The city has traditionally been portrayed as the place to be if you want the best in arts and culture, while the suburbs tend to be viewed as a monochrome, uncultured wasteland.
Then was then, and now is now, as they say.
An example of “then” would be my home city of Philadelphia, especially in the 1970s and ‘80s, when city streets were far safer in terms of gun violence. Although a city of uninspiring mini skyscrapers then (it wasn’t until 1986 that buildings were permitted to be taller than the statue of William Penn atop City Hall), it was an historic place still basking in the mystique of classic films like The Philadelphia Story and the bizarre existentialist art epic, David and Lisa, filmed on the Main Line and on the steps of the Museum of Art.
The relatively un-modern, even homely, aspects of Philadelphia in those days belied the fact that the city’s downtown area overflowed with fascinating places to go and plenty of small eateries and bars, as well as an annual Mummer’s Parade that had not yet been sanitized into a politically correct mobile theme park. By comparison, today’s Philadelphia falls flat on almost every front—from its pithy offering of casual eateries to its fame as a “go to” place for homelessness and Fentanyl-heroin users. Not only is the city different from how it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, it is so different that it is no longer touted for its utopian possibilities by city-based real estate and style magazines.
So what went wrong?
The pandemic brought an economy-destroying lockdown that stopped the daily flow of commuters into the city. Suddenly everybody was working at home as the city became a sterile no-man’s land. Arts and cultural institutions halted exhibitions and lectures; restaurants tried to weather the storm until the fantasy of outdoor dining became a reality. When the George Floyd riots hit, the city became a war zone with destroyed properties and nightly curfews.
The riots were a wakeup call for city residents, many of whom witnessed Social Justice Warrior mobs and their thug allies blow up ATMs, burn and overturn police cars, and torch multiple businesses. These atrocities occurred as the police ran for cover, in effect handing the rioters a pass. For multiple nights the people in my neighborhood went to bed to the sound of explosions, wondering when (not if) the mobs would be at their front door.
Overnight, the city became a Dante-esque lockdown hell. The mayor, Jim Kenney, had abdicated, cowering somewhere in City Hall unseen and unheard. When the man finally broke his silence it wasn’t to condemn the bomb throwers and property burners but to lash out at a group of Fishtown men armed with baseball bats who’d taken to the streets in front of their local police station because it was rumored that the mob was headed into the neighborhood.
Left progressive media outlets like The Philadelphia Inquirer and its legion of like-minded writers wrote about the hateful Fishtown white supremacist vigilantes with a vengeance.
The gap between reality and the narrative being promoted by the press was alarming since there was hardly a neighbor I talked to then (most of whom were Democrats) who didn’t fear that the mob would begin burning houses. Since the police were nowhere to be found as the mob advanced throughout the city, the “rednecks” with baseball bats had little choice but to rise to the occasion.
If 2020 was a preview of how the city handled multiple disasters at once, many began to wonder what might happen in the future when another social justice crisis fanned the flames of violent wokeism.
Hence the birth of a new movement: the exodus of people from blue cities and states.
This exodus from blue cities is a national phenomenon (952,000 people moved out of New York City alone between 2011 and 2015). While this exodus began before the pandemic and the riots, the numbers of citizen migrants increased significantly in 2021. Name your city—New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit—and you’ll find the unflattering shocking statistics. The four cities mentioned above lost 700,000 people from July 2020 to July 2021 for smaller places like Boise, Idaho; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Austin, Texas; and Phoenix, Arizona. Last year The New York Times noted increased migrations from so called “star” cities due to draconian pandemic lockdowns and restraints from municipal governments (the lockdowns did not come from red cities).
The reasons given for the migrant citizen exodus pretty much depend on the politics of the publication.
Deseret News, for instance, posited that “Many Americans moved from larger cities to smaller ones during the pandemic,” while Slate had its own clever spin: “Cities Aren’t Shrinking because everyone’s moving out, but because no one’s moving in.” Slate reminded readers that millennials are leaving big cities and going to Denver (a big blue city); Seattle (a big blue city); Cary, NC; and Henderson, Nevada.
