With tourists rapidly losing interest in dueling Ben Franklin impersonators and the Hobson's choice between Pat's and Geno's cheesesteaks, Philadelphia officials hope to score big with tours of the one attraction the city has in abundance: slums. The Miss Havisham of cities, whose clock stopped around 1800, has returned to the cutting edge of urban revitalization ideas.
"We've got litter. We've got cracked sidewalks. That's the reality of urban living. But we've got a richness here," says Patricia Wilson Aden, lead consultant on a project by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., which will bring lucky tour groups through seven of the city's worst neighborhoods. With a variety of hell holes that include "Fishtown," "Kensington," the offices of bowtie-wearing City Councilman Thacher Longstreth, the hangouts of numerous reputed mobsters and even the birthplace of reputed comedian David Brenner, the notoriously rude and unpleasant City of Brotherly Love offers a potential motherlode for the urban adventurer. (Tourists who truly want to experience the horror that is Philly could always stay in and watch old tapes of Al Alberts Showcase.)
Though the idea for what the tourism group's spokeswoman calls "a graduate-level Philadelphia course" has some antecedents, this is another case where success will have many fathers. Promoters mention inspiration from Sylvester Stallone, who showed off an endearingly gritty version of South Philly in the 1977 classic Rocky. Another contender may be Philly son Bill Cosby, who settled Rudy, Mushmouth, Weird Harold and the rest of the Fat Albert gang amid Philadelphia's urban blight.
But the real heroes should be the people who did the most to create that urban blight in the first place, placing Philly among the major US cities that have lost the most population over the past decade, turning the birthplace of liberty into a place where even the beloved cross-dressers of the Mummers Parade now mostly commute in from Cherry Hill, NJ. Promising candidates include the late Mayor Frank Rizzo, who presided over the beginnings of the city's decline; Rizzo successor Wilson Goode, who furthered the tradition by burning down more than 60 homes during a standoff with militants; and perhaps even current Mayor John Street, who maintains the population drain by keeping the city's failing school system intact, maintaining a punishing local income tax, and embarrassing the home of the hoagie with an ill-fated fitness campaign.
Then again, maybe all the props should go to creepy local DJ Jerry "The Geator" Blavat, whose four-decade career has no doubt driven out more Philadelphians than any other single factor.