A Prayer for the City
Of the cities that currently serve as backdrops for most television drama, New York dominates; San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago are runners-up; Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Baltimore recently have all made at least one appearance. Dallas lent its name to a long-running show; so did Miami. Seattle is the setting for the award-winning Frasier; Washington, D.C., for Murphy Brown. Yet there is one conspicuous absence. Not since thirtysomething, which was actually set in a suburb outside Philadelphia, has the City of Brotherly Love figured in a prominent television series.
It is a striking omission. Philadelphia is the fifth-largest city in the country. It is in one of the most populous—and prosperous—metropolitan areas in the United States. It has the Liberty Bell as well as Independence Hall, the greatest concentration of museum art after New York, a legendary orchestra, and an Ivy League university. Despite these attributes, Philadelphia occupies a curious position in the national consciousness. It is almost invisible.
Philadelphia was never a favorite city for Americans. Of the four “familiar quotations” Bartlett’s lists for the city, three are distinctly uncomplimentary. “On the whole I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” famously quipped that ungrateful native son, W.C. Fields—he meant it as his epitaph. “Philadelphia is the most pecksniffian of American cities,” observed Mencken, “and thus probably leads the world.” Mark Twain weighed in with: “In Boston they ask, How much does he know? In New York, How much is he worth? In Philadelphia, Who were his parents?”
Twain wrote that in 1899. He was right about upper-class Philadelphians’ obsession with heredity (it continues to be a preoccupation). But if turn-of-the-century Philadelphians did not ask, “How much is he worth?,” there was another reason: they were rich. In 1900, Philadelphia was one of the greatest and most diversified manufacturing cities in the world. Its textile industry was unrivaled. The city was the headquarters of the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, and the home of the Baldwin Locomotive works. It was also the site of one of the largest naval shipbuilding yards in the country. Philadelphia led all other American cities in petroleum refining; knit and lace goods manufacturing; upholstery, carpets, and rugs; cardboard and paper making; cigar and cigarette manufacturing; clay products; and plumbers’ supplies. It was a powerhouse.
Here, then, is one explanation for the city’s longstanding lack of national prominence. It was a blue-collar, smokestack town, slow and steady, without the sizzle of New York, the gentility of Boston, the down-at-heel charm of New Orleans, or the sunny glamour of Los Angeles. It was not “hog butcher to the world” like Chicago, or a city of blast furnaces like Pittsburgh—it made carpets and cardboard boxes. They did not stir the national imagination. There was no Whitman or Sandburg to celebrate the makers of plumbing supplies.
In 1900, Philadelphia was one of the ten most populous cities in the world and, at about one hundred and thirty square miles, one of the most expansive. Philadelphians generally did not live in crowded tenements as…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.