Awakening

Philadelphia, circa 1900.

New York may have had its Ric Burns, but Philadelphia has its Sam Katz. Since 2007, Katz, his son Philip, and their History Making Productions has been producing Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a multi-part history of the city, which is also accompanied by excellent educational materials. It has been a long effort, and it’s still not yet entirely complete, but recently HMP released its latest episode, “Awakening (1900-1920),” in which I’m particularly interested, primarily because this was the period in which my father’s parents arrived in Philadelphia, settling in Northern Liberties. It’s a splendid series, beautifully produced, and quite explicit about the challenges that the city and its people have faced through the more than three centuries of its existence.

This new episode — featuring segments on Shibe Park, the employment of children in textile mills, immigration, race issues, Albert Greenfield, and Marian Anderson (with an underscore of music by Scott Joplin) — can be seen below.

Dr. Shock

The youngsters out there won’t remember this, but up until around 1975 or so there wasn’t any such thing as cable TV. Instead, we had the three major networks, PBS, and then something called UHF — smaller local stations located up beyond channel 2-13 that carried syndicated talk shows, reruns, and various forms of lower-budget local programming. Philadelphia boasted three of these in the early 1970s: Channel 17 (WPHL), Channel 29 (WTXF), and Channel 48 (WKBS). Many of these stations featured children’s programming, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

One of the more absurd children’s personalities that wound up on Channel 17 was “Dr. Shock,” the nom de cheap television shows of Joseph Zawislak. (Channel 17 also ran a local children’s show featuring the somewhat more conventional Wee Willie Webber.) From 1969 through 1979, Dr. Shock hosted a Saturday afternoon program (variously titled Scream In, Mad Theater, and Horror Theater) featuring a library of Grade-Z horror films that Channel 17 had somehow picked up; the films themselves were interspersed with wildly comic skits, magic tricks, and comments from Zawislak, along with wildly incongruous appearances from his young daughter Doreen and other children.  After a 13-week tryout period in 1969, Channel 17 cancelled the show, only to unleash a storm of 10,000 protest letters. Once Dr. Shock was back, he was back to stay.

Born in Philadelphia himself, Zawislak was a resident of Roxborough, and his resume reveals that prior to his television debut he had been a devoted amateur magician, a deli worker, an insurance salesman, a pinball arcade manager, and a gas cylinder truck driver. Alas, Dr. Shock died all too young of a heart attack at the age of 42, and his show died with him in 1979. There’s more information about Dr. Shock and his career here, and Channel 17 ran this feature during their 50th anniversary special:

I vaguely remembered watching him as a child, but the below tribute documentary put together by his longtime producer and collaborator Rick Fox reveals that my memories of this genuinely absurd show were sadly incomplete. Dr. Shock and other local television personalities like him inspired Joe Flaherty’s wonderful Count Floyd creation for SCTV later that decade; I’m sorry that we don’t have shows like this any more: budget-basement local programming propelled mostly by extraordinarily enthusiastic local amateurs, who in time became beloved professional entertainers. I suppose we have YouTube videos, but as you’ll see below, YouTube videos are no substitute.

As bad as we say it is

When in the early 1970s the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce needed a slogan to promote the city to businesses and tourists, the best it could come up with was “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” It’s hard to determine exactly what the Chamber of Commerce expected as a result. In the ten years following the slogan’s launch, the population of Philadelphia dipped by 13.4 percent, from 1,948,609 to 1,688,210. And on the eve of the city’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo requested 15,000 federal troops to maintain order in Philadelphia that summer, fearing violence from political demonstrations. Tourists stayed away in droves. The total number of visitors to Philadelphia in 1976 was estimated to be between 14 and 20 million, which fell far short of the planners expectations, Madison Eggert-Crowe and Scott Gabriel Knowles write in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Much of the shortfall may be attributed to fear of violence spread by media attention to the protests and the mayor’s reaction to it. During the Bicentennial there was also an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Hundreds of members of the American Legion staying at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel contracted an infectious disease through the hotels air conditioning system, killing more than thirty of the Legionnaires. Local wags inclined to punnery called the city Filthydelphia, and the same wags, referring to the main artery into town, the deteriorating high-speed Schuylkill Expressway, were prone to call it the Surekill Distressway. We regularly booed our sports teams, which inevitably found themselves in the basement of the standings a few weeks after the opening of the season, at their home games. Philadelphia was, at the time, the self-loathing Larry David of American cities. It remains so in some respects. It may be no coincidence that the phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us” was popularized in the 1970s (though not coined) by Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo and a Philadelphia native.

I consider myself a native Philadelphian too — I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital at 8th and Spruce Streets in 1962, in the heart of Center City — and I remain one, though I’ve lived in New York since the early 1990s. I spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia in the 1970s (I must have passed that billboard many times myself) and remember this period well. But then, Philadelphia was never one to curry favor with outsiders, or with ourselves. Compare Philadelphia’s slogan of the 1970s with, for example, New York’s “I Love New York” advertising campaign, which launched in 1977 — a screaming success. A success, at least, when it came to the city’s self-image, if little else; New York’s population also suffered a 10 percent decrease during the 1970s. Nonetheless, the contrast between the two slogans reveals about Philadelphians their steadfast refusal to believe their own bullshit.

Bullshit is a fine fertilizer, and like other fertilizers it’s a compound, its individual elements consisting of hyperbole, publicity, half-truths, whole-lies, arrogance, exaggeration, conceit, egotism, self-delusion, greed, and a narcissism verging on religious mania. The danger is in believing your own bullshit, and if anybody believes their own bullshit, it’s New Yorkers. The sentence “Philadelphia is not as bad as Philadelphians say it is” unintentionally reveals a more laudable modesty and humility at the heart of its civic and urban culture. That modesty and humility have done damage to the city and its reputation, no doubt. But they have also done the city and its inhabitants more good than may be evident at first glance, and it obscures the far greater civic and urban damage that bullshitters who believe their own bullshit can accomplish.

