Look Up, Philly, 1 Or 2 Lessons From Triumphant NY


It shouldn't take an earthquake to fill our sidewalks. Look up, Philadelphia | Photo" Alex Brandon, AP

If you find New York triumphalism too much to bear, don’t read this article on Manhattan’s growing population density by Times‘ writer Amy O’Leary.

But if you don’t mind drifting through the smugness–so smug that in an article about Manhattan’s overpopulation, none of the other four boroughs are even mentioned–and bravado, the self-congratulatory tone, the assumption that an infinite number of people wish to be there, the fundamental bravery of those who survive the overcrowded aisles at the Union Square Trader Joe’s or the Broadway sidewalk or the number two train at any time but 3AM–“personal space measured with a micrometer” (clever writing, yo)–then have a look, because there are lessons to be learned.

The first is that this Mega-Manhattan of today, with its even ten Apple Stores, hit its population peak in 1910: “a staggering 2.3 million.” By 1980, that population had dropped to 1.4 million. A loss of nearly a million people, a drop on par with the other great urban declines of the Western World. Detroit 1950 to 2010 lost about 1.1 million. Philadelphia 1950 to 2000 (when the population began to stabilize) lost almost 600,000. Today, we’re 545,599 off the peak.

The 1.6 million people of Manhattan today is still 700,000 below its peak, so why don’t we talk about Manhattan as a city of decline?

Just something to think about. A narrative is what a narrative does, I suppose.

O’Leary in her article goes on to follow the various dreams of the Manhattan-centric dreamers who meet regularly to glee themselves over rosy population forecasts. What to do? Build up, says Harvard’s Ed Glaeser; build out, says Vishaan Chakrabarti, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Urban Real Estate. Truly, why not do both: “New York is the city that reproduces itself according to the ideals of each generation,” writes Jerome Charyn in the wonderful 1986 Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace, and Magical Land.

Well really, every city behaves this way. But this leads me to the second lesson: density matters. Density matters, density matters, density matters. Can’t have great shopping streets, great cultural institutions, great transit, great public spaces without it and we need more of it. We, too, need to build up–along Broad Street north and south, in University City, in Kensington, not every where, not in a way that sacrifices this city’s inherent “livability,” or as Glaeser advocates tearing down the historic fabric (on this we need no help), but in places where there is high demand, excellent transit, and a core shopping district. A city needs its people…and we can turn this narrative around.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


  1. “density matters. Density matters, density matters, density matters. Can’t have great shopping streets, great cultural institutions, great transit, great public spaces without it and we need more of it.”

    Well said. I’m continually amazed at how our biggest transit corridors – by this I mean the BSL and the MFL, not garbage like 676 or whatever – are also some of the least dense, most suburban parts of the city, absolutely lousy with parking and empty lots. And there seems to be no movement to densify. New development is either ridiculously inappropriate (a building going up next to me at 43rd and Market is only one story with a small parking lot on the rear) or sitting on a parking pedestal. The fact that we cannot, and seem unwilling to, develop our precious subway real estate is astonishing to me. Broad and Market all the way down should be the densest and busiest parts of the city.

  2. You liberals can thank Giuliani. That’s when the renaissance began. Remember Dinkins? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

  3. I thinking about this the other day. Back when Manhattan had 2.3 million people and Philly had 2.0, those people were really packed in there.

    Here in Philly, 3 families living in a single trinity wasn’t too unusual. And it mostly worked because no one was home. Most everyone was out and about since there was nothing to do at home, no radio, no tv, no wii. It also worked because people had very few possessions and didn’t need as much space to keep it all. Most men had their work clothes and a Sunday suit.

    With the post WW2 explosion in the production of stuff, people moved to the suburbs just have a place to put their bulky TV and all of their books, record albums and photos, and then eventually VHS tapes and DVDs.

    As we quickly evolve into a digital world, people’s space needs are contracting. Also most of us no longer need separate work clothes and leisure clothes meaning most of us can get by with smaller closets.

    We won’t see 12 people living in 3 rooms again (hopefully), but I can foresee the average home size decreasing greatly. Which makes high density areas ever more desirable to more people.

  4. I continuously talk about density with my friends. Im a Neuroscience PhD student at TJU and live in Northern Liberties…probably the two best places in Philly- especially when it comes to development. But still, I look at Nolibs and see hoards of people only on the weekends. My question remains whether the Piazza will succeed or not. Businesses drop like flies in there. Simply put, the density is just not there yet. BUT… we are on our way.

    The single problem I have found with Philly landscape and density, however, is that we can so easily spread out. Where Manhattan has no choice but to build “up”, we can spread north, south, and west. There are no barriers to force an increase in density. There are no barriers to force development UP. We have endless real estate and tons of neighborhoods.

    If you remove Manhattan’s rivers, I don’t think it would be the mecca it is today. Still, density does matter. So much.

    Give it another 20 years, Philly will reach its peak. At the very least, we get to stand witness to the rebirth of our city.

  5. “Give it another 20 years, Philly will reach its peak. At the very least, we get to stand witness to the rebirth of our city.”

    LMAO I wager every dollar I can get my hand on that this won’t happen in the next 40 years.

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