OPEN LETTER: Goodbye Philly, Hello Cruel World!


Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978). The Peace Corps (J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy), 1966. Story illustration for Look, June 14, 1966. Oil on canvas. 45 1/2 x 36 1/2 in. (115.6 x 92.7 cm). From the permanent collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.

sinjin.thumbnail.jpgBY ST. JOHN BARNED-SMITH Well folks, by the time you read this I will be gone. This morning I left the U.S. on a jet plane and began a two-year stretch in the Peace Corps in (very) sunny Paraguay. Although I’m from Boston, I will dearly miss the city of not-always-so-brotherly-love that I have called home for the last two years. I arrived in Philadelphia after deciding to transfer out of Case Western University. It’s a long story, but I’d taken most of Case’s journalism classes, Penn had kick-ass professors, Philly had a good couple of papers, it was closer to home – you get the picture. That was 2007. It was crazy couple of years – during the tail end of Street’s tenure as mayor, when the murder rate skyrocketed, and cops seemed to be dying left and right. And then 2008 became a very big year. Nutter and Obama got elected, and liberals around the city crossed themselves in the hope of new leadership.

In ’08, I published my first major article during a summer internship with Philadelphia Weekly, under the instructive abuse and tutelage of Steven Wells. Flag_of_Paraguay.svg.pngPhilly, you get all the cred. Of course, not long after, everything started imploding. There was the bank crisis, the housing crisis, the health care reform crisis, the Great Recession, the madness over the libraries, a abso-fricking-huge deficit the city had to make up, and no one was willing to give. Careerwise, the situation was equally bleak. The Inquirer and the Daily News went bankrupt, and the rest of the journalism industry started going into seizures. Seriously, reading Romenesko became an unending tale of woe; a daily routine of media heads saying they were “doing just fine,” and “this is the most exciting time to be a journalist,” while their peers got laid off by the thousands and ad-revenue seemed to plummet another 20% every quarter. But in spite of it ALL, I can’t help but feel like Philadelphia’s better-positioned then almost any other city in the country.

Over the last several years, the city’s sprouted a bunch of skyscrapers. In ’07, the Cira Centre was the coolest, newest thing on the horizon, until the Radian and the Comcast Tower  shot into the sky. The Drexel Shaft has long since toppled, and ground’s been broken for the new Barnes building. There’s other signs of progress — most notably the startling transformation of Norther Liberties. The murder rate is down, an end to the city’s budget woes is kinda-sorta within sight. And Philly, a city that has shrunk every 10 years since the 1950s, seems likely to grow in the 2010 Census. And no matter how you feel about newspapers, you’ve gotta hand it to both the Daily News and the Inky – both papers are turning out some cracking journalism, despite Paraguay_Pos.pngbankruptcy, a very lean staff, and a mob of yammering critics. (Full disclosure – I worked at both papers over the last year.) Whether it’s the Daily News’ Tainted Justice series , or the Inquirer courts series, or literally dozens of other stories I could mention, those papers are doing their job.

It’s an incredibly exciting city, and I will be sorry to be away from it.

I began applying to the Peace Corps around this time last year, back when I was sans-job, sans-clue about the future other than that I knew I was interested in journalism. There were lots of reasons it made sense. I wanted to travel, I wanted to live in a foreign culture, I had never studied abroad, wanted to help the less fortunate, etc, etc. So now, what seems like an eon later, I am en route to Paraguay where I will live and work for the next 27 months. While there, I will be serving as a health-and-sanitation extensionist in a rural part of the country – hellooooo bucket baths, latrines, stifling heat, no air conditioning and swarms of mosquitoes. It’s gonna be great.



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