The roots of this difference between New York and Philadelphia may lie in their histories. William Penn, the founder of the city whose statue looks down from the top of Philadelphia’s City Hall, deliberately established Philadelphia on the Quaker values of tolerance, piety, pacifism, and order in its original prospectus. (Though the statue itself is solemn and dignified, from the right angle, when it’s raining, it looks like Penn is peeing in the general direction of North Philadelphia. Thanks to my late father for this rather surprisingly relevant insight, though I’m sure he was hardly the first to notice it.) He envisioned it as a greene country towne, a city of brotherly love that would disdain excessive commerce and business activity in the pursuit of a prosperous (within reason) but civilized community of compassionate, like-minded citizens. Within fifty years of its 1682 establishment, of course, these ideals had fallen by the wayside as the non-Quaker population — diverse and heterogenous as it was in terms of religious, social, and racial composition, a diversity and heterogeneity ironically encouraged by Penn himself — displaced the original Quaker settlers, forming a more practical and commercial population, personified by no less than Benjamin Franklin, inventor, entrepreneur, and civic leader. On a recent walk through Olde City Philadelphia, I counted no fewer than fifteen statues and historical references to the inimitable Franklin — he’s hard to miss — but above it all, Penn and his memory still look down over the city. There is, no doubt, some bullshit in Penn and rather more in Franklin; the capacity for bullshit is something that differentiates the human race from the animals, after all, and none of us is entirely devoid of it, even and perhaps especially seemingly benign visionaries like Penn. New York, on the other hand, was founded as a trading post. And New York is still a trading post — magnified a millionfold, and powered by the latest in technology, but a trading post nonetheless. And there’s no better fertilizer for business, commerce, and publicity than bullshit. I hate to say it, but if Benjamin Franklin may be the personification of colonial Philadelphia, Donald Trump may be the personification of contemporary New York.

That Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is also suggests a bit of a desire to be left alone. In these more connected and networked days, a Facebook intimacy, in which we can be friends with hundreds, if not thousands, of people that we never meet, undermines traditional conceptions of community and friendship, which traditionally required us to actually meet, talk, and enjoy each other’s real-world presence. Such traditional conceptions themselves undermine the ability of bullshitters to successfully bullshit us; we can see the deceptive glint in their eye as they spew it.

About twenty years ago, Philadelphia got around to hiring a rather more adept publicity firm, which came up with the slogan “The Place That Loves You Back.” This might be interpreted as a somewhat sarcastic response to New York’s “I Love New York,” which doesn’t love anyone, apparently. In 2012, Prof. Richardson Dilworth, Director of Drexel University’s Center for Public Policy, compared the two Philadelphia slogans in an insightful essay for NewsWorks, seeing in the later slogan something of a betrayal of the Quaker ideal of universal love. (Dilworth is something of an insider and so has a particular insight; his namesake grandfather was the Mayor of Philadelphia from 1952 to 1956.) The claim that Philadelphia loves you is really the opposite of Quaker-inspired universal love. The slogan suggested intimacy, while universal love is cold and impersonal, Dilworth noted. If I love everyone, I love no one in particular. And Philadelphia has indeed often been perceived as a uniquely cold and unwelcoming place. Cold and impersonal, perhaps — but also cautious, and, befitting the essentially conservative (with a small c) nature of the city, fonder of and more comfortable with the devil it knows rather than the devil it doesn’t.

Dilworth cites Digby Baltzell’s landmark 1979 study Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia as he continues:

According to Baltzell, the radical equality and antiauthoritarianism of the city’s Quaker leaders fostered a uniquely individualistic culture that was more tolerant of dissent than the more paternalistic culture fostered by the authoritarian Puritan leaders of Boston. … Though generally considered a negative characteristic, Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation was intimately connected to the city’s perceived virtues — the opposite side of the coin of tolerance and acceptance is indifference and disregard. …

Since the city’s antisocial reputation also defined some of the city’s perceived virtues of tolerance and acceptance, it seems worth asking what shared sense of community we gave up in selling ourselves more successfully to tourists.

“The Place that Loves You Back” suggests that we offered to welcome tourists into a warm and intimate community. We want you to have fun; in fact, we’re going to insist that you have fun, because we love you and we care.

But in making this new offer, have we forsaken the mixed history of tolerance and indifference that allowed anyone to come here and do what they wanted? And in exchange, we really wouldn’t care?

There’s a reason that one of the more significant studies of Philadelphia of recent years is titled The Private City.

The more years I spend away from Philadelphia, the more I come to appreciate its eccentricities, including its reserve, self-deprecation, and modesty. I find in these qualities more realism than skepticism, more honesty than self-hatred. Naturally, I’m not blind to its many deficiencies. I’m glad that my daughters are enrolled in public schools in New York, given the worrisome condition of the public school system in Philadelphia today; its arts community, compared to that of New York, is less vibrant and less daring, though there’s enough vibrancy and daring in Philadelphia if you know where to look. Its newspapers are a shadow of what they once were. And very little of Philadelphia’s urban cuisine — those cheesesteaks, the pulled pork sandwiches at DeNic’s — will end up on the cover of Eating Well magazine anytime soon; five minutes in the Reading Terminal Market will send any vegan or health-conscious eater screaming to the exits. On the other hand, Philadelphia, for many reasons, encourages an individual to come to private terms with a history — his own, as well as his culture’s — that’s worth preserving. Perhaps that’s the bullshit I believe, and perhaps it’s the bullshit Philadelphia believes, too. In which case, to each his own.