1. In the weeks leading up to the draft, I watch NFL branding pop up throughout the city. Philadelphia figures two can play at this game, betting that in turn, the NFL Draft will improve its own brand and that the city will benefit from a proliferation of positive media mentions and TV airtime from the draft. I think of places like Tampa, which hosted the RNC, or Indianapolis, which hosted the Super Bowl, and try to imagine how, for a second, that might motivate any sort of economic decision, like taking a trip or job to either city.
By contrast, I think about Minneapolis, and stories I’ve read about its progressive politics, burgeoning transit system, and affordability, opportunity and wealth, and suddenly a city that I otherwise would have no interest in starts to seem rather appealing. There’s no doubt the draft builds upon Philadelphia’s brand as a host; the question is, why do we want that to be our selling point?
2. The barricades for the NFL Draft go up, days before the event starts. When I try walking home from work across the Spring Garden bridge, I end up pushed into the fast-moving traffic lanes along Eakins Oval. When I try walking down to Center City to get a trolley to work, there’s no signage for pedestrians telling us we can’t get across at 22nd or 21st streets, but must head to 20th Street. The 48 or 7 buses that might speed me up a little are nowhere to be found. Even if I wanted to drive, I can’t, knowing it will be impossible to park once I give up my spot. As my commute time doubles, I think about how the city should not be in the business of closing down numerous streets and public spaces for multiple days in order to profit off private events.
That we view this as business as usual, that there is some return on investment, that the Parkway is most often the site for these events, does not make this practice any more palatable. It’s a slippery slope that begins by enabling the occasional private use of Dilworth Park and Franklin Square, turns into the naming rights of public transit stations such as Jefferson Station and AT&T Station, allows for the near-monopoly on Philadelphia’s telecommunications services by Comcast, and just maybe ends with a president whose business and government are deeply entwined.
3. At the playground, I talk to other parents. Some seem frustrated by the upcoming draft, others are fine, whatever. Most of them live north of Fairmount Avenue, farther than I am from the chaos. A lot work in the neighborhood, so their commute time hasn’t changed. One of them says he is excited for the draft, he likes big events, he grew up in a city. I want to tell him I grew up in Manhattan, that this has nothing to do with living in a big city. But I don’t, and I wonder if I hate fun.
4. I realize how insane it is that a street as beautiful as the Parkway is such a failure in terms of urban planning. Its beauty makes it the prime place for public events, with each event reinforcing its role as the city’s ultimate icon of civic gathering. But the Parkway, celebrating its centennial this year, abuts neighborhoods, and particularly those north of it, are choked off from the city by its expanse, even without events that literally shut it down. Meanwhile, nearly every weekend between April and November there is an event on the Parkway, centered on Eakins Oval. These are not locally-inspired events, like the ones that close down Rittenhouse Row or Passyunk Avenue, but often road races. Streets get closed, Port-A-Potties installed.
While a recent Citizen article by Larry Platt makes mention of a new neighborhood commission on Parkway events, no public discussions about how to make these events less of a localized burden have been held with regular people in the Parkway’s nearby communities. This lack of local engagement in event planning feels of a piece with the Parkway—from its origin as an imitation of Paris’s Champs Elysees, to its current role as a conduit for people driving to and from the ‘burbs and burgs along Kelly Drive. It has never quite been of, and for, Philadelphians.
5. I have a 17-month-old son who has recently started saying words. His first attempt to say four syllables is “helicopter.” Not because we have books about planes or model helicopters at home, but because helicopters have been circling our house incessantly. In the days leading up to the NFL Draft, they zoom in and out every few minutes, like a pulsating toothache. On the first two days of the draft, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., their sound is ubiquitous and constant, at times window-shakingly loud. When my son and I sit in our backyard, he now points to the sky, butchers the word for helicopter, and is fascinated by these loud objects, which we can see levitating between the branches of our backyard tree.
When a city rallies around a football festival, and doesn’t host a remotely comparable extravaganza for, say, public education, it’s not unreasonable to infer certain societal priorities.
6. Throughout the draft weekend, I see many more fathers and sons engaged in the simple act of walking together than I do on regular weekends. Often dressed in the same jersey, cementing their connection to each other, showing the transfer not just of genes from father to son, but love of sport. I see young boys playing touch football on patches of grass. I see large dudes chanting in a crowded SEPTA stairwell. I find all of this moving in some way, and I feel like I can’t possibly understand what it is like to be part of the community that loves football, and so I should shut up.
