Once upon a January morning, the new year just starting to stretch its legs into 2014, a young freelance videographer from The New York Times landed in Philadelphia to do a two minute “Intersections” piece on street style. After several interviews at the Franklin Flea and elsewhere, he landed in the neighborhood of Fishtown, an area that's in transition, a place where it's now possible to get a good glass of wine, and it's also not out of the realm of possibility for your boyfriend, who slipped outside the bar for a quick Father's Day call, to text you: “Hey. I'm alright. I'm at the police station. I just got robbed at gunpoint. I'll be back.”
The day I got that text I was not drinking wine, because the rundown Irish bar where we were playing music didn't have any. So I was drinking rot gut whiskey and watching neighborhood pill heads buy drugs at the bar and thankful for the artisan pizza that the bartender Freddie had ordered from down the street for the band, who was playing in front of the women's restroom. Later that evening, my boyfriend came back from the precinct in North Philly and hopped back on stage to finish the set. During that time, many people walked unmolested out on the street, some of them to get a great Manhattan with local rye a few doors down.
A neighborhood-native shopkeeper recently told a friend of mine, “You know, I'm tired of people complaining about the hipsters moving in. At least it's not the blacks."
The Times videographer arrived in the afternoon. On a weekday. The week after the New Year's Mummery was over, while Philadelphians were hibernating. In the middle of an arctic blast. If you have occasion to watch the video, listen and you will hear the frozen tumbleweeds tinkling down the street behind the few souls that he was able to find to interview, including my friend Sarah Anderson, who was at her vintage shop that morning. (She also happened to be sitting next to me when I realized that my boyfriend had had a gun aimed at him, a hundred yards from her shop.) The street looks like it has been cleared for the shoot, but it's just that we're in a city that was built for a million more people than currently reside here, and it's a particularly off hour.
Anderson is happy that The New York Times is there. And she is not happy that The New York Times is there. You don't turn down an interview with The New York Times if you are young business owner, especially if your business is fashion. But you also have an awful lot to worry about. You are not dressed for anything but opening your shop on a weekday morning and painting a sign. This is the kind of thing that could really help or really hurt. You have no idea who else will be appearing with you in this video that will go on the website of one of the most widely read publications in the world.
Because this is a street style piece, The Times interviews Anderson outside the store. Inside, there are racks of obsessively curated vintage clothes, hung on architectural beams that she designed and helped to build. There are arrangements of jewelry from local artisans and far flung artisans, books, ephemera, color-coded tee shirt displays and a 15-year-old Pomeranian named Bowie who once ran away and was returned by a man who commented that the little dog and he really had a lot in common: they both liked to hang out and smoke pot.
Anderson jokes with the videographer. He asks her to talk about her clothes. Still not sure she wants to do this interview, she says, not quite with a straight face, “I'm really influenced by that first girl who gets killed in a 70's B-level horror movie. You know, like, that girl.” She emphasizes, “that girl” with an exaggerated wave of her hand. In response to the question, “What about your style is specifically influenced by Philadelphia?” she adds that her hat was made by a failed knitter from the area, and tells him that she looks like a hobo right now and that maybe they shouldn't do the video. (The knitter has since expressed to Anderson her disappointment at not being mentioned by name. It is The Times.) He asks her to please not say that she looks like a hobo on film. He reassures her that she should keep going and she chats for about a half hour, and four other Fishtown residents chat with him for a half an hour, and he or some colleague edits the piece down to two minutes and posts it on The Times' web site.
It's only okay, as videos go. They kept in the funny part about the B horror movie. Another interviewee, probably in response to the same what-about-Philadelphia-influences-your-style question shows off her crazy big ring, a huge golden eagle, and registers her alliance with the local NFL team of the same name. She implies that you might be careful around her if you don't want to see the business end of the ring. She is from North Philly. Fair enough. An aspiring writer in striped tights and black-rimmed glasses who looks as though she may not have had her coffee yet says that she is inspired by all the creative people around. Perhaps not Shakespeare, but she's earnest. A former rap music producer gives a comical turn about the importance of clothing in intimidating people.
They all have one thing in common: they have been put in a video that probably doesn't say much about style in Fishtown. Or style in Philadelphia. Or really anything about Philadelphia. But that's kind of okay, because Philadelphia still isn't much of a style town. It's not a fashion town. Once you are out of a ten block radius in Center City or unless you are in Old City on a Friday night when Philadelphia's equivalent of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd is here, you will be hard pressed to find a pair of heels. People are more likely to brag about how little they paid for something than to artfully expose the red on the underside of their shoes while they perch on a barstool. We think people who do that are kind of whack. We're a Quaker city. We live in William Penn's Green Countrie Town. We're not showy. And we like it that way. Most days.
Cue Philadelphia's inferiority complex. And let the click bait begin.
A week after The Times video went up on its site, Philadelphia Magazine, the self-appointed arbiter of taste in the city, despite the fact that its readership is largely suburban, rich, and white, posts the following:
“New York Times Video Inadvertently Reveals Everything that's Wrong with Fishtown.”
Within a day, it is the most popular article on Philly Mag's website. It has been shared over 750 times on Facebook. It has been tweeted around the country. I'm sure the editors and advertisers are very pleased. As someone who cares about Philadelphia's future, that is infuriating.
While The New York Times video does not even begin to address what's wrong with Fishtown (poverty, drugs, crime, racism, growing unease between long-time residents and newcomers), it does say an awful lot about what's wrong with Philadelphia (and the Internet). Or at least one big thing that’s wrong with Philadelphia: we just can't get out of our own way.
