Window Dressing in Philadelphia

  • Share
  • Read Later
Several weeks ago, at dinner with friends who have lived in Philadelphia for decades, I asked if there were visible signs of spit-and-polish as the city prepared for the GOP convention. Oh, yes, they replied. In fact, driving from the airport into the city, one notices immediately how remarkably clean the buildings are and how well paved the road is. If someone in the car were to turn around in their seat, however (preferably not the driver) and glance backward toward the airport, one might notice a slight discrepancy: Viewed from this new angle, the buildings stand in disrepair. City leaders must have figured that since everyone takes another road on the return trip to the airport, there was no reason to waste time and money cleaning up both sides of the buildings.

We're coming up on the week Philadelphia's garbage collectors, road painters, window washers, police and park crews have been dreading since 1998, when then-mayor Ed Rendell won his bid to bring the GOP convention — and the attendant media frenzy — to his beloved city. The decision was a triumph for Philadelphia's corps of revivalists, long dedicated to bolstering their city's battered image, and struck fear into the hearts of city workers, who knew the spotlight would cast an unforgiving glare on urban blight. And that meant a marathon of scrubbing, painting, trimming and pruning... not to mention a few instances of creative camouflage.

They were right: For two years, and in ever-increasing measures, the City of Brotherly love has undergone the urban equivalent of a frenzied (and somewhat haphazard) spring cleaning, as crews polish highly visible districts to a reflective shine and sweep less promising areas under a carpet of anonymity. (Actually, anonymity may be reserved for the lucky neighborhoods: Residents of Philadelphia's struggling Logan triangle were probably wishing for relative invisibility last week when city bulldozers started plowing the neighborhood's modest 80-year-old houses, crumbling the homes into the landfill that had threatened to swallow them for years).

But Philly's convention-year face-lift isn't just about making buildings more presentable (or getting rid of them completely) and convincing wary Republicans that it's OK to venture onto the streets of one of the nation's most staunchly Democratic cities. It's about proving to the rest of the country that a midsize city with a determinedly parochial strain and a troubled history is up for showcasing a national political convention with a healthy dose of style.

And the economic calculus of conventions may necessitate fudging on a few broken windows or resorting to the architectural equivalent of placing a coffee table over a carpet stain just to fill city coffers and attract positive media spin. And that's fine — as a quick fix. But after all the conventioneers have pulled up camp and gone back to their daily lives in Iowa and Colorado, Philadelphia's leadership would be well advised to take another hard look at their town and earmark a few million of that convention money for a round of serious, uncynical renovation. Because reality will hit this city hard: Once the strategically placed red-white-and-blue bunting comes down, residents will take a look around at the city's cracks and potholes and wonder when everything got so shabby.