7. On the Fairmount parents listserve—an amazingly active group of a few hundred residents—there is a litany of frustrations with the draft, and tips and tricks on how to try to get local representatives’ attention to the neighborhood’s needs. Host mega events at the stadium instead, people cry. They’re concerned about what Von Colln Park at 22nd and Pennsylvania Avenue will look like after the event. There’s frustration that two weekends of kids’ sports teams are cancelled for the event, and that a local charter school has had to close for a couple of days. What about a tax rebate for neighbors affected by these Parkway events? They say the NFL should have donated more than $300,000 back to Philadelphia. The list goes on. Somehow the city doesn’t realize that each time it creates these large events, an entire swath of Philly is on edge, its routines disrupted, its sense of powerlessness reinforced. My suggestion: saliva tests showing cortisone levels before, during and after events like this.
The DNC generated $120 million less than anticipated—a rounding error of more than 50 percent. The Draft may have lived up to its earning potential. But where is the financial accountability for undertaking events like this? Where is the transparency into the process of who gets to decide what major events the city will host, what events are denied, and how the city’s final return on investment is tallied?
8. Walking along the Parkway and seeing so many people enjoying themselves at the draft, I feel genuinely happy. Good for you, Philly, I think. Glad the weather was so fine, but imagine if it had rained all weekend? If the Aaron Hernandez scandal or something else had blown up bigger and more recently? Because of the risk and investment entailed, large-scale events have largely been discredited as money makers. Case in point: the lack of applications to host the 2024 Olympics. Turns out, most mega events don’t pay off. The numbers of visitors for the Pope were a disappointment, the event’s effect on most businesses was flat out negative. The DNC generated $120 million less than anticipated—a rounding error of more than 50 percent.
From what I could tell, and from preliminary numbers of visitors, the Draft may have lived up to its earning potential. But still, where is the financial accountability for undertaking events like this? Where is the transparency into the process of who gets to decide what major events the city will host, what events are denied, and how the city’s final return on investment is tallied?
9. This penchant for hosting large events, like Made in America, the Pope’s visit and the DNC, starts to feel more pernicious when one searches for how it connects to sustained job creation or more broadly any discernible elevator pitch of Philadelphia’s economic strategy. Like, We want to host large events because this helps us become the tourism capital of the country, or We host large events because we’re innovating in building long-term jobs through temporary event work, or We host large events because we’ve found a way to use all tourism-based taxes, like hotel taxes, to fully fund our schools. But this isn’t the case. Instead, by creating temporary infusions of tourism and the variety of revenue they bring, these events distract people’s attention from the pointed question of how Philadelphia is actually going to improve its meager job growth and dire poverty rate.
10. I see the plane fly by that says, “City Hall Hearts Sports But Hates Teachers.” I don’t agree with the statement, but I do agree that events like this expose how our priorities are out of whack. We plan for and revel in flash-in-the-pan events, but have little consensus on the city’s unique economic development agenda. We’re proud of how we treat tourists, we don’t harp on our city’s lack of economic mobility. When a city rallies around a football festival, and doesn’t host a remotely comparable extravaganza for, say, public education, it’s not unreasonable to infer certain societal priorities.
I see many more fathers and sons engaged in the simple act of walking together than I do on regular weekends. I see young boys playing touch football on patches of grass. I find all of this moving in some way, and I feel like I can’t possibly understand what it is like to be part of the community that loves football, and so I should shut up.
11. If we are going to continue to host events, let’s look at other places around the city, like the stadiums, underused sections of Fairmount Park—or, frankly, if the Mayor wants these events so badly, let’s host them at City Hall. But, acknowledging those spaces don’t have the looks or logistical advantages of the Parkway, if we are going to continue with the status quo, there are other ways the city can compensate the long-frustrated residents of Spring Garden, Fairmount, Logan Square and Powelton Village. At a minimum, ensure that the Parkway is not used for private events two weekends every month. Help speed up and fund the forthcoming #49 bus, a new line that connects neighborhoods north of the Parkway with University City. Help make The Oval a longer term amenity for the neighborhood.
Find new solutions that will further the Parkway’s development as a Museum Mile. For example, partner with the Spring Garden Civic Association, which owns a full block surface parking lot across from Eastern State Penitentiary, to turn that underused space into a new neighborhood park with underground parking that can replace the perennially trampled Von Colln Park and turn that space into a new civic institution. If nothing else: The city must own up to the fact that it controls the Parkway’s event calendar, and as such should mail a simple monthly postcard with event-related information to nearby citizens so they can have more control over how they plan their lives.
12. On the first night of the draft, my husband and I go out for a quick date night drink and to enjoy the warm spring weather. There is a small party on Fairmount Avenue with a full DJ set up in the middle of the street, blasting Fleetwood Mac in what must be some kind of irony. We peek into a window of a bar where the draft is on TV, and a dozen or so people watch a TV version of an enormous stage just about a football field away in real life. I go to sleep, thinking maybe I’m overreacting, but wake up at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of a helicopter, and think there’s got to be a better way.Header photo: 7beachbum via Flickr