Philadelphia lives up to its nickname, the City of Brotherly Love, about as well as North Korea lives up to its formal name: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Philadelphians have booed Santa Claus at an American football game before heckling and throwing snowballs at him. Fans of the Eagles, Philly’s American football team, were so poorly behaved for so many years that, after a game in 1998 featuring 60 fistfights and a fan shooting a flare gun, the city set up a makeshift court in the stadium to dispense justice for the inevitable weekly glut of brawling, under-age drinking and public-urination charges without gumming up the court system. The judge, Seamus McCaffrey, pointed out that most misbehaving fans were from the supposedly more genteel suburbs, not the city itself.
New York is America’s cultural and financial capital. Washington is its political capital. Philadelphia is its former capital (from 1790 to 1800, while the White House was being built). Like many cities whose glory days are behind them – Montreal, Liverpool, Genoa, Luang Prabang – it retains both immense charm and a perpetual chip. The charm generally negates the chip (and I’m not just saying that to avoid having my tyres slashed or face punched). Philadelphia lacks illusions and glamour. But for the final days of the 2020 election, it has been the most important city in the world.
Just over 6m people live in and around the city, though not all of them are in Pennsylvania: the metro area stretches into New Jersey and Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware. Biden’s campaign headquarters are here. His running-mate, Kamala Harris, held a drive-in rally the night before the election – two days after a four-city Pennsylvania barnstorm by Donald Trump. The campaigns have inverse aims. Democrats have to drive up turnout in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, on the other side of the state, to compensate for their probable defeat in rural and exurban Pennsylvania. Republicans must do the opposite.
According to The Economist’s forecast. Pennsylvania is the most likely “tipping point” state – the most probable source of the 270th electoral vote the winner needs to claim the election. Philadelphia is its most populous city. In 2016 Hillary Clinton won 82.4% of the vote there, on her way to narrowly losing the state to Trump. Barack Obama did better, both in percentages and, more importantly, in the number of votes cast. Biden’s task in Philadelphia is not so much to convince – he is bound to win commandingly in the city itself – but to mobilise. Streets are festooned with signs in multiple languages encouraging people not just to vote, but to “have a plan” and, as one particularly poignant painting in downtown Philadelphia’s LOVE Park urges, to “vote for those who can’t breathe”.
Like many cities whose glory days are behind them, Philadelphia retains both an immense amount of charm and a perpetual chip
This was a reference to the last words of George Floyd as he was being slowly choked to death by a police officer in Minneapolis in May, sparking protests around the world. Two days before the election, on a chilly Sunday morning, a few dozen runners limbered up in front of the painting, preparing for a jog in honour of those who had died at the hands of the police. Each runner wore a placard bearing a different victim’s name.
One man called Sherman, running in honour of Andrena Kitt who was killed 19 years ago by an undercover officer in Florida, said he was voting for Biden: “We are the leader of the world, and as we go, the rest of the world goes that way. If we start lying, the rest of the world starts lying. If we’re truthful and humble, the rest of the world will be truthful and humble.” He also had a domestic version of this theory – that the president’s behaviour affects the rest of America. George W. Bush was easy-going and didn’t sweat the details; the housing market collapsed on his watch. Barack Obama was “more of a kumbaya...let’s get along” president, and made at least an effort to reach out to people who didn’t support him. “The current guy”, Sherman noted drily, “looks at things a lot differently.”
Philadelphia lacks illusions and glamour. But for the final days of the 2020 election, it has been the most important city in the world
Antipathy for the “current guy” wasn’t hard to find (asked about the coming election, one young man helping to clean up a municipal park during a rainstorm shouted, “Fuck Trump! That’s all I have to say”). But neither was support for him, if you knew where to look.
As Roosevelt Boulevard wends its way into the city’s conservative north-eastern corner, rows of Biden/Harris signs become Trump/Pence signs. Trump won three of the city’s 66 wards (political sub-divisions) in 2016, two of them in the city’s north-east. A Fraternal Order of Police Lodge in the north-east of the city hosted Mike Pence in July. Afterwards off-duty officers drank with members of the Proud Boys, a thuggish far-right group.
“Trump looks like a tough guy...Biden, he’s just talking. He can’t do anything”
In Somerton, an adjacent neighbourhood that hosts Trump’s Philadelphia field office, Imeda Londaridze, a baker who emigrated from Georgia and now runs a restaurant, also supports the president. He says many of his fellow immigrants from the Caucasus feel the same. “Trump looks like a tough guy, a strong guy. He has a strategy...Biden, he’s just talking. He can’t do anything.”
Trump’s other base of support is in South Philly. Traditionally an Irish and Italian-American stronghold, the area is changing fast and is now the heart of Philadelphia’s sizeable Vietnamese community. Young families are snapping up the solid brick row-houses. Neighbourhoods where generations of families once lived on the same block offer a choice of sushi restaurants and tattoo parlours these days. On the afternoon of November 1st a caravan of a few dozen cars and pickups festooned with Trump flags – escorted by police who blocked and directed traffic – honked as it crawled down Oregon Avenue.
Nearby, a statue of Christopher Columbus sits inside a plywood box, surrounded by fencing. A laminated sign notes that the city’s art commission voted in August to remove the figure so that, a city spokeswoman told CNN, “our public spaces are seen as safe, welcoming and inclusive for all people.”
Trump has been an appalling president: divisive, mendacious and incompetent. But he has also cast himself as a bulwark against a rapidly changing world. For many Americans, that is enough. In front of the fence, in the thin light of a chilly November afternoon the day before Americans headed to the polls, two Trump/Pence signs lay flat and battered on the curb.•
PHOTOGRAPHS: NINA BERMAN