Monday, February 13, 2006

Same Place, Different Flavor

Philadelphia is unlike other cities even when it comes to being obsessed with doing things they we it always has. While other cities have no names or traditions left linking the city with is past, we still do. But that list of names and traditions is shrinking to the point where it's really no longer a list at all, but rather, a collection of items that could just fill a post-it note. Indeed, these changes are altering the flavor of Philadelphia's very being - and it's perhaps a quality of life issue in a non-traditional sense.

You think of quality of life issues touching things like crime, education, urban blight, tax structure, and more. But there is a social or pop culture quality of life, as well.

In what other city could Chief Halftown stayed on the air until the 1990s? Where else could Larry Ferrari have played the organ on Channel 6 also into the 90s? Completing the trifecta of Channel 6 traditions we loved: the Action News theme song. Need I explain?

Even on a civic issue level, Philadelphia has long-seated traditions that appear to finally be cracking. What other city would have been so very resistant to electing new mayors even when the incumbent seems steeped in bad involvements? How many other city's of our size and density could have staved off viable and useful public transportation improvements and been complacent to have amazingly long bus trips in their place? Where could litter possibly be more acceptable in communities that know fully well it shouldn't be? These are all negative things with which Philadelphia has been in bed for decades. But maybe it's atsrting to slip away for the better.

The way we consume goods is also departing almost entirely from tradition:

Since just after post-Civil War Reconstruction, Philadelphians have been able to buy something in a store with the name "Strawbridge" on it. Coming this May, that option disappears. In a very real sense, that option disappeared the minute the actual Strawbridge family and the rest of the board of the Strawbridge and Clothier retail empire sold the store chain to the May Company behemoth in 1996. The stores changed, merchandise became generic and only the Center City store still suggested that this venerable chain once had some unique retailing ideas. Come May, Philadelphia loses a great retailing name, even if the real substance of that name disappeared a decade ago. Perhaps Mr. G. Stockton Strawbridge, long the king of the S&C empire who died shortly after the company was sold off, can rest peacefully. His name will no longer grace a store that most people think is an impostor anyway. Macy's here you come.

I could spin another yarn about how regrettable that also in 1996, John Wanamaker became a thing of the past. But let's think about something the Wanamaker stores gave the Delaware Valley: the Christmastime light show. This 1956 creation still continues annually from Thanksgiving to New Year's, but each year, it seems less special. Could this be the words of someone as an adult realizing a piece of their childhood memory is not as impressive as it seemed? Certainly not. This year, the light show was no longer hourly, but every two hours. The reason Lord and Taylor gave the media was that the equipment is aged and they received a recommendation from electricians that it should run less often. The issue of aging equipment also took out pieces of the show in years past - shortening the experience over all and making it less engaging.

Essentially everything I have mentioned in this piece relates to the growing debate over corporate mergers, growing desires for even bigger profits and smaller advertising budgets, and globalization of practically everything except going to the bathroom. For a slow-to-budge place like Philadelphia, losing ties to the past can be tough. But we often don't feel any sense of such losses until they're put in our face. Otherwise, we're too busy buying stuff at Wal Mart, Target, or Macy's.

Where are places like Hanscom's Bakery? Horn and Hardart? Gimbel's? Philadelphia National Bank? Germantown Savings Bank? PSFS? Acme Markets held in local hands?This could be a list of ghosts that could seem infinite. But each place in this list disappeared for some reason tied to the dollar, corporate changes, or someone inventing a new way to provide a service faster and cheaper. So we lose household names and special experiences that are forced to become only memories.

How do we view what gives Philadelphia its unique cultural and social flavor? This is going to be a big question to ponder in coming decades. It seems certain that the world of business is going to continue to get smaller and richer. Will it then be our attitudes, connections to notable personalities, or civic contributions that will form the memories and household names of tomorrow's Philadelphia region? What better time to be cliche: "Time will tell."

While you might pass 8th and Market and glower at Macy's eternally lower-case logo taking the place of the Strawbridge and Clothier "Seal of Confidence", at least you can sleep well at night knowing that you'll always have the Action News theme song to keep you company at night when you dream of being able to take a plate of food from the window at Horn and Hardart again or remember the monorail in the toy department at Wanamaker's, or think of that time you appeared on Chief Halftown's stage singing as a kid.

Let us never forget to always be the eternally unique place we have always been and should fight to remain. How we go about establishing our traditions is being forced to change - how will we face it?


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