By Richard Carreño
At the fast-paced rate we're going, Philadelphia's population should pretty soon start hovering around what it was in 1842, when Charles Dickens made his first tour of the city.
O.K. Not really, for in those days Philly's population ranged -- depending how you compile the numbers -- between 125,000 and 250,000. In those days, though, Philly was -- again, depending how you juggle the figures -- the third or fourth most populous American city.
Today -- with a population of about 1.48-million -- we're hanging on by thread to a fifth-place ranking, while Phoenix -- not even a twinkle in anybody's eye in 1842 -- is coming up the rear in a strong sixth place with about 1.39-million residents. The people who crunch these numbers and make long-range forecasts say that Phoenix's population will surpass Philly's in just few years. Bad news?
Hardly. In fact, it's about time that Philadelphians realize that our city -- because of its overall land mass -- is artificially populous. If we got real, we'd downsize, and I don't only mean in the avoirdupois department. Like some our notoriously super-sized fellow denizens, we need to loose, not gain.
For starters, let's start shedding residents, not pounds. Urban theorists argue that Center City is one of the -- if not the most -- compact urban core districts in the country, and I daresay they're probably right. Think about it. From Vine to Pine is about the width of Manhattan Island. From Front Street to University City is about 40 blocks, somewhere -- in Manhattan-speak -- from Washington Square to Times Square. Talk about New York in those terms, and you're talking compact.
As we all know, Philly is a city of neighborhoods. The original ones -- beyond William Penn's five squares -- included, unofficially, at least, Northern Liberties, Kensington, and Southwark. Today, along with University City, Fairmount and the park, and South Philly, these are all still vibrant hoods.
But as for the 'suburban' Northeast and the slums of West and North Philly, who would argue that they make any real contribution to Philadelphia's status as world-class destination. Send them packing. One of my big issues with Far Northeast -- of course, not slum -- is that's really not even now part of Philadelphia, and never will be. I know people near Franklin Mills who never venture to Center City, and, anyway, wouldn't know how to get there unless their SUV was on automatic pilot.
Yes, let's dump the unwanted real estate. Let's tighten the belt to, say, Boston's size. (Number 23, with about 580,000 residents). Actually, If truth be told, Boston might be already bigger than Philadelphia if you look at the other telling statistic I mentioned earlier, land area. Boston encompasses 48 square miles. Philly? Almost three times as large, at 135 square miles. Perhaps you see my point. If Boston were times as large in area, there might be almost three times as many Bostonians, give or take a few Brahmins.
Besides, what's wrong with being step behind Boston as the 24th largest American city. We're already 24 in almost every other category, except one. Twenty-fourth worst municipal government. Twenty-fourth worst public transportation system. Thanks, too, to Edmund Bacon and his ilk, the twenty-fourth worst city for public planning one? The most street-level parking lots where historic buildings used to be.
Hopefully, less will mean more. Improved government services. Maybe even educated, cosmopolitan, and intelligent public officials (read, Richard Dilworth, often cited as the city's best mayor in modern times) might come along. In other words, officials worthy enough to be associated with Philadelphia's great cultural and educational institutions. Not, as they are now, a horrid disgrace.
Let's back to our roots -- to a city, in terms of population and area, even Charles Dickens might recognize.