City of Firsts

Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City addresses Philadelphia in the early 1990s at a time when America’s big cities were in a period of uncertainty. Specifically, it’s about Philadelphia and Ed Rendell’s first term as mayor. I loved this passage detailing Philadelphia’s legacy:

It was still occasionally called the City of Firsts, and it was more than mere promotional gimmick, even though so many of the firsts had occurred so long ago that few who lived in the city were aware of them—the first public school in the colonies, the first American paper mill, the first stone bridge, the first botanical garden, the first volunteer fire company, the first American magazine, the first American hospital, the first American insurance company, the first American stock exchange, the first American theater, the first production of an American play, the first carpet woven in America, the first piano made in America, the first American corporate bank, the first daily American newspaper, the first circus, the first balloon flight, the first public building lit by gas, the first American-made lager beer, the first screw-propeller steamship, the first American minstrel show, the first Republican National Convention, the first American zoological society, the first American merry-go-round, the first women’s suffrage demonstrations, the first telephone book, the first Salvation Army in America, the first black newspaper, the first revolving door, the first Automat, the first Girl Scout cookie sale, the first city wage tax.

The book notes that the last of these firsts occurred in 1938. We’re nearly 75 years away from any of these being meaningful beyond simply being historical curiosities.

At the time of the Revolution Philadelphia’s biggest-city status and central location meant it would play financial and political host to the rebellion. Even as it lost its financial and political status in the ensuing decades, its ports and manufacturing kept it strong well into the 20th century. I think the Philadelphia of 2014 is largely fortunate to be located along the Northeast’s Boston-to-DC economic corridor. It’s historical legacy combined with the reforms of the Rendell administration positioned the city to weather the recent recession, but it’s not clear the city’s momentum will continue without political vision.

Guiliani and Rendell both stabilized their cities at critical moments in their history. New York’s stabilization was followed by Bloomberg’s culture of systemic transformation. Philadelphia is still waiting for its Bloomberg, but in the meantime it’s changing incrementally—which is half the battle.