can compare and contrast some. It just seems that the "experiences" of each city are being quantified in ways that are pretty unjust...this city- or that fails, while the other prospers...etc.

Boston is a great city, for its own reasons. You can derive pluses and minuses for living there. It DOES have a healthy downtown...but it also went through a bleak period back in the late 80's and early 90's. Murders were high...etc...etc.

Philadelphia is a BEAUTIFUL city!! Its amazing the transformation it has been going through...Boston was there about 10-15 years ago.

I just don't see the reason (or need) to compare two great American cities the way this author does. Why? To fortify some (questionable) superiority complex???? (or inferiority complex for that matter)

I'm just trying to infuse the dialogue with uniased opinion...because I do have attachment to Boston, but I find Philadelphia equally as interesting...if not more diverse and friendlier.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think in posting that column Inga is patting her self on the back by showing what lazy, ill informed journalism looks like. Ms. Vitullo-Martin's unserious writing is not worth serious consideration...

8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LA, the capital of the Pacific Rim? This lady is off her rocker!

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is strange she picked a city, Boston, that lost a greater percentage of it's population than Philadelphia did last year. Actually, Boston lost both a greater percentage of it's population and a higher absolute number (-7,974 for Philadelphia versus 8,626 for Boston). Not that we should strive for mediocrity, but other than Los Angeles, every city she mentioned lost people more people than Philadelphia did last year. Maybe if she took her nose out the air, she that while Hollywood thinks Boston is great, people are choosing Phoenix and Houston.

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was living in Boston a few years ago. It was okay - that's it. The people were kinda stuffy. There were very few decent restaurants, and most of the bars were of the sports variety (pubs) that wreaked of beer. Philadelphia has many more sophisticated/hip/trendy dining options. Why didn't the WSJ lady consider that?

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please, please, please note: That "article" was an opinion piece on one of the WSJ's extreme-right pages. Not excusing it, but not "reporting" either.

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a third generation Philadelphian.

Hooray for using Gehry (CA) and Gluckman (NYC) for the expansion.

Baltimore is a closer match to us than Boston. Baltimore has grown faster outward from it's core because there public money was spent wisely on urban projects. Their Inner Habor is a home run while ours should be guttered. Compare their Aquarium (which is still packed daily) and our complete failure in Camden (Hillier). We buck the sure thing for a political gamble.

An important point :
Baltimore used Benjamin Thomson and Cambridge 7 to design The Festival Market and Aquarium. Both are Boston Firms who did exemplary work in Boston on similar mixed use projects. I'm sure our failures are all local architects. If anyone knows who did what failure post it.

Penn's Landing and most of the money spent in 1976 for the Bicentenial failed to generate perimeter developement. Here we are, 30 years later, and just now developing the Delaware. Like an Eagle's Superbowl Win ......the wait is interminable.

Good Architects make good urban projects.

Keep up the chatter.

1:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ED Glaeser, Abigail Thernstrem, John McWhorter, Heather need only consider the ideological company of Ms. Vitullo-Martinto get the gist of her religio-civic notions of city fates. Let us not forget that Boston is also the capital of Mass and the cultural-sports capital of new England. Earlier posts about its smaller size are also relevant. So, perhaps the root of Philadephia's problems are not its Quaker lineage, but the city/county consolidation of 1854.

6:20 PM  

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