Does Philadelphia Have a Williamsburg?
Gawker, a popular New York-based blog, recently stirred up controversy in Philly by declaring which neighborhoods in our city are equivalent to the NYC hipster havens Williamsburg and Bushwick. But does an exercise like this do more harm than good?
Let’s start by saying that placing one neighborhood into the context of another is a natural way to build a frame of reference in an unfamiliar place. We should also note that Gawker did not make these selections on their own, rather doing so by polling their readers and making similar comparisons between other U.S. cities and the Big Apple.
But given Philadelphia and New York’s close, complex and sometimes fraught relationship, making public comparisons like this has far more implications than Gawker might have thought.
Yes, some communities in our cities feel very similar: Rittenhouse Square’s brownstones are almost identical to those in Brooklyn Heights or the West Village. Other areas though, like Society Hill, have no equivalent as Philadelphia has preserved its colonial architecture in a way that New York has not.
The Gawker readers then who selected Northern Liberties to represent gentrified Williamsburg and Kensington to represent grittier, post-industrial Bushwick weren’t incorrect, but they were playing into an unproductive game of NYC navel-gazing.
For one thing, although New York City certainly plays an incredibly important role in urbanism, its neighborhoods are not the end-all-be-all of American cities: Northern Liberties and Kensington have their own stories to tell too.
Indeed, life in a city is so much richer than living in a cookie-cutter suburb precisely because each neighborhood has its own unique structure and culture. Thus, we do a disservice to all cities (even the Big Apple) when we try to force non-New York communities to ignore what makes them special and define themselves in New York terms.
Of course, this diversity is especially important when it comes to the relationship between Philadelphia and New York. As New Yorkers come to Philadelphia for our top-tier universities and low cost of living, so too do Philadelphians go to New York to shop and do business. That give and take, separated by a mere 90 miles, positively impacts both cities in too many ways to count. In the end then, we are likely better off focusing on the benefits of our differences rather than trying to make Philly and New York the same.