Philadelphia’s reputation has endured great setbacks for many decades. We love cheesesteaks and boo Santa Claus. Suburban residents think of crime and violence when they think of the city. With MTV’s The Real World returning to Philadelphia after pulling out three weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, due to failure to negotiate with local unions, the city can add stubbornness to its resume too.
As it had done in 13 other cities, show creators Bunim/Murray Productions hired non-union labor to create a hip party pad for young adults. Local unions picketed, angered by the low wages workers would receive. At the time picketing started, renovations of the Seamen’s Church Institute building where the cast would live were 70 percent complete.
The Institute, in Philadelphia’s desirable Old City neighborhood, sits on the corner of 3rd and Arch streets. Built in 1902, its majestic columns and serene setting provide an escape from the bustle of the city. Neighbored by numerous boutiques and cafes and located just blocks from Chinatown and Reading Terminal Market, the show would have helped prove Philadelphia as an enticing place for young adults to live.
But pickets by Teamsters, painters, carpenters, electricians and others took place for more than two weeks before the decision to leave Philadelphia was finalized. Bunim/Murray hesitated to negotiate a deal, fearing it would set a precedent for a show that had previously avoided unionized labor. Another concern was whether the strike would continue during the four months of taping.
If the picketing had been effective, the unions’ victory would have been a defeat for the city as a whole. The Real World continues to be the most successful and longest-running reality television show of all time. The effect it has on tourism and local economies are substantial. To name two, both Hawaii and Las Vegas have used MTV’s invasion to help revitalize their image.
Philadelphia is the last major American city to have a Real World. Our closest neighbor, New York City, has played the role of host twice. New York City already has a desirable reputation as a haven for college students, nightlife and everything in between. Philadelphia has, well, Geno’s Steaks.
Many Philadelphians believed the show would enhance the city’s appeal, and help in retaining many of the college students who leave this city upon graduation. Any tourism boost would benefit the economy of both the city and the state. Mayor Street’s forged interest wasn’t convincing. He shrugged off the picketing as a “negotiation tactic,” noting the loss of the show would not have a large impact on the city.
But having the show here will have a large impact – and a much-needed one. As former mayor, Governor Ed Rendell understands that Philadelphia needs revitalization. The Real World can do that.
Both Rendell and Street called the show’s producers to apologize and to ask the company to reconsider its decision. But Real World producers wasted no time in flying to Austin, Texas, to inquire about a location and workers before returning to the city of brotherly love.
The Real World is a show where seven strangers are “picked to live in a house to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” Philadelphia needs to start being real.
The continual migration of city residents to the suburbs, along with a lack of career opportunities and thousands of abandoned buildings have created an unattractive image of the city, for both residents and outsiders. The idea that Philadelphia, the largest city in the state, has to fight for tourism money every year is appalling.
While Philadelphia longs to have the same prestige as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, it somehow always manages to get left behind. The Real World took a risk by choosing Philadelphia – a risk we will benefit from.
But we almost lost what will be a great success.
Stephanie Young can be reached at Sunbeam@temple.edu.