What’s in a name? Would a rose by any other name not smell as sweet?
Would Philadelphia by any other name not smell as … well, filthy?
Over the course of its 325-year history, this fair city has had more than its share of nicknames – some good and some bad.
Sure, there are the reverential ones, like “City of Brotherly Love” and “The Birthplace of Freedom.”
But lately, Philly nicknames seem to have gotten a whole lot smarmier. Ever heard of “Filthydelphia?” How about “Killadelphia” or “City of Brotherly Shove”?
Jeffery Ray, head curator of the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, which specializes in local history, thinks the city’s numerous monikers come from its identifying characteristics.
“I think people take a single issue and run with it in terms of a name,” Ray said. “In the late 1970s and early 80s, people perceived Philly as being dirtier than other cities. That’s how I first heard ‘Filthydelphia.'”
Philly’s social and economic problems over the past few decades seem to be the driving
force behind the slew of new derogatory nicknames. According to Ray, Philadelphia was known as “The Workshop of the World” during World War II because of its pedigree for producing manufactured goods. Since then, things haven’t been so rosy.
“Parts of the city are certainly declining,” said Dr. Susan Klepp, a professor in Temple’s history department. “De-industrialization, suburbanization and the shift of population from the northeastern U.S. to the South and West became obvious by the 1960s, although these changes had earlier roots.”
Things haven’t always been this bad. The name Philadelphia is originally derived from a number of ancient Greek cities. When William Penn and the Quakers arrived in the Delaware Valley in the late 17th century, they knew exactly what to call their new home.
“It had to do with Penn’s idea of religious tolerance,” Ray explained. “He envisioned Philadelphia as a place where people worshipping God in different churches could live together.”
In recent years, Philly’s rising crime rate and political corruption have made it difficult for the founders’ vision to ring true. But as bad as some things are in the city, there are improvements.
“I wouldn’t say that the city has necessarily declined,” Ray said. “In the last two decades or so, there has been an upsurge in the appearance of the city, people living in the city, new construction and things like that. I think things are improving.”
Indeed, not all the recent nicknames are bad. Some names found floating around the Internet “are hip and funny, like “Thrilladelphia,” “F’rilladelphia,” “the 215” (after the area code) and, of course, “the Illadelph,” half of the title of the Philadelphia-based group The Root’s 1996 album “Illadelph Halflife.”
Then there are names on the Web that are totally bizarre and even more unexplainable, like “Mortal City” and “Rebel Capital.” So with all these different epithets bouncing around, what do Philadelphians really think their home should be called? Michelle Brown, a 43-year-old housekeeper who’s lived in Philadelphia her whole life, said emphatically that Philadelphia deserves all the bad nicknames it gets, mostly because of its high crime rates.
“We need better laws, especially gun laws,” she said. “Anybody can get one [a gun] now.”
Anthony Riley, a 20-year-old street musician, said he has a beef with the city after he was arrested a few weeks ago for performing in Rittenhouse Square.
“Statistically, as a young African American, I’m the type of person who should be getting into trouble,” Riley said. “Instead, I’m trying to do something positive. This city oppresses musicians. It extorts them and violates their First Amendment rights.”
Pat Rivers, 60, is a receptionist who lived the first five years of her life in Georgia. After 55 years in Philadelphia, she’s ready to go back to her home state.
“Philly is just different,” she said. “I’m a Southern person. I have a lot of values. People here just aren’t as warm and friendly. Things have changed a lot.”
However, not everyone felt so poorly about Philadelphia.
“No, I don’t think it’s filthy,” said Lorie Tanguna, 29, a native of South Texas who’s lived here for six years. “I love the city a lot. It’s my first big city.”
An attorney, Eliot Avidan, 35, grew up in Philadelphia, but spent the last two years of his life in Washington, D.C.
“I think there’s an evolution. Things are getting better,” Avidan said. “Being away and coming back, I see better buildings, renovations at the waterfront. I don’t see how you can not see that as an improvement.”
Josh Seligman, 34, a home healthcare specialist, said he was happy to be in Philadelphia after traveling around the country for several years.
“People are a lot more friendly here than in the Midwest,” he said. He also said that diversity is “the best thing” about the city. No matter the nickname, Philadelphia has its share of the good and bad to offer.”No, I don’t think it deserves to be called ‘Filthydelphia’ or ‘Killadelphia,'” said Philadelphia native Shein Dossa, 39. She quickly added, “[But] maybe the subway does.”
Ashwin Verghese can be reached at email@example.com.