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The Absent Philadelphia Renaissance
By Christine Stoddard
Watching “It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia” places me directly in the imaginary Philly that lives in my mind. I've only been to Philadelphia twice recently: once for the 2012 Philly 'Zine Festival and once in 2010 to catch a flight to Glasgow, Scotland. Before then, I'd only been as a child, making the city a hazy memory at best. That 'zine fest weekend was definitely the longest I had ever spent in the place that reminded me of a bigger, less Southern-feeling Baltimore. Apart from the hours spent at the festival, the scene I remember best about Philly was spending an evening with a new friend at a dive bar called McGlinchey's.
McGlinchey's is a seedy place with rude waitstaff, but that sort of thing has never deterred me from grabbing a dollar hot dog and ice cold Woodchuck at any establishment in the past. The bar is not really one step up from anything and I guess that's part of its demented charm. My friend said that he can always count on the bartenders having an attitude and not giving a $%^& about his order because something about their lives makes them apathetic at best and miserable at worst.
McGlinchey's is full of authentic people who are living for themselves, too busy trying to make ends meet. They're not signing up for the rat race because, seriously, who are they trying to impress? They're lucky enough to stumble across a little happiness. Not everyone can have a beach house in the Hamptons. That's the same kind of crowd that hangs out at Paddy's Pub: The Gang.
Watching “It's Sunny in Philadelphia” reinforces this myth I've constructed about a city I hardly know. While I find that strangely comforting—I guess everyone likes to be proven “right”—I wish the show would challenge my notion of the place. After all, every city deserves to be represented outside of its stereotypes.
Growing up, I always heard that Philly was a dirty, dangerous place, like a smaller, dumpier New York, only it had the Liberty Bell. Now I keep reading about its renaissance. In September 2012, Philly Mag published a condescending essay from a long-time New Yorker who moved back to her native Philadelphia because she couldn't afford her Manhattan/Brooklyn lifestyle anymore. A bit from the now-infamous Susan Gregory Thomas:
And then later, after describing how Philly is apparently not so backwards after all:
I'm going to ignore all of the negative aspects of this essay—like tone, elitism, etc.—for a sec. You have to credit Thomas for at least trying to sell Philly's merits to New Yorkers and Washingtonians. Philly has energy! It has potential! How come “It's Always Sunny” doesn't show some of the ways Philly is blossoming? Why doesn't it show, ever-so subtly, just how Philly might be a place of hope and not eternal slackerdom? There must be a way to accomplish a tad of great PR without being cheesy.
I'm not saying Philly is a world-class city; I really am not familiar enough with it to say what it is, other than the fact that it is not hell. Perhaps if you're a POC living in the projects, you'd disagree, but chances are you'd be just as displeased living in the projects of another major American city. (Pardon the understatement, but the projects are not a nice place to live anywhere. That is our society's fault and another topic of conversation/essay-writing.) I simply want to see Philly portrayed in a less one-dimensional way. Several episodes into the first season of “It's Always Sunny,” I have yet to see downtown Philadelphia. Securing filming permits aside, that seems like a pretty easy fix.
I'll keep watching and cross my fingers that “It's Always Sunny” shows me something other than dive bars and crummy apartments. And, yes, a stock image of the Liberty Bell would be a cop-out.
Christine Stoddard is the Executive Editor of Quail Bell Magazine.