Discussion Summary, “Philadelphia, the Place that Loves You Back”

Greater Philadelphia Roundtable
February 22, 2012
Independence Visitor Center

Following opening remarks by Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia co-editor Howard Gillette, roundtable facilitator and fellow co-editor Charlene Mires (Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers-Camden) introduced the panelists and discussion topic, “Philadelphia, the Place that Loves You Back.”  Mires reflected on the history of tourism, specifically tourism’s role in shaping how Philadelphians and visitors alike view the city and region.  To this point, Mires called attention to the site of the evening’s discussion, the Independence Visitor Center, as well as the surrounding historic sites, museums, and landscapes as evidence of the city’s investment in visitor services and its desire to attract them.  Mires then transitioned to a brief history of the term “tourism,” meaning “to travel for pleasure,” which came into use in the early nineteenth century.  Noting that tourism first carried negative connotations, Mires speculated that, in an era marked by democracy, industrialization, and turmoil, tourism was viewed as perhaps too self-indulgent and elitist.  Notably, the rise of tourism coincided with Philadelphia’s loss of national prominence, yet the city’s history and reputation as “the Quaker City,” “the City of Brotherly Love,” “the Cradle of Liberty,” and “the Athens of America” still attracted tourists to the city.   

Interestingly, when visitors came to Philadelphia in the 1800s, Mires observed that they primarily came to see what was new, from Eastern State Penitentiary and the Fairmount Waterworks to Girard College.  Mires described how tourists also participated in the city’s living history by attending church services, observing trials, and visiting hospital wards, as well as taking in the surrounding countryside both on the Wissahickon and Fairmount Park.  Additionally, while some visited historic sites like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, Mires noted that, until its steeple was reconstructed in 1828, Independence Hall was not a major attraction and the Liberty Bell did not gain fame as an icon until the 1830s and 1840s.  Over time, Philadelphia’s new attractions of the nineteenth century became the historic attractions of today and Mires asserted that it is these intersections of old and new that make the history of tourism in Philadelphia especially interesting.

As Mires explained, the conflict between old and new was exemplified by the 1876 Centennial, which celebrated the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence with a world’s fair showing off the latest in arts and industry; Mires observed that such tensions persist into the twentieth century and beyond, as Philadelphia’s promoters have struggled to market the city as more than a sleepy town of old brick buildings.  Mires concluded her remarks by referencing panelist Richardson Dilworth’s essay “Philadelphia, the Place that Loves You Back,” which was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and on the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia website prior to the roundtable.  Mires identified Dilworth’s essay as a starting point for the evening discussion and invited the panelists to recall a personal tourist experience and offer their perspective on tourism in Philadelphia.   

The first panelist, Richardson Dilworth (Drexel University), began his comments by reminiscing about growing up in Society Hill and admitting that, at the time, he did not think about tourists visiting the sites around his neighborhood.  Dilworth then reflected on the inspiration for the evening’s discussion, the popular 1990s tourism slogan “Philadelphia, the Place that Loves You Back.”  Dilworth observed that, while he was not living in Philadelphia when the slogan was in use, he felt its power and impact because the slogan extended beyond Philadelphia and stuck with him.  Dilworth also argued that the slogan’s power can be partly attributed to the confusion and questions it provoked, such as “how can a place experience emotion?” and “why is Philadelphia ‘the place that love you back?’”

Dilworth described Philadelphia’s prevailing reputation prior to the 1990s as antisocial, a reputation that, in his view, arose from the Quaker values of tolerance and acceptance.  As Dilworth later explained, tolerance requires indifference and Philadelphia’s antisocial reputation is intimately tied to its perceived virtues to the extent that it is a point of pride for Philadelphians.  Dilworth concluded by observing that, while cities do not have agency in the way individuals do, it is difficult to deny that agency is often assigned to cities and take on weight and meaning in the cultural imagination, as demonstrated by the success of “Philadelphia, the Place that Love You Back.”

By way of introduction, the second panelist, Meryl Levitz (Greater Philadelphia Marketing Corporation), shared her early experiences of Philadelphia, specifically her decision to move to the region in the 1970s.  Levitz related how, as she and husband listed places they would and would not want to live, they somehow neglected to include Philadelphia and wondered what this oversight said about their perceptions of the city.  However, after visiting Philadelphia and getting lost in its neighborhoods, Levitz developed affection for the city and, now commuting from New Jersey to Philadelphia, Levitz observed that she enters the city everyday as a tourist.

The third panelist, Bob Skiba (Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides), focused his comments on his role as a tour guide and the relationship between how residents and tourists view the city.  As Skiba contended, the image that Philadelphia projects to visitors is intimately tied to how residents see the city and make it a viable place to live through arts, culture, restaurants, and political debate.  Among American cities, Skiba also made the point that Philadelphia is perhaps most closely tied to its founder and described William Penn as a tourist who marketed Philadelphia to attract other settlers.  By virtue of Penn’s promotion of the region’s fertile soil, restaurants and pubs, religious freedom, and economic success, Skiba observed that Philadelphia was the largest city in America at the time of independence and subsequently continued to attract attention and tourists, including 10 million visitors for the 1876 Centennial.  Reflecting on Philadelphia’s sense of self, Skiba remarked that, in his twelve years as a tour guide, he has seen the city become more energetic, welcoming, and self-confident, as Philadelphians increasingly project a love of the city that they share with visitors. 

