The Purpose of Imagine Philadelphia

Through this website, I hope to consider what we carry with us when we travel through the looking glass into a fictional space and then return to the reality it replicates.  I created it because I wanted to find an answer for whether fictional representations of a place can change its real form, both in terms of its physical composition and the ways in which people experience it.  

Philadelphia proves such a compelling space to seek this answer because it is both the setting of the story we have told ourselves about our country and a place of lived experience and history for its millions of inhabitants, living and dead.  The city communicates and celebrates many of our most foundational national values. It is the “City of Brotherly Love,” and on its grounds, our founding fathers forged the promise of a place where equality, justice, and opportunity are a right for all.  Yet, as much as its identity is anchored to these inalienable rights, its history and current form are rife with the conflicts, divisions, inequities, and injustices that we continue to fight and inflame as a nation. It remains deeply divided along racial lines, and the invisible boundaries that separate neighborhoods still feel uncrossable to too many Philadelphians.  We often communicate our enduring ideals and the great progress we have made in fighting for them by telling, with varying degrees of creative license, the stories of historical figures like William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, Octavius V. Catto, Lucretia Mott, Ed Bacon, and Barbara Gittings. This project began because of the understandable and somewhat absurd desire I felt to add Rocky to this brief and incomplete list of the city’s essential historical figures.  He is, of course, a fictional creation, but he has become part of real Philadelphia. His statue stands at the foot of the Art Museum steps he famously ascended in Rocky, and a gravestone marks his wife and best friend’s resting places in Laurel Hill Cemetery.  

With Rocky as an initial touchstone, I found my answer: fictional representations of Philadelphia can and do have a profound impact on the experience of living in it.  The films I have studied illuminate longstanding real conflicts and social problems through their imagined versions of the city. Trading Places shows us how racism and socio-economic privilege matter far more than work ethic or talent in determining one’s success.  Philadelphia illustrates how prejudice and fear can easily corrupt the brotherly love that should define our interactions with one another, particularly those who are suffering.   Rocky, In Her Shoes, and Silver Linings Playbook, though different in so many ways, all demonstrate how difficult it can be to escape the expectations and pressures that come with our provincialism and find our best selves.  And yet, these films leave viewers not with despair but with a heightened sense that progress has and will be made, with a deeper belief that the boundaries and divisions of the real city can be crossed and overcome.  Collectively, they portray Philadelphia as a complex, remarkable, and single map rather than an archipelago of neighborhoods defined by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social class. Rocky sprints out of South Philadelphia to the top of the Art Museum steps and proves he can go the distance.  In Philadelphia, Joe Miller, once deeply homophobic, comes to see his gay, AIDS-afflicted client as worthy of the highest respect and most powerful love.  In In Her Shoes, Rose learns to accept herself by expanding her geographical footprint beyond Center City and seeking new experiences.  And in Trading Places, Winthorp and Billy Ray recognize that despite their myriad differences, they share the talent and drive that allows them to ruin the Duke brothers and make a fortune.   In sum, this collection of Philadelphia films allows us to see what we have been and are, sometimes to distressing effect. But more importantly, they show us what we can be if carry their spirit with us through the looking glass back into the real Philadelphia.  It is this faith in progress, both personal and public, that inspires so many to have their picture taken in front of the Rocky statue, run up the Art Museum stairs, and look back with their arms raised at Philadelphia, a place of great stories.