4 Ways of Looking at Philadelphia

  • February 04, 2016
  • by Tom Infield

Pew surveyed Philadelphians to get a view of their attitudes toward the city.

On her way to a yoga retreat, Nicole Snyder, 32, watches for a train on the Chestnut Hill East platform. (Katye Martens/The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Artist Nancy Merritt and her husband, Al, a retired veterinarian, like what they see happening in Philadelphia. Now in their 70s, they recently moved to the city from Florida and have steeped themselves in its rich broth of arts, history, good food, and other urban amenities. They are not blind to the city’s problems, including distressing poverty and struggling schools, but they see their adopted hometown as moving forward. And they view Philadelphia as underappreciated, even by many of its own residents.

“It’s the energy” of the city, Nancy Merritt says one sunny winter afternoon as the couple examines the menu in the window of an East Passyunk Avenue restaurant.

The Merritts first lived in Philadelphia 40 years ago, when Al Merritt was on the veterinary faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. They went south so he could take a position at the University of Florida. On visits back to see friends, they’d see Center City and some of its neighborhoods flourishing and feel a tug. Two years ago, they returned for good and bought a row house in the Pennsport neighborhood of South Philadelphia, and they expect to stay for the rest of their lives.

About a fifth of the city’s residents, like the Merritts, can be classified as Enthusiastic Urbanists, according to “A New Way of Looking at Philadelphians,” a report released in November by Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative.

Using computerized cluster analysis, Pew researchers and consultants examined the opinions of 1,603 Philadelphians ages 18 and older who took a 26-question survey. The researchers sorted the data and developed four categories for city residents: Dissatisfied Citizens (30 percent), Die-Hard Loyalists (25 percent), Uncommitted Skeptics (25 percent), and Enthusiastic Urbanists (19 percent).

Larry Eichel, director of the research initiative, says the report uses Pew’s polling expertise in a new way. Instead of grouping respondents based on the traditional categories of income, neighborhood, race, age, and education, the new analysis focuses on respondents’ opinions about the city. “I think it’s an invitation to everybody who cares about Philadelphia to go beyond the demographics and look at attitudes,” Eichel says.

Respondents were asked questions such as whether they plan to stay in or move from Philadelphia, if they believe race plays a role in city government decisions and policies, whether they feel safe when going out at night, and how they view the importance of Center City to Philadelphia’s future. On two questions, there were solid majorities: About two-thirds of respondents to the survey viewed immigrants as a vital addition to city neighborhoods, and two-thirds said Philadelphia’s best days are still ahead—both signs of real optimism.

David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a public policy group in Philadelphia, says the report demonstrates how the “harnessing of big data” can be used to “ask a set of questions that we care about—and that everybody who cares about cities should care about.” The report, he says, “delivers some terrific insight into some of the fundamental questions that don’t get as much attention as they should.”

Here’s a closer look at the four groups:

Dissatisfied Citizens, the largest of the groups, are most likely to say Philadelphia is on the wrong track and has seen its best days. Disproportionately, they are unhappy with their neighborhoods, distrustful of police, and disenchanted with city government, which they believe lets race influence policy decisions. They are relatively young (68 percent under 50) and female (61 percent). Half are African-American. Almost two-thirds are born-and-raised Philadelphians. They wouldn’t recommend the city to others and would move if they could.

Die-Hard Loyalists, who make up 25 percent of residents, see a bright future for Philadelphia and want to be a part of it. They tend to be older and settled, with 79 percent having lived in the city for 30 years or more. They are comfortable in their neighborhoods, and nearly all of them (95 percent) hope to remain in the city for the rest of their lives. They are racially and ethnically diverse. By a 5-1 ratio, they think the city should focus on the welfare of longtime residents rather than on attracting newcomers. 

Uncommitted Skeptics, also about a quarter of residents, are the least connected to Philadelphia. While 58 percent rate the city as good or excellent, 97 percent would leave if the circumstances were right. They are skeptical of institutions, including the business community, the police department, and city government. More than a third live in Northeast Philadelphia, traditionally an insular area, and only 19 percent think the city should focus on gaining new residents. Racially, they mirror the city as a whole.

Enthusiastic Urbanists, the smallest of the groups, are the best-educated and the best off financially. Two-thirds think Philadelphia is headed in the right direction, and three-quarters believe its best days lie ahead. They have a more favorable view of the police and local government than do other groups. They see Center City as key to the future and think Philadelphia should work to attract new residents. And they are mobile; only 52 percent hope to spend their entire lives in the city.  

Opinions varied among the four groups on many issues, but the respondents did share some common perspectives, including a negative view of Philadelphia’s public schools. The analysis found it didn’t matter whether someone was a parent with firsthand knowledge of the schools or someone without a school-age child; just about everyone was unhappy with the system.

A trip through the city’s many neighborhoods quickly reveals the voices behind the categories.

At a laundromat in Mount Airy, where she shares Bible readings with the manager while washing her clothes, Tawanna Rose, 56, says, “A lot of things [in the schools] are not working for the benefit of the children in the inner city, and it’s just not fair.” The retired maintenance supervisor for the School District of Philadelphia, who shares some opinions with Die-Hard Loyalists and some with Dissatisfied Citizens, says she loves the city. But, she adds, “you shouldn’t have to move out of the city for your children to have a halfway decent education. If they don’t have an education, where is the city going to go? It’s going to go downhill.”

Abe Awad, 35—who emigrated from Syria to Pennsylvania as a boy, earned an engineering degree from Temple University, and works as a manager for Philadelphia Gas Works—says he expects to always live in the city, although his parents in Allentown are worried about his safety. (“My whole family, you mention Philadelphia and, whoa! They say, ‘You live in Philadelphia and you are still alive?!’”)

Sitting on a bench with a foil-wrapped lunch from a local food vendor, Awad says he plans to one day get married and have children. His lone reservation about Philadelphia? The schools. “The only bad thing is the school district. I would say the school district is not the best.”

Former Mayor Michael Nutter, who left City Hall at the end of 2015, after eight years in office, agrees that better schools are key to Philadelphia’s future. He says the Pew report, with its “different slice” of public opinion, can help policymakers get to the root of this issue and others. “As government people, we love data, and we love different ways of looking at data,” he says.

Nutter says he is not surprised by the Pew finding that 64 percent of Philadelphians—nearly two-thirds—believe the city should do more for longtime residents than to attract and retain new ones. That attitude was heavily expressed by Dissatisfied Citizens but also by large segments of Die-Hard Loyalists and Uncommitted Skeptics. Only the Enthusiastic Urbanists—69 percent of them—felt strongly that Philadelphia should focus on new residents.

“People who have lived here all their lives, maybe they’re not interested in anybody new,” Nutter says. “If you’re a government leader, or if you’re a business leader, you don’t have the luxury of being myopically focused on [one group]. You’ve got to deliver a message to everybody, you’ve got to do things for everybody, [but] you can’t make everybody happy.”

Nicole Snyder, 32, a stay-at-home mom living along the cobblestone streets of historic Chestnut Hill, sees her loyalty to Philadelphia as conditional. It is based on her husband’s managerial job at Comcast Corp., which lured the couple to Philadelphia from San Francisco. She rates the city as “good to excellent.”

“We love the area,” she says from the platform of the Chestnut Hill East train station while on her way to a yoga retreat in Connecticut. “We end up going into Center City a lot. We love the arts, and everything that you can do with kids is awesome.” But she foresees a move back to California at some point.

Given her mobility, she doesn’t think policymakers should necessarily focus on her needs. She is one Enthusiastic Urbanist who believes more attention should be paid to long-term residents and their neighborhoods. “There are pockets of Philadelphia,” she says, “that could use that extra attention.”

The survey is online at http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/multimedia/surveys-and-quizzes/2015/what-sort-of-philadelphian-are--you, where visitors can answer questions and find out in which category they belong.

Photography by Katye Martens