The author, Liz Spikol, a local scribe, perfectly exhibits our schizophrenic personality as a city. We cannot decide if we're okay with ourselves or not, or whether we want to be a world class city or not, and we cannot stop taking swipes at anyone who tries too hard. Spikol opens with, “This is simply no good, this video. And I don't say that to indict The Times. I say that to indict Philadelphia.” But all throughout the piece, we can't tell if she came here to bury Caesar or to praise him. Or whether Caesar is New York, or Philadelphia. Or Fishtown. Or fashion in Fishtown. Or something else entirely.
She caws (in French no less) at the neighborhood's “uninspiringly dressed” fashion casualties, seeming to miss that this is a weekday morning and that one woman looks as though she is just back from a yoga class, another as if she's on her way to Superfresh for groceries, and, in Anderson's case, dressed to paint a sign at her shop. But Spikol, who has no past interest in fashion that I'm aware of, isn't really interested in their clothes, which makes her mean-girl tirade that much more mean. Her lament is that under that failed knitters cap of Anderson's, which she hopes is a cradle for some creative and interesting mind, is really just an Eagles fan spoiling for a fight.
Essentially Spikol takes another journalist's edited sound bites of unwitting Fishtowners talking about their Tuesday-morning-knocking-around-the-neighborhood-clothing and uses them as straw men scarecrows upon which she projects everything that she hates about Fishtown (all style and no substance) and fears about Philadelphia (we're just not good enough). If Fishtown is our style center, and style is the height of culture, well, then, no wonder New Yorkers don't want to hang out with us, she reasons.
While Spikol leaves the hapless writer in the video alone, perhaps in empathy, and doesn't make fun of the black guy, which is probably too politically risky, she hates pretty hard on the North Philly woman with the Eagles ring and practically climbs over top of Anderson in the service of getting to her point: that there are no interesting people in Fishtown. “The problem with Fishtown now,” she writes, “is that it’s boring dressed in interesting’s clothing.”
Let's leave out that she has just told us that she finds their clothing decidedly uninteresting. Her problem is not that some Fishtowners are not quite up-to-snuff on the whole fashion thing, or that they want to beat us up over nothing, it's that they're just kind of, well, meh. (I can only guess that the addition of the “now” in her sentence is a nod to a bygone month-long era in 2010 when flaneurs, lost in thought, paraded up and down Frankford Avenue.)
The irony is that Anderson, her very long and very blonde hair serving as a wonderful target at which to aim the author's derision, in reality has a degree in international relations from Penn, is conversant in Italian, possesses New York fashion bonafides as a stylist, and has significant personal capital invested in her shop and significant intellectual capital invested in invigorating Philadelphia's lackluster fashion scene, a word that I will use in the place of industry given how little infrastructure we have in that regard. Anderson will talk (and talk) about her family back in Iowa, the dearth of datable men here, her time in New York, and any number of issues in Philadelphia, but I don't think I've ever heard her say anything unprompted about her clothes. For the record, she was kidding about that whole 70's B-movie horror thing. In keeping with French manners, it's a deflection technique she uses a lot in response to frequent compliments:
“You look amazing!”
“Me? No. I look like that first girl who gets killed in a 70's B-horror movie. After she gets killed.”
In response to Spikol’s Philly Mag piece, Anderson texted, “Why didn't she just call me fat and get it over with?” If the two had “met” under different circumstances, they would have made an excellent pair at Halloween as Liz Lemon and Jenna Maroney.
But don't get too comfortable in that place we're so cozy in, Philadelphians trying to bring Philadelphia down a notch, for exactly no reason.
In closing, Spikol flips back into a position of Philadelphia pride, brought on by a New York restauranteur who recently said that New Yorkers don't come to Philadelphia, and she suggests that The New York Times should, “resist the moldering Fishtown hype and either ignore Philadelphia completely (because New Yorkers don’t come here anyway) or else develop a fixation with a different neighborhood.”
Since I lived in New York for over six years and have also spent the last two of my ten years in Philadelphia working toward The New York Times coming down here more often to cover the city's thriving sustainability scene, this is the kind of provincial statement that makes me cringe. Since our own paper of record is a hot mess right now, and publications like Philadelphia Magazine have decided that snark trumps substance and sophistication, I'd be just fine with Times reporters heading here on a regular basis so that the rest of the world knows that we have a top-notch restaurant and local food scene, broad and deep thought leadership and practice in sustainability, and a thriving community of artists and social entrepreneurs who are making the city better on a daily basis. They're welcome to cover our significant problems, too, because that may engender the will to fix a school system that is miserably failing our children, rampant political corruption, and an economy that has left nearly thirty percent of our residents in strictly defined poverty, and more than half in what very much feels like poverty to them.
So I'd like to offer The New York Times a different message: Thank you for coming down. We'd like to go on record as saying that we know we're not perfect, but we like Philadelphia, and we don't want it to be New York. Your video on street style could have been better, but we sort of understand why it wasn't. You don't live here, and you have no skin in the game when it comes to representing us well. That's an indictment of you, and also a statement about how Philadelphia is happy with how we look when we wake up in the morning. Come back any time and try going to a few more neighborhoods after eight p.m., when we've put on some lip gloss and have had the benefit of a cocktail, or talk to us about what we're doing and not what we're wearing, which we'd prefer. Also, if you could work harder at getting your paper delivered to us before 10 a.m. on the weekends, or at all, that would be great. All of our bikers and brewers, our writers and yarn bombers, our flaneurs and entrepreneurs, are already up and being interesting by then, even the folks who live in Fishtown.