Letter from Philadelphia

Being an underdog comes lathered in cliché, promise, and expectation; one day, surely soon enough, the underdog will flip to the top. Such a boring plot, all acceleration and release, no struggle or desire.

Philadelphia finds itself spoken of in these simple narrative terms. Rocky references still haunt sports games; four-square blocks of the city’s downtown are an American Revolution-themed amusement park, all shined up for tourists. The tacky and obvious sartorial and theatrical bedazzlement of historical Philadelphia makes high school theater look like Broadway. This city possesses no sensuality, neither drama nor style. This is Underdog Philadelphia, a subpar city, as one Brooklynite sardonically described it to me, appearing before its metropolitan cousins as a runt.

I could dispute this status, of course, but it feels like protesting a bit too much. Philadelphia has a food scene that rivals New York, has fostered an incredibly vibrant independent literary and artistic community, and has heard some of the best music of the last ten years in its house shows. None of this demands my defensiveness. It’d be trite.

I love Philly. I love its poetry. The lyric elements of the city often go unremarked upon. The joys and chaos of an old American city come accented and peppered with long O’s and hard A’s. One could mistake this accent for some mixture of midwestern and New English, but it is singular. The noises of the city inscribe a simple, but eclectic community that contains the quotidian and urban centralized by a remarkable antagonism: it’s Philly versus Everybody.

The city’s inexpensive—for now. Along our major avenues and horse-buggy wide cross streets, the tin-man houses of contemporary real estate architecture shoot up, shoddy and pricy. For a long while and still for a time into the future, Philadelphia remains a home owning city, a place where people can still lay claim to property, to the promise of generational wealth rather than generational debt. Perhaps the real underdog story is that some halcyon version of the American dream still lives here and that’s why I find it so romantic. I fear this romance will fade, however.

Rather than a rough and tumble Western city with the glitzy promise of Big Tech and a sprawling bleached sky, when I look up from my small place in Philadelphia, I see the closing cauldron lid of American capital sealing in my neighbors and me. On that sky is projected the immediate collapse of this former metropole from a town of working-class dignity and promise to one of violence and degradation, while the richest Philadelphians curl like snakes around their lot. Our city heats up, while the University of Pennsylvania’s endowment blossoms to twenty billion and the tentacles of their untaxed real estate empire slither to the shores of the Schuylkill.

When I walk up my street in South Philly, there are shuttered homes and bullet holes in the windows of the corner store. When I take the train to my friends’ home on the other side of town, needles and human beings lay in equal dejection on the subway floor. Certainly, the city can feel quite gothic at times (like most major cities), but it’s not the sinister and obscene that frame Philadelphia in my mind. Rather, this eerie view offers clarity for resistance. The cauldron of Philadelphia was created by human beings, it did not develop this way by natural order.

Consider this: Hahnemann Hospital, one of the only hospitals that catered to the poor and uninsured in our city was bought by Joel Freedman and American Academic Health System in 2018. By 2019, nurses were fired, hospital beds trashed, patients turned away. Freedman wouldn’t reopen the hospital for pandemic operations and instead, he fled the city. His former mansion remains for sale and covered in graffiti. The plan, it seems, is to turn the former hospital into luxury apartments.

My father grew up here and escaped. I ran back. My boyfriend grew up here as well and wants to leave; I want to stay. A story of Philadelphia that isn’t an underdog tale would attempt to harmonize the contradictions of the city rather than elide them as a rough and tumble nature. This tale could be told in a mode without allusion to cultural artifacts, where the syphilitic ghosts of Ben Franklin have exhausted themselves, but the former vicious police chief and mayor Frank Rizzo’s chains have only begun their grisly rattle. A story where history exists not as static but as process. Here is a city where living, breathing real estate schemes have deprived schools of enough funds for libraries or nurses, and turned them into buildings of adventurous restaurants and artisanal bakeries colored in millennial baby blues and yellows. The abject collapsed brick of Fishtown and Kensington, “The Wal-Mart of Heroin” as The New York Times once termed the area, becomes not a sad story of lost American industry, but a monument to forgotten futures. Built atop this possibility is the hollow urban renewal aesthetic of spare navy siding and windows that won’t open enough to allow nature in or humans out. In that awful old brick, I see the Philadelphia that could have been and the one that is hanging in stasis. The old world has died, the new one struggles to be born: now is the time of La Colombe.

Perhaps I sound like a bohemian man cosplaying in poverty. Well spotted. But perhaps equally, I’ve made peace with my station in this city. Never to make so much money as to be separated from the social ills of American life, and instead, hanging in the balance of precarity while sipping strange beers in bars that still allow smoking. There, I can rationalize this life as a new utopic one where being an underdog is worth it.

Matthew Zarenkiewicz