from City Paper
by Brian Howard
Why is Philadelphia so great? Because it’s so easy to change. It’s a notion that might sound ludicrous to anyone who’s ever tried to fix anything around here, but that’s the thinking of Nathaniel Popkin, City Paper contributor/phillyskyline.com columnist and the author of the new book The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia (Camino), which we excerpt as part of our Book Quarterly this week.
Popkin has been writing about cities for 20 years. He sees Philly — its mix of history and post-industrial struggle — as a fecundating matrix for people who can’t walk down the street without wondering “what if?”
“It’s not just because things aren’t right, or falling apart,” says Popkin of the draw. “It’s about memory, too — the reminders of a great city, of an important city, that trigger a sense of what this place can be.”
The key with Philly, says Popkin, is scale.
“The rowhouse scale gives us a sense of control. I can fix things; my involvement matters; and at the end of the day, that’s what makes Philadelphia so endearing. ‘I can change it,’ so I keep dreaming.”
Other cities — New York, Paris for instance — “don’t so easily relent. They’ve already been dreamed up.”
So even at a time when the percentage of Americans living in dense urban environments is at its lowest, says Popkin, since 1830, many cities are on the upswing.
“There are Cincinnatis and Richmonds and Albanys and Milwaukees [that], like Philadelphia, are rediscovering joy in the urban. ... Take Cincinnati, for example, a small city with a storied history and scale that reflects ambition and purpose. Well, what are they doing there? Writing ‘green plans,’ inventing transit lines, remaking public spaces, setting up farmers markets, riding Vespas.”
It’s a concept you can hear more about at the book launch salon Sun., Sept. 21, at Johnny Brenda’s featuring a panel discussion between Popkin and his phillyskyline.com collaborator, Brad Maule (and, I’ve just been informed, moderated by yours truly).