Following the panelists’ opening remarks, Charlene Mires posed a question to the speakers: What do tourism promotions communicate about the city and region?  Responding first, Meryl Levitz spoke about crafting the “Philadelphia, the Place that Loves You Back” slogan in the 1990s.  Levitz related how every word was chosen carefully and that, similar to Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline, the slogan was initially met with questions about its meaning.  In terms of the slogan’s development, Levitz described how, amidst Philadelphia’s industrial decline, hospitality was targeted as an industry with the potential to replace the city’s lost manufacturing base; however, as Levitz noted, in order to become a prime tourist destination, Philadelphia needed not only a new tourist center, but also a psychic overhaul to combat Philadelphians’ dismissive attitude about their own city.

To this end, the Greater Philadelphia Marketing Corporation (GPMC) struggled with several slogans, such as “Philly Plus: Bigger Than the Bell,” “Philadelphia: Town and Country,” and “Find Your Philadelphia,” before settling on one that played off such successful taglines as “Virginia is for Lovers” and “I Love New York.”  By emphasizing the relationship between person and place, Levitz explained how the GPTMC consciously avoided comparisons to other cities and crafted a slogan that personified Philadelphia and implied a mutual affection.  Levitz also reflected on several other strategies behind the slogan, such as the choice of “Philadelphia” over “Philly” (the latter implying an affection that people didn’t feel) and the decision to market the slogan to residents and visitors alike.

Bob Skiba followed Levitz’s remarks by noting that he liked the slogan, particularly the way it anthropomorphized the city.  Echoing his earlier remarks, Skiba stated his view that tourists’ experiences are largely about the people they interact with, and “Philadelphia, the Place that Loves You Back” further humanizes the city.  Richardson Dilworth concurred and described an ongoing trend to attribute human characteristics to cities; to this point, Dilworth specifically related how the unification of the five boroughs of New York City was described as a “forced marriage” between Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Responding to the panelists’ comments, Charlene Mires observed that slogans are about both place and personality and alluded to Philip Stevick’s Imagining Philadelphia: Travelers’ Views of the City from 1800 to the Present, an analysis of how tourists described their experiences visiting Philadelphia.

Mires then posed another question to the panelists: How are Philadelphia’s historic places both an asset and a challenge for promoting the city to today’s visitors? Bob Skiba observed that Mires’ question captured the disjuncture between a historic and living city and remarked that the entire city of Philadelphia is in fact a historic area.  Meryl Levitz followed Skiba’s comments by relating a memorable encounter during 1993’s “Welcome America” events, when a tourist couple wondered why historic Fort Mifflin had been built so close to the airport.  This illustrated Levitz’s contention that visitors don’t expect things to be real and that, to best communicate with visitors, we must talk in current terms while also showing that Philadelphia is the real deal.  Levitz also emphasized the need to keep historic sites clean and attractive through the use of window boxes and green space.

Richardson Dilworth reiterated that tensions exist between Philadelphia’s tradition of tolerance and its accompanying antisocial reputation and efforts to be open and inviting to visitors.  As Dilworth detailed, to achieve greater intimacy and a stronger sense of community, cities must give up some of their tolerance of difference, a phenomenon chronicled in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.     

Following the panelists’ remarks, Charles Mires opened the discussion to questions from the audience.  The first question came from an audience member who commented about the need for money as well as slogans to promote tourism and asked about opportunities for various local organizations to pool their resources to market Philadelphia to visitors.  Meryl Levitz responded that, in light of cuts in state tourism funding, cooperation is a necessity and detailed how Philadelphia’s tourism marketing budget pales in comparison to such destinations as Las Vegas and Orlando.  Levitz also shared how the GPTMC’s newest marketing campaign, “With Art, Philadelphia,” is a collaboration of visual artists and visual arts organizations.  News of this collaboration prompted several follow-up questions, as one attendee asked about opportunities for bringing together makers and preservers of art and another inquired about efforts to connect Philadelphia’s neighborhoods to Center City and the historic district.  Levitz reiterated that such personal and neighborhood connections are the goal of the “With Art, Philadelphia” campaign and expressed a desire to tap into the energy of the artistic community.

Other audience questions focused on efforts to increase tourism, whether through marketing, visitor resources, or streamlining travel between other cities and nations.  In response to a question about boosting the number of European tourists, Meryl Levitz related that, while the Internet has been a great boon for attracting visitors from abroad, international visitors to Philadelphia still number in the hundreds of thousands, not the millions.  Levitz explained that the cost of a good consumer tourism campaign is about $3 million per country and that, even with emerging markets like India, Brazil, and China, the need for better airports and direct flights hampers the growth of international tourism to the city.  Bob Skiba commented that, as a tour guide, his contact with international visitors has increased from year to year and suggested that a cell phone app for European tourists would be especially useful.  Following a question about resources for planning tourism excursions and travel restrictions between New York and Philadelphia, Meryl Levitz also remarked on the growth of Bolt and Mega Bus and detailed resources like visitphilly.com, which includes itineraries for families.

The question and answer session concluded with some comments about images of Philadelphia in popular culture.  One audience member inquired about the source of Philadelphia’s apologetic nature and proposed that promising not to hate Philadelphia might be a good starting point for a new tourism slogan.  The last question of the evening focused on the positive and negative effects of depictions of Philadelphia in television and movies.  In response, Meryl Levitz detailed the GPTMC’s crusade against the popular television show “Parking Wars” and the number of e-mails they receive from people who vow not to visit Philadelphia based upon what they see on the show.  In contrast, Levitz noted that shows like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” cast the city in a popular light and appealed to popular culture to focus on happy topics involving Philadelphia.   Following the question and answer session, the evening ended with small group discussions in which audience members shared additional comments and proposed topics for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy