Saturday, October 23, 2004

It Looks Like a Big City, But It's Really 100 Small Towns Thrown Together

I have noticed of late that I now regularly run into people who have moved to Philadelphia from somewhere else and are pleasantly surprised by what they find here. And these people aren't rubes from the T-Zone or farmers from the Great Flyover, but people who have been exposed to city life already somewhere else--often as part of a collegiate experience.

This I take as a hopeful sign for the city's future. It confirms something I already know about the city--that it has finally become comfortable with its own urbanity and has shed enough of its traditional modesty to let its hair down and enjoy itself--though not enough of it yet to display the self-confidence it ought to have by now.

The outsiders also appear to be pleasantly surprised by one old Philadelphia quality the city hasn't shed: its small-town feel at the neighborhood level. Even in the heart of the city, it seems, one can settle into a community of people where everyone not only knows everyone else, but everyone else's business too, much as the denizens of Harper Valley and Peyton Place did.

This strikes me as an unusual quality for a large city, though it may just well be that I haven't spent enough time in other cities' neighborhoods. Certainly there are neighborhoods in Boston that are as close-knit and insular as Philadelphia's Fishtown, for instance. But here, the insularity and close-knittedness can be found even in those parts of the city where you would least expect to see it--my own "Gayborhood," for example.

I would think that such a quality would make this city somewhat intimidating for outsiders. I guess I'm wrong about that.

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