Politics

The Election Is Showing a Different Side of Philadelphia

The City of Brotherly Love is proving that the nickname can be more than a punchline.

Protesters urge vote counting outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center as ballot counting continues inside on November 6, 2020 in Philadelphia. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP) (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)
A city that takes pride in its fighting spirit shows it knows how to celebrate, too. Bryan R Smith/Getty Images

Three days ago, Philadelphia was braced for dual blows: the possibility that the city’s overwhelming Democratic voters could once again be overruled by Pennsylvania’s deep red center and the likelihood that Wednesday’s release of the bodycam footage of the killing of Walter Wallace, a Black man with bipolar disorder who was fatally shot by police on Oct. 26, would lead to violent clashes in the street. There was hope in the air but also the constant sound of police helicopters circling overhead.

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Two days later, the mood was one of jubilation. Outside the Convention Center, where votes were being counted, demonstrators danced in the streets, waving signs that read “Count Every Vote” and “The Whole World Is Watching”—and the latter was not hyperbole. A perennial afterthought with a chip on its shoulder the size of the 100 miles between Center City and Manhattan, Philadelphia is unused to national, let alone international, attention, especially of the positive kind. To live here happily, you have to take pride in being known as the city that threw snowballs at Santa Claus, a city that will kick your ass if you so much as think about starting something. Republican threats to disrupt the counting of votes were met with an avalanche of trash talk. As a friend quipped, it gave Philadelphians a chance to engage in their favorite pastime: talking about how tough Philadelphians are.

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But what spread across social media wasn’t video of inebriated Eagles fans eating celebratory horseshit: It was people dressed up as mailboxes and City Hall and the White House, in costumes that were both creative and a little bit off-kilter, made by the longtime activist organization and puppet troupe Spiral Q. It’s a side of the city that if you live here is so familiar it practically fades into the background but is rarely taken notice of elsewhere, because it doesn’t fit the Rocky narrative of this being a city of smash-mouth brawlers. This time, however, it seemed to stick. My social media feeds were flooded with Philadelphians taking pride in their city, with former residents regretting they’d moved away, and even—and this is the really disorienting part—people proclaiming the videos made them want to move to Philly.

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Maybe it’s just that the nation, or at least 50.5 percent of it, was in need of a celebration, and Philadelphia was willing to start the party a little early. (As I type these words, people are dancing on a street corner about 100 yards from my house.) But it’s also that American cities, especially Democratic ones, and especially ones, like Philadelphia, with substantial Black populations, have taken an endless string of abuse from the Trump administration, being caricatured as lawless hellholes full of violent criminals, deliberately starved of resources needed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, explicitly cast as the enemy by the person with the biggest microphone in the world. Philadelphians never back away from a confrontation: As one tweeter put it, “The great thing about Philadelphia is you literally can’t insult them. They take any attempt at insult as either a compliment or an offer to fight which is also a compliment in Philly.” But in this case, knowing that the world was watching, and knowing that Trump would use any sign of unrest as a way to delegitimize the vote, they, for once, met the hatred with love.

Philadelphia is still the poorest big city in America, and as Wallace’s shooting underlines, one whose history of racism and systemic inequality has barely begun to be addressed. But while Michigan and Wisconsin may fight for bragging rights, I can guarantee that it’s going to bill itself as the city that threw Donald Trump out of the White House, and that victory celebration is just getting started.

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