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The Philadelphia Cheesesteak Curse


     Just when Philadelphia was beginning to garner recognition for its cultural vitality, its walkable scale, its architectural richness and various other overlooked merits, it seems to be idiotically relapsing to its trusted and trivial clichés.

     I call this the Curse of the Cheese-steak.  During the football playoffs it seemed that whenever announcers had to ad lib anything about Philadelphia, the limit of their wit was something lame about a cheese-steak.

     Or Rocky, who is apparently stored in the synapse next door.

     For a brief shining moment we were National Geographic’s next great city, extolled for our European charm: quietly urbane and traditional on the one hand, authentically urban and edgy on the other.  Then, in the next moment comes Garrison Keillor to restore the curse, apparently unembarrassed to stand on the stage of one of the world’s great orchestras and make his faux plebeian homage to Philadelphia with shtick about cheese-steaks.

     And of course, Rocky.

     Nobody denies the resilient blue collar charms of South Philly, but how did these particular facets of the city become the emblem of the whole?  They are tiresome, narrow and low and I would propose that the whole lot of these chestnuts be put on hold in favor of attractions that are, in contrast, fresh, broad and high.

     Here are some things to stop going on about:  cheese-steaks, soft pretzels, Mummers, row houses, The Betsy Ross House, unions, The LIberty Bell, Fabian, booing Santa Claus.

     Here some things to talk more about: the restaurant scene, The National Constitution Center, Independence Hall, our museums, the orchestra, John Coltrane, nightlife, the Schuylkill river.

     The reflex which prompts us to continue trumpeting the usual banalities to the outside world is disheartening, but no less so than our taste for the status quo in our intramural politics.  It seemed for a second, in the wake of Ron White, that everyone was against pay-to-play and for tax reform and a saner business climate, and cheering on Philadelphia Forward and so on.  So whom did the Democratic Party endorse?  A reform person?  No, the Party liked the rowhouse guy, the entrenched, status-quo hack.  Why?  Because that’s who the guy under federal indictment wanted.

     One might think under the circumstances, that is, in a climate that at least feigns an interest in some new direction, that a two party system might be worth considering.  One party, for example, might offer something that the other party didn’t.  You could call this party the Republican Party and it could mount an intelligent, noble challenge with fresh ideas. Oh, wait, I’m sorry.  That name’s already been taken by a small group of complacent fatalists who, in what might be regarded as a typical display of native intelligence, toyed with the notion of sporting a Republican mayoral candidate who was both a Democrat and a union president.

     So much for the new Philadelphia in the executive branch.  No, hold it.  This just in!  Milton Street wants to run for mayor!  He says that he does not want this to be seen as a joke.  This is a useful clarification under the circumstances, though paradoxically the need for such a clarification only underscores the futility of making it.

     And then we have our City Council who, in lieu of legislating solutions to systemic but tractable government problems has decided to make its reputation in the medical arena, boldly shaping its agenda around the trendy notion that it is better to be healthy than sick.  More specifically, they mean sick from trans-fats or second-hand smoke.  Being sick from gun shot wounds they regard as outside their specialty.

     This health mania in Council is interesting for two reasons, neither of which has anything to do with whether one is for or against those specific bills.  First, these initiatives provide an excuse to avoid more pressing matters, the cowardice of that avoidance cloaked by the seemingly unimpeachable cause of public health.

     Second, they are interesting because they presuppose a relationship in which the Council is our parental protector and the citizenry is ever the powerless victim.  Council does not see “high” Philadelphia, i.e. the promising, modern energetic Philadelphia; Council does not pre-suppose a sophisticated and creative citizenry that would like to get things accomplished.  They see, in effect, cheese-steak world, i.e. a bovine citizenry that is (apparently) ignorant about smoking, not literate enough to read food labels, and generally incapable of acting in its own interest.  They would not say this, of course; they need not even consciously think it.  Rather it is implicit in the triviality of their agenda and their confidence in our patience.  They suppose, in short, that we are idiots.

     I confess there are times I am inclined to agree with this.  This is to say I have seen evidence of the species. But how has the low become the model, the constituency to which government seems inclined to answer, when throughout the city – indeed within those archetypal rowhouses – are intelligent, involved, tax paying citizens eager to make some few things better?  I suspect they would start with properly urban things such as tax structure, planning, development, transportation and education which are commonly agreed to need improvement and which, unlike our diets, actually require the agency of governments.  It is discouraging and insulting in a city with such potential, to see this old paternalism, this reflex by local government to continue to play to the stalls. The subscribers who are paying dearly for better seats are not amused.

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