The Times kept its report on citizen migration focused on pandemic-related issues with no mention of crime or the 2020 riots. It took Forbes to upstage and out-truth the Grey Lady when it reported that cities were seeing decreased populations because citizens feared continued riots and the reemergence of COVID-19.
Forbes dared to mention riots, a word that leftists would rather relegate to the dustbin because it’s perceived as being charged with the smoke of racism. The word, in the world we live in now, is charged with an incendiary subtext, evoking woke responses like, “What riots? They were legitimate protests! The rioters were only a few troublemakers!”
“Americans are moving away from built-up urban areas,” NPR declared in 2020. “Americans are leaving big cities due to the cost of living.” The cost of living might be one factor, as is the cost of housing, but this is tip of the iceberg stuff. The record shows that big blue cities with left progressive DAs and whose mayors hinted at defunding the police in 2020 comprise the majority of cities people are fleeing,
A Bloomberg City Lab report in 2021 named the two biggest loser cities of them all, San Francisco and San Jose:
The San Francisco Bay Area tells a more dramatic story. The regions around San Francisco and San Jose, two of the country’s most expensive housing markets, saw the rates of permanent moves increase the most, by more than 23% and 17% respectively, compared to 3% nationally. Moves that were considered temporary—changes of address for six months or less—more than doubled in the San Francisco region, compared to 17% nationally.
As in the rest of the U.S., most people moved within their own region. But compared to other metro areas, a far greater percentage of people left the Bay Area entirely. Many of them moved to other parts of California including Los Angeles, but also smaller and less expensive cities like Stockton and, in Goodman’s case, Sacramento.
Statewide, big blue Molochs like California and New York are losing residents to red states. The “move to a red state” movement is growing exponentially, from Facebook pages like Conservatives Moving to Texas to the world of the Catholic podcast where lay apostate evangelizers like Timothy Gordon regularly advise blue state listeners to consider moving to a red state, pronto! After all, blue cities and states are getting worse (crime, shootings, sanctuary city policies, and the undermining of law enforcement) while conditions in red states are significantly better, including the preponderance of right-to-work laws.
Philadelphia’s fall from grace was cemented with the election of DA Larry Krasner and the appointment in 2020 of Danielle Outlaw as Commissioner for the PPD. Outlaw, formerly Chief of Police for the Portland Police Bureau and before that deputy chief of the Oakland Police Department, illustrates to a large degree how Mayor Kenney has become a prisoner of the city’s leftist ruling class.
Kenney’s appointment of Outlaw was a clear indication that the PPD would change radically going forward. The first thing Outlaw did as Police Commissioner was to end the ban on colored nail polish for female officers, who were previously only permitted to wear clear nail polish.
While Outlaw’s cosmetic coup may be an accomplishment for the nail polish industry, what about the city’s real problems, like the hordes of ATV and dirt bike riders who travel city streets by the hundreds, weaving in and out of traffic, driving on the sidewalks as they circle City Hall or head up and down the Art Museum steps—all while the police stand by and observe because it would be dangerous to apprehend them?
What about the Fentanyl-Opioid crisis, and the numbers of the drug-addicted homeless that have taken over many parts of the city?
Consider the Market-Frankford El and the numbers of homeless riders, some of whom can be observed shooting up in the train; or the infamous Kensington and Allegheny stop along the El route which has become the nation’s first Opioid Village, where hundreds or thousands of addicts live on the street. Legitimate businesses have long vacated the area unless you consider pawn shops, wig stores, and a lone Walgreen’s that has more security than products on the shelves to be viable businesses.
Every facet of city life has been impacted since the pandemic and the riots, including the wait time for 911 calls which have increased to 20 minutes, something that Outlaw says is the result of increased calls for service.
“If we expect the same level of service or output given that we have fewer people or more work, you know, we’re going to see some disparities there. So we have to prioritize the calls and how we dispatch,” she said.
Perhaps Philadelphians need to prioritize how they “dispatch” and begin to think seriously about heading out to those uncultured, suburban wastelands.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He is the author of fifteen books, including Philadelphia Architecture (2005); Literary Philadelphia and Philadelphia Mansions: Stories and Characters Behind the Walls.