Philadelphia Here We Come

While we’re sure this will come as no surprise to the New York Times styles section, it startled us a bit: it seems this now twice-weekly section has successfully identified (sparked? manufactured? stumbled upon?) a trend moments before a peer (though still long after thousands of regular people).

Last month the Times “discovered” Philadelphia, pronouncing the city “The Next Borough” of New York City, and went on to describe what writer Jessica Pressler called “Philadelphia’s Brooklynization,” by which Pressler meant a hipster migration, as in “a significant number of youngish artists, musicians, restaurateurs and designers are leaving New York City and heading down the turnpike.”

This morning we learn, via CNN via the Associated Press, that National Geographic Traveler has dedicated its October cover to “The Next Great City: Philadelphia.”

Now, it’s true that Philadelphia has much to recommend it at this moment — neighborhoods are being gentrified, there is a building boom in some areas, the downtown restaurant and retail scenes are hopping, the cost of living compared to New York City is relatively low, and tourism is up. Both the Times and Traveler — and AP’s report on the Traveler’s piece — point to some of these facts.

Nonetheless, Keith Bellows, editor of the National Geographic Traveler, tells the AP that he had to “convince his staff that the City of Brotherly Love would be the next hip metro area” — perhaps by hitting them over the head with a copy of the Times Sunday Styles section — but that after actually going to Philadelphia, his contributing editor apparently came to understand that it is “no longer the city ‘of gritty urban decay’ portrayed in the Rocky Balboa saga” (um, wasn’t that 25 years ago?), nor is it what the contributing editor called “D.C. on a bad hair day” (though it is perilously close to southern Jersey). Good for the magazine that says it “propels you from the armchair into the field” for propelling itself from the armchair into the field; it’s funny how a little reporting can actually change one’s dated impressions of something.

Just as both the Times and Traveler (and the AP) include the requisite mentions of Rocky and cheese steaks (Traveler found one at the Four Seasons “reimagined … as a spring roll”), both articles quote real estate developers — shocker — waxing enthusiastic about Philly’s up-and-coming-ness. And they all include an appearance by Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. — a Philadelphia booster herself — who, the Times reported, “regularly hosts lunches at which she tells the New York media, ‘We’re closer than the Hamptons!’” We don’t know what Levitz is serving at those media lunches, but it’s paying off.

But before Philadelphia goes and gets a swollen head — or the next media outlet awards that city the Next Best Something — let’s not forget this foreboding phrase toward the end of the original Times story: we are in “a particular cultural moment in which uncool is the new cool, in which blue-collar scrappiness and a surfeit of fried-meat specialties now seems endearingly kitschy.”

Uh oh. Our experience has been that what’s “endearingly kitschy” to the trend-spotting media today becomes “unbearably passť ” by sunset tomorrow.

Somehow, we’re sure, Philadelphia will survive. But will journalism?

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.