Living Philadelphia, you get used to a sort of anonymity that comes with the urban experience. So many people, so much traffic, a pace that–while not like New York in its intensity–can be pretty intimidating to someone not used to urban life. But I am a native (or at least as native as you can be without spending the first month after birth here.)
As a near native, I always had the sense that Philadelphia was a different sort of big city, a metropolis with a heart. The fact that you could ask someone, “What neighborhood did you grow up in?” and it was likely that they were a few degrees of separation from someone you already knew, is unique in the urban experience. Something that also sets Philly apart from her metropolitan sisters like Chicago, Washington, Detroit, and New York (although perhaps not Boston) is the way so many of us interchange “neighborhood” with “parish.”
“You grew up near Martin de Tours?”
“Wow, I’m from Holy Child!”
“Did you know the Kelly family?”
“My uncle was an altar boy at St. Donato!”
To an outsider, it could easily seem that the majority of Philadelphia is, or once was, Catholic. That’s probably not far off the mark.
Anyway, all of this is to say that growing up in and around Philadelphia, even if you lived in the suburbs and traveled into the city for special occasions, gave you that sense that you were living in the best of both worlds: a huge city that had an important, human dimension. While some PR guys cooked up that trite motto of “The City That Loves You Back” a few years ago as an attempt to fool visitors into thinking we liked them when we only tolerated them, there was some truth in the words. Philadelphians loved other Philadelphians. We smiled at each other. We said “yo” in a non-menacing way. We patted each other on the back, gave high fives, drowned our sorrow in communal pints of beer when the teams were losing, and rejoiced with more beer when they won championships.
Then came the Year of the Pandemic, and so much of that changed.
Growing up in and around Philadelphia … gave you that sense that you were living in the best of both worlds: a huge city that had an important, human dimension. Then came the Year of the Pandemic, and so much of that changed.
Others have written about the monumental, sea-change alterations that came for us along with the virus. Stores closed. Restaurants closed. Schools closed. Churches closed. The only thing that seemed to remain open were the hospitals, and the morgues, and the funeral homes.
It was a year of loss, of desperation, of regret.
But beyond the very tangible things that we lost, the things that we could no longer touch and the people that we could no longer love, was an indefinable, ephemeral, but achingly real sense that we were an extended family.
Philadelphia lost its common DNA.
Sure, there were fault lines that preexisted Covid. Democrats didn’t like the GOP, and the GOP was always resentful of (1) not being liked and (2) not being relevant.
Race relations were a problem. So were violence, murder rates, drugs, filthy streets, gentrification, which comes back to race, and violence, and murder rates, and drugs, and filthy streets. We were never a paradise on the Schuylkill.
But we were never as polarized as we became during the pandemic, not even in those days after the election of Donald Trump, when anyone wearing a red hat was suspect, and where hashtags started cropping up with things like #ResistThis and #ShoveThat. We were Philadelphians, so even our political and philosophical polarities were less-than-couth.
For all of our “before” anger and division, the pandemic exacerbated and accentuated what we’d felt before. Racial tensions became racial hatred, on steroids. The people who disliked the people who voted for Trump began to actually hate them, and him, and blamed him for the virus killing our people and our economy. And I’m talking about the moderates here, not the ones who actually did hate Trump from day one, that ground zero day in November of 2016 when he unexpectedly won the election.
Similarly, people who had once considered themselves centrist conservatives found themselves pushed to the extreme edges, forced to defend a man and an administration they might not have otherwise supported (hand raised here) because they saw how hateful, how virulent, how truly unhinged the other side had become.
Siblings broke off from other siblings. Grandparents were refused face time with grandkids. Lifelong friends stopped talking to each other, not necessarily because of politics but because one had joined the Church of the Face Mask and the other thought it was some conspiracy started by that denizen of the Deep Viral State, Tony Fauci.
There was a lot of anger lobbed at teachers who were too afraid to go back into classrooms, and a lot of resentment from teachers who refused to understand the desperation of parents who saw their kids sinking ever deeper into depression.
A year into a pandemic that some think is approaching an end, and others suspect will last far longer than the final shot in the final arm, I feel a great sense of depression.
I was not an unobjective observer of any of this. I chronicled those changes in columns and social media posts and watched with bemusement, sorrow or horror the daily cataclysms that struck our cultural, medical, spiritual and socio-economic landscapes.
And now, a year into a pandemic that some think is approaching an end, and others suspect will last far longer than the final shot in the final arm, I feel a great sense of depression.
When I pass someone on the street, all I see are eyes, and they are not smiling. When I walk into a store, people step away, measuring the six feet with bodies like tape measures. When I walk in Rittenhouse Square without a mask, the frowns and glares are palpable even when I look in the opposite direction. Even the dogs seem territorial.
Maybe it’s just me, even though I’m optimistic by nature. The Irish melancholy of my father’s ancestors was outmatched by the hopeful insouciance of my Italian mother’s clan. But these days, I’m much more Irish in my outlook, much more doubtful that we’ll ever get back to that place where Philadelphians looked for that common ground, even when it was shifting under our feet.
This Pandemic Year has taken so much away from so many. It will take much more than $1,400.00 and a vaccine to fill the empty spaces.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and lifelong Philadelphian. @flowerlady61