'New Philadelphia' Is Aimed at Me

On basketball jerseys, gentrification and those ugly light towers on Broad St.

For years now, there’s been a T-shirt for sale at Jinxed in the Piazza that says “I miss the old Philadelphia.” It always made me laugh because, well, this T-shirt is for sale in an overpriced vintage store in a new apartment building in the Northern Liberties, which at one point was owned by Jared Kushner. 

This is pretty much the gentrification capital of a city already developing at a rapid pace.

The people shopping here do not miss whatever idea of an old Philadelphia you’re peddling. They never saw an old Philadelphia.

And I know that because I’m one of them. 

Last week, 76ers president Chris Heck, in an interview over the team’s new black jerseys for the upcoming season, said he doesn’t like the term “Philly,” because it’s “lazy” and “undersells the city.”

We refer to it as ‘New Philadelphia.’ Blue collar’s important for the city, but it’s not the only component. New Philadelphia is about the arts, it’s about culture, it’s about education, it’s about diversity. We like that narrative more than the blue collar hockey thing. Which isn’t a slight on it but we think we’re more than blue collar. [...] If I’m selling out with a black uniform, we better have a reference to the night life, and nothing shines brighter than Boathouse Row.

Yeah, nothing says Philadelphia nightlife like (checks notes) literal boathouses nowhere near any bar or restaurant, unless you want to call the high school kids getting fucked up in Lemon Hill nightlife (which I do).

The “New Philadelphia” comments resonated with me just like the shirt at Jinxed. Not because I immediately became indignant along with the rest of the city (I did). But because I recognized that, for better or worse, this marketing ploy was aimed squarely at me.

I came to Philadelphia 10 years ago as a freshman at Temple University. I came from the nothing suburb of Camp Hill, PA, nestled safely across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. Coming to Philly for school meant, to some extent, living a wholly separate life both inside and outside of the community simultaneously. There are two very different North Philadelphias that occupy the same physical space, but couldn’t be farther from each other. They are parallel realities, and for the most part, the people in my plane of existence completely neglect the other.

I vividly remember my visitation/application process for Temple, during which time I was looking at other schools in much more rural/suburban locations. The people in charge of selling me on going to school there used two main points: The Temple University Police Force is the third largest in the entire state, only behind Philadelphia Police itself and Pittsburgh. They also threw around a phrase to play up the security features around campus:

“The sun never sets on Temple University.”

For those keeping score at home, yes that’s a play on the phrase regarding the British Empire’s global holdings, and (problematic colonization reference aside) basically tells us, “Don’t worry. The scary neighborhood can’t get you.”

I’d like to think that in my time there, particularly as part of a journalism department that required and encouraged exploration of the city and its people, opened me up to the actual world here a bit more. And, to be fair, this statement isn’t wholly representative of Temple’s place in the North Philly community. It’s just a selling point aimed at a very specific demographic, just like Heck’s comments.

And for the same reason that speech at Temple resonates with kids like me, the “New Philadelphia” comments, while outraging most, will seem like a positive for others. That’s what they want!

If I’m going to think about gentrification-through-city-edition-NBA-jersey, as well as gentrification-through-gentrification, I’d be remiss to not mention Brooklyn. Last year, the Nets introduced their City Edition jerseys, complete with Coogi Sweater-patterned trim, that said “Bed-Stuy” in graffiti font. This is a reference to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that Biggie grew up in. Mind you, the Nets play in downtown Brooklyn, about two miles away from “Bed-Stuy.”

Brooklyn-esque gentrification has been seeping into Philly for a while now. Enough so that you’ll spot stickers around the city that say “Keep New York out of Philly.” And there have been plenty of clicky listicles comparing any interesting neighborhood of Philly with a Jinxed and/or a coffee shop/dive bar as “The New Brooklyn” or “The Brooklyn of Philadelphia.”

If you want to see the “New Philadelphia,” see the most caricatured features of Brooklyn.

Even before the pandemic, the city’s independent music scene and wealth of venues was giving way to ones owned by LiveNation.

With the pandemic now eight months in and only getting worse, the city has lost smaller music venues like Boot & Saddle, and it would be naive to think that will be the only casualty.

Just months ago, news broke that the same area of Fishtown near the Fillmore is getting a Brooklyn Bowl, adding to the very artificial EPCOT vibes made possible by Barcade and a Goose Island brewery, just across the street from an Old Philly institution in The Barbary.

It’s no coincidence that neighborhoods like this boom. It’s right next to a highway. It’s inviting as hell for suburban folk to come in, get off the highway without having to drive through the city, and get home safely. Hell, that’s the exact reason Rudy Giuliani held his press conference at the now infamous Four Seasons Total Landscaping out in the Northeast. 

“New Philadelphia” is “Come on. You don’t have to be afraid of Philly anymore. You can park your car, get a beer at this brewery we brought in for you, head into the hip venue you’ve heard so much about on Buzzfeed, and don’t worry about any troublesome neighbors.”

New Philadelphia is putting up hideous metal light sticks on North Broad street and slapping “Avenue of the Arts” on signs to try to erase a century’s worth of urban blight and wealth disparity. It’s The Met lights right next to the Hotel Carlyle (which you can rent by the hour).

New Philadelphia is a redone Dilworth Plaza and Love Park with fountains built into the ground so there won’t be any unsightly Occupy City Hall or homeless people ruining your picture in front of the Love sign.

Those Boathouse Row jerseys are going to sell like crazy because guys will recognize Boathouse Row from their drive in on 76 or the “Always Sunny” opening credits, and they finally used black in the color scheme, just like when they watched Iverson from the safety of their home 20 years ago.

They will sell, and “New Philadelphia” will work, because there are countless people in this city just like me. I fully understand the appeal of New Philadelphia that Heck was trying to sell, because he’s trying to sell it to me.

That idea of an arts district and college town that spans the whole city is all well and good if you’re willing to exist in the reality that ignores the one underneath you. The “blue collar” reality that Heck turned his nose up at in his interview. And I get that, too. “Blue collar” was a pejorative in my grandfather’s house growing up. This was guy who grew up dirt poor during the depression, and then used the GI bill after WWII to get a “white collar” job, ensuring no one in his family would live like he did. (Funny enough, he was an avid Eagles fan. The Steelers were the “blue collar” team.)

While I immediately felt like Heck’s comments were stupid and bad, because they were stupid and bad, it would largely be performative for me to try to champion the blue collar roots of a city that I’m not personally connected to. So, in that sense, I am New Philadelphia.

So someone like Heck could say that he just misspoke. Really all he did was, in modern parlance, “say the quiet part out loud.” Distancing a brand from its location’s (no pun intended) gritty identity in favor of a cleaner, mixed-use-use-real-estate-tax-abatement-opportunity-zone vibe is gentrification 101, even though he’s not literally talking about real estate.

People like me might not really remember the “old Philadelphia.” But, I’d like to hope that enough people can make New Philadelphia not quite so shitty. Otherwise, you might have a very competitive basketball team in a city bereft of any of the genuine culture that made the city great, and we’ll all move to another growing city, like priced out New Yorkers in Kensington.

Heads up, Baltimore.

Wow. A gentrifier having an epiphany about gentrification. Real original.

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Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.