The American republic reaches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Florida Keys to the Arctic Circle. It is its own monument. (Si monumentum requiris . . . ) But Americans nonetheless have long felt the need to compete with the teacup grandiosity of European capitals, especially in the matter of our government buildings. Grandiosity in American public architecture should be treated with a reasonable degree of suspicion and contempt, as should all such imperial pretense. (In his adopted hometown of Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, that most American American, is depicted wearing a toga, of all ridiculous things. Though granted, Dr. Franklin is the Founding Father who would have felt most at home at a 1970s frat party, that isn’t what the toga was meant to convey. Philadelphia isn’t Cincinnati, for Pete’s sake.)
But make an exception for Philadelphia City Hall, a glorious Second Empire granite-and-marble pile completed in 1907, a confection atop which William Penn stands like a bride at the pinnacle of a wedding cake. It stands at the corner of two broad commercial streets named with Quaker simplicity: Broad Street and Market Street. It is a building that seems to have been built for a different city, for a city that was supposed to grow up to be something other than what Philadelphia is. From its perimeter you can look north toward Temple University and the badlands beyond, east to Camden, N.J., west to suburbia, and south to the football stadium named for the Lincoln Financial Group, which early in this century replaced Veterans Stadium. (I have always thought that Lincoln blew one of the all-time great marketing opportunities: It should have bought the naming rights and then announced that the new arena would be called Veterans Stadium, same as the old one.) The stadium precincts recently were the scene of some boisterous jubilation when the Philadelphia Eagles secured their spot in this year’s Super Bowl.
I spent the better part of a very happy decade in Philadelphia, but I have an unwelcome confession for my former neighbors: I do not think it much matters who wins the football game today.
I am no stranger to football mania, having played high-school football in West Texas back when Buzz Bissinger, then of the Philadelphia Inquirer, was writing Friday Night Lights. (It was a fascinating true story before it was a teen-age television soap opera.) I did not play for the fearsome Permian Panthers who dominated Bissinger’s account. My school had a really good chess team and a repertoire of self-effacing chants deployed when our football team was sent once again back to the locker rooms scoreless and far remote from victory. But even the worst 5A schools played for crowds of thousands, and emotions ran even hotter than is usual for adolescence. After I’d played my last game, however, I hardly gave football another thought: It’s a very fun game to play, but it isn’t something I want to watch more than once or twice every few years. An old friend took me to the Texas–OU game this year, played at the Texas state fair, and a few years back I spent a fantastic sum of money watching the Dolphins trounce the Steelers in Miami, one of the more expensive sunburns I’ve ever earned. I have never felt the pull of an NFL team.
Which is to say, I wasn’t a very good Philadelphian. I found much to love about the city and some things to lament, but I never could get myself very excited about the Eagles.
Philly sports fans are notorious hooligans, merciless savages infamous for pelting Santa Claus with snowballs and garbage during a long-ago game against the Vikings. For my sins (and as part of my professional obligations at the time) I attended a lot of Philadelphia hockey games during my time there, during which the gladiatorial spectacles in the stands often exceeded in intensity those on the ice. During football season, I saw poor lost souls walking south on Broad Street wearing Dallas Cowboys jerseys, saying a silent prayer for young men who were sure to be never heard from again. But the real action at the time was on the basketball court: It was the Age of Iverson. It isn’t only political parties that can be seduced by thrill of winning — entire cities can be taken in thus.
It isn’t only political parties that can be seduced by thrill of winning — entire cities can be taken in thus.
Philadelphia, like any big American city, has its problems, but if it isn’t as rich and glamorous as New York or Washington, it isn’t a basket-case like Detroit or Cleveland, either. Its municipal government is hilariously corrupt and impotent, but it is not entirely without effective civic institutions. For decades, the city’s population crashed even as the population of the five counties of southeastern Pennsylvania remained more or less stable: High taxes and terrible schools sent nearly a half million Philadelphians fleeing to the suburbs, but not much farther. The city’s population has been growing in recent years, but in the last census it still had fewer people than it did in 1990. Another Bissinger book, A Prayer for the City, tells the story of Ed Rendell’s efforts to reverse the city’s decline, efforts which were significantly if only partly successful. Even so, a visitor to the nation’s onetime capital could spend a fruitful week or two (yes, yes, the inevitable W. C. Fields joke) and see little if any of the blight, crime, and destitution associated in the popular mind with urban dysfunction. As with New York City or Chicago, it’s there — but you have to go looking for it.
It is fitting that Philadelphia’s greatest sports icon isn’t an NFL or NBA star but the fictitious boxer Rocky Balboa. I recently watched Rocky with a friend who had never seen it, and who was surprised to find it a remarkably quiet film. It isn’t a big, exciting sports epic, at least until the last ten minutes. It’s a sad and quiet character study (written, remember, by Sylvester Stallone, an unknown at the time) about two lonely people both fearing that their best days are behind them (and weren’t so great in the first place), that they are getting over the hill without having really lived. In the end, Rocky loses the big fight — but he doesn’t get knocked out, either. He finishes the day bloodied and hurting but on his feet — a better metaphor for Philadelphia in 2018 than Stallone could have imagined in 1976.
The Super Bowl is something close to the opposite of that kind of show: too big and too loud for life-sized people, their quiet troubles and their loneliness. It belongs to that strange new world of inexplicable tribal enthusiasms tied up in public spectacles that would have made Commodus blush to consider them. Though the city will watch it, it is bigger than the city.
But the city endures. Rocky’s famous run around Philadelphia’s landmarks takes him from the elevated train tracks and their gritty industrial environs to the bustling Italian market, the lovely park alongside the river, through the shipyards and, finally and famously, up the steps of the art museum. (Tourists follow in his footsteps daily.) His run is mostly solitary, but not entirely: A well-wisher tosses him an orange. His people know who he is and what he is up to, even if they don’t quite believe it. He runs through City Hall, too, under the gaze of William Penn and various forgotten grandees. Maybe this wasn’t — isn’t — exactly what Penn and the rest of them had in mind, or Ben Franklin, either. But America never ceases surprising